Icarus and Daedalus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Teaching students about Greek myths is a double-edged sword.  Science and technology explain away the mysteries of life we used to allocate to the gods such as forces of nature, disfigurement, or even a sudden stroke of good luck.  Students get so hung up on the details (incest, bestiality, shape-shifting) it’s difficult for them to see the timeless messages, morals, and themes which still hold truth for us today.

I love teaching about Daedalus and Icarus for this reason.  There’s nothing to confuse the mind.  A son fails to heed his father’s warning.  Shame, hope, failure—it’s all there.  But I don’t start with the myth.  I start with a photo.

While training for my job in Toronto, I was overwhelmed by the number of homeless openly living, begging, surviving on the streets.  Living in a small town all of my life, I had never seen anything like it.  My idea of homelessness consisted of men with cardboard signs on the corner of the expressway, later exposed by local news stations as the same men who walked to their BMWs and drove home to their nice houses in the suburbs after a day of panhandling.  But most of the men and women in Toronto didn’t have signs.  If they had cardboard, they used it as a bed cushion.  They sat on the dirty ground and watched the world walk by without a blink in their direction.

During one of our training sessions, we discussed Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Breugel as well as the poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden.  “What do you see?” brought the usual responses:  a man with his sheep; a boat; a fisherman; a man with a plow; the sea; the sky.  I knew this painting and responded last:  “I see a man drowning and no one offering to help.”

That evening, I snapped a series of photographs of a homeless man and the people walking past him.  No one acknowledged him except for one girl with a critical, nauseous expression.

“I found Icarus,” I told the instructor the next day, showing him the photos.

When I returned home, I added the photos to my lesson plan along with the poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams.

So a simple lesson about a man and his son trying to escape the tyranny of an evil king became an intense discussion about the bystander effect and why we feel so compelled to ignore suffering.  Why we have become a world “concerned with itself,” and if the splash was indeed “quite unnoticed.”

“Do you think these people knew this man was here?” I ask my students.  Some say no.  People sometimes are just off in their own little worlds, they say.  Others are honest.  I can see it as they shift uncomfortably in their seats but nod their heads in agreement.  Yes, they say.  The people knew he was there.

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