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  • Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a large painting from the 1560s that hangs in Belgium's

  • largest museum, the Musée des Beaux Artsand is held to be a meticulous copy of

  • an original (now lost) work by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It shows

  • a superficially bucolic scene: ships are taking sail, a shepherd is tending to his flock,

  • distant cities look prosperous and ordered. But in the bottom right hand corner of the

  • canvas, a tragedy is unfolding, all but unheeded. Reckless Icarus, the legendary figure from

  • Classical mythology, is in the final stages of one of the ancient world's most famous

  • aeronautical disasters. Together with his father Daedalus, the young man had made himself

  • a pair of wings, glued together with wax. Daedalus had warned his son not to fly too

  • close to the sun in case its heat were to melt the structure, but the impetuous boy

  • soared too high anyway and, in the painting, has just tumbled down into the waves, to his

  • death. Icarus's end is deliberately not the central focus of the painting.

  • The eye is drawn instead to the glittering cities and smart ships in the

  • distance. As if to emphasise the point, the ploughman at the centre of the painting references

  • a popular proverb: 'No plough stops for the dying man.' This neglect of Icarus's

  • tragedy is, at one level, terrifying and sad. We read into it how little the world cares

  • about our own pains. And yet, from another perspective, this neglect is deeply gratifying

  • and importantly redemptive. It is one of the central sources of our unhappiness that we

  • spend so much of our lives fearing for our reputations and wondering what others will

  • think of us when we failas we inevitably will at points. The slightest change in our

  • image in the eyes of others can obsess us. We lie awake at night wondering how we could

  • cope without the approval of people we don't even like very much. We surrender our freedom

  • to the verdicts of strangers. But the painter's stroke of consoling genius is, here, to show

  • us how, when we really mess up, almost no one will be looking or caring very much. The

  • farmer is too busy ploughing, the shepherd is too taken up with thinking about the weather,

  • someone else is overwhelmingly intent on fishing. Our tragedies don't occupy society the way

  • we fear they will. A few people might notice for a moment, then swiftly move on to the

  • next thing. We are at the centre of the galaxy only in our own minds. Other people mostly

  • don't care what happens to us or what we've done. The world is still filled with humans

  • who haven't heard of us and never will. Those who might be angry or disappointed with

  • you now will have forgotten all about you soon enough. Your disgrace will, in time,

  • be subsumed within the larger amnesia of a consolingly indifferent world. It isn't

  • just Icarus who is being swallowed up and obscured by the waves: some of the same obscurity

  • awaits our greatest errors and embarrassments.

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a large painting from the 1560s that hangs in Belgium's

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B2 H-INT US painting daedalus shepherd tragedy centre central

A Reason Not to Worry What Others Think

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    Evangeline posted on 2018/04/20
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