'Descendants of Daedalus': Conway on what Breugel's 'Fall of Icarus' was really about

Excerpted from The Alchemy of Teaching by Jeremiah Conway, published by Sentient Publications, copyright 2013. Used by permission.

Considering the story now, I'm aware of themes that I wasn't when I first looked at the painting. I see that the myth is deeply concerned with the relation between parents and children, one generation and the next. It's also very much a myth about teaching, asking adults to consider the knowledge that they bequeath to the young. Further, the story concerns the powers and limits of technical knowledge. Daedalus is a brilliantly clever man; in fact, his very name comes from the Greek word Daidalos, meaning "cunning worker." In many ways, he personifies human technological inventiveness. Yet the myth repeatedly suggests that this acumen can be dangerous, even destructive. Daedalus' talents helped to procreate the Minotaur. He let tyrants employ his gifts for sinister purposes. He constructed the Labyrinth, only to have it become a slaughterhouse for the young. He mastered the principles of flight and created wings, succeeding in bringing about the death of his son.

In the background of The Fall of Icarus, I now see Daedalus as a failed teacher and parent. In both roles, his legacy is complex and twisted. His technological brilliance and creativity are undeniable, yet they culminate in achievements that he ends up cursing. His gifts create suffering for himself and others. His care for his son seems limited to the provision of technological devices. Is the myth a criticism of technical inventiveness? I doubt it. Whether exemplified in Labyrinths or Towers of Babel, the impulses to design and make are deeply ingrained in our human make-up and deserving of celebration. To me, the myth hints at a more subtle criticism — one that concerns education — that the transfer of technological knowledge and skills is insufficient. Technology, if we are not to rue it, must conjoin with the cultivation of humanity.

My attention shifts from [Icarus's] disappearing legs to the brilliant sun dominating the landscape, and the figures of the peasants going about their work. These peasants (whom Breugel often celebrates) possess something often forgotten in the midst of technological brilliance. They, frequently perforce, remain close to the Earth. In their farming, fishing, and sailing, they rely upon and care for it. Of course, they use technology as well — they harness sail and plow and fishing pole. But their tools seem observant of nature, working with its rhythms. The peasant figures seem in the landscape part of nature, not its masters. Did Breugel think that they possess a wisdom that Daedalus and his son lack? In the simplicity of their lives, do they remain faithful to the Earth, cultivating a sense of interdependence (and, hence, an awareness of limits) that neither Daedalus nor Icarus exhibit? Like the circus troupe in Hard Times, do these peasants possess a respect for the Earth that, for all his brilliance, Daedalus fails to teach?

This sixteenth-century painting is particularly appropriate to the world we inhabit. We're a scientific, technological culture to an extent never previously imagined. We're descendants of Daedalus. I look at those two sticks of bare leg now and confront a warning and a teaching imperative: Cultivate the humanity of the young or the advancement of technology will do us little good and considerable harm. Help them be more mindful of themselves and others. Grow compassion. Consider and make teaching a noble profession. Perhaps there's time to develop a more acute sense of the interdependence of life. Perhaps we can become more faithful to the Earth. It is for us as it was for Daedalus: the lives of our children depend on it.

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