How the Story of Icarus Can Set You Free

James Joyce, esthetics, and flight by unknown arts

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus. Possibly Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes. — Ovid, Metamorphoses, VIII, 188

So begins A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. James Joyce’s first novel, conceived when the writer was just 22, but not published until he was 34. It would take a similarly overeducated egghead as the novel’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, to translate the book’s epigraph. And a classical education is rarer now than it was in the early 20th century.

And he set his mind to unknown arts. That will do. Because A Portrait, as the name suggests, is a semiautobiographical account of Joyce becoming the artist that he was. One who, without exaggeration, changed the world through his gifts.

But the quote first appears in reference to Daedalus. The mythical genius who built the labyrinth that contained the Minotaur. The man who, with his son Icarus, tried to escape imprisonment on the island of Crete by flying on artificial wings.

Daedalus himself survived the journey across the sea. But his reckless son Icarus flew too high, until the heat of the sun melted the wax in his wings and sent him plummeting to his death.

Daedalus’ power is no less miraculous now than it was back then. It’s just not as valued. Ultimately, every artist sets their mind to unknown arts. James Joyce wasn’t the first person to write a book, but he was the first person to write Ulysses. In doing so, he created something that never existed before. Like all artists do.

Because Daedalus knew what Joyce knew too. That to escape your own island, your own captivity, the same old methods others used won’t work. You need something new. And your own unknown arts can make you fly. Why make wings otherwise?

There are a million reasons to create

For some people, there’s money in it. If you can shave off the sharp edges of your personality, if you can hammer your words into a shape close enough to what people expect, you might be able to scrape off a little bit of attention for yourself. You might be able to build on it. All you need to do, a thousand articles a day tell you, is offer actionable advice. Simple steps to get everything you ever wanted. Those that can’t, teach.

But what we’re selling is ourselves, our deepest selves. If I could teach you to be me, it would be worthless. This is didactic, the flimsy art that’s supposed to teach you something. Or supposed to at least pretend it has something to teach you. Sign up for my course, and I’ll make you rich. Follow my blog, and you’ll never be hungry again.

Others create art only when they feel they should. Only when ordinary words seem inadequate for a grand occasion. Previously silent building site laborers flower into sudden poetry when they fall in love. Unpracticed orators eulogize at funerals, reaching a clumsy hand into the thick void of language and coming back with nothing but a palm-full of evaporating clichés. The angels pray only for those who pray for them. The growling gods of art demand a burnt sacrifice of ten thousand hours and more. Do this now and again, and you may as well never do it at all.

Some art is created to inspire desire. To make you want the pretty girl’s hair. To make you want the pretty girl’s ass. To make you crave that car or that hamburger or the house built right up against the mountain, its tall windows glowing with welcoming yellow light as you roll home from another fulfilling day at work. Pornography, in other words.

They say around 20 percent of Internet searches are for porn. But that’s only if you follow a narrow definition of pornography.

Look around you. Look at what people are producing, the articles and comments and photos and videos spewing out of our devices 24 hours a day.

The Internet is over. The didactic pornographers won.

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters

So begins WH Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux-Arts. Old poets are never wrong either. As Auden points out, the paintings of great painters depicting moments of religious ecstasy and miraculous transformation and the births and deaths of gods always feature some unmoved participant. Children skating on a frozen pond. A horse scratching itself. Some fat cat slyly smirking in a corner while divine blood runs in channels down the street.

Auden was struck by Brueghel’s 16th-century painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The boy’s death is an afterthought. The sun sits low on the horizon, cool now that the damage is irreparably done. In the foreground, a nameless man steers a plow behind a tired horse, his head down as he goes about his routine business. A traveler leans on his staff to stare at the sky, his back turned on the downfall of Icarus. The painter himself doesn’t seem to care.

Only the boy’s legs are visible, kicking uselessly at the air as he plunges into the patina-green sea while ships sail obliviously onward. Even a boy falling out of the sky isn’t enough to disrupt the ordinary flow of the lives that surround this death. The world sails blithely on like the painted ships with their full-bellied sails, heading toward some hazy distant harbor.

Auden wasn’t wrong. Our tragedies are our own. Our unknown arts fail or succeed. Barely anyone notices. Droplets of wax harden on contact with the cold sea, sinking along with the astonished breathless boy, and stolen feathers float free on the slick surface.

Daedalus lost everything

His escape incurred the wrath of a powerful king. It cost him his son. And it was his skill, his art, that imprisoned him in the first place. Once the labyrinth was built, King Minos couldn’t allow its creator to live in the world and give away its secret. But Daedalus was a creator. It was unknown arts that got him into his predicament, and he would turn to them to get him out as well.

Paintings and poems can do something prose can’t. They can give you everything at once, the sudden rush of recognition Joyce wrote about as static, the proper function of art.

The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.

These are the words of Stephen Dedalus, but his creator is speaking through him. These are Joyce’s aesthetics, shaped by long study in dusty libraries that no one visits anymore.

Daedalus or Dedalus, it doesn’t matter. Both long for escape and transcendence and that bright blue sky. Both fashion their own wings out of what they have to hand. Feathers and beeswax. Roman Catholicism and the English language — one of over a dozen that Joyce spoke. And Stephen Dedalus makes it clear when he talks about “a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve.”

Prose has its merits too

Tied inevitably to time, it drags you onwards. Your eyes moving across the page from left to right form the metronomic beat of an alien heart, the rhythm that any art relies upon to live. The vampiric nature of art that needs you for it to feed.

Your eyes. Your attention. Your heart and the red blood that courses through it, the life that makes it grow fat, without which it would be meaningless swirls of paint in some lightless museum hallway or unread words trapped forever in some forgotten book.

Open those pages, and watch it swarm around you like a cloud of butterflies. Like a black spray of infected mosquitoes. Tear off those dark and smoky wings.

Joyce wrote poetry. But that’s not why we remember him. It’s the prose, the novels, barely comprehensible but glowing and ferocious, a direct line into parts of yourself you can’t name but can recognize. The same parts art reaches into.

Because another translation of that Latin epigraph is “he sent his soul down into unknown arts.” They’re down there somewhere. Not up here, in the light, waiting for the applause of the crowd that can’t recognize pornography any more than a fish can recognize water. Any more than an ortolan, caught and tortured, can see the sun.

The myth of Daedalus teaches us that art can be a mechanism both of imprisonment and of escape. That the mind has the means to rise above the walls it raises around itself. That art, proper art, is something dark and hazy and beyond comprehension, something ready to receive our souls any time we send them down into that darkness.

In the melting and the falling, Icarus would have seen that green sea spinning up toward him. He would’ve understood with the clarity that belongs only to those soon to die that it wasn’t his father’s art that had failed him, but his own clumsy and improper use of it. But Icarus, like all of us, is doomed to die anyway. When it comes right down to it, anywhere will do. Labyrinth or prison, it makes no difference.

But who wouldn’t want to die in a sky so vast and wondrous? Who wouldn’t want to fall in a shrieking whirlwind of feathers and wax into such a gorgeous sea? Icarus’ destination was never distant Sicily, where his exhausted and heartbroken father eventually landed. His destination, his destiny, was that patch of sea that closed its arms around him.

Whatever unknown arts are yours, use them. Flap your wings, even if you know they won’t hold you. The burning beauty of the fall is worth the effort, even if no one sees it.

We must imagine Icarus living a hundred lifetimes in the exultation of flight. We must imagine Icarus happy.

© Ryan Frawley 2021.

All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science.

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