the old masters - W.H. Auden
Humans have had the privilege of language and rational thought. an evolutionary gift that I often think, we might have been better off without. This gift has allowed us the luxury of locating ourselves at the centre of the universe. Quite literally. Galileo and Copernicus are sitting together somewhere with a glass of wine, and a cigar, having the last laugh. We are living in the age of the “anthropocene”. The debate for nomenclature and this kind of self-definition, however stems not from hagiography, but from an awareness of our impact on the planet. We are beginning to be ashamed about the ways in which we have endeavoured to contest our insignificance. But, as in Calvin points out, with signature astuteness and spunk, "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.” We will always be insignificant - that Saganesque pale blue dot would attract little attention in the large/ever expanding universe if it exploded, or perished, like Icarus 🙂 Auden’s poem talks about a painting by Breughel - “the old master(s)”; how well he understood its “human position”. We are familiar with the Icarus myth of course, often rendered as a warning. Wax wings have become a metaphor for “vaulting ambition that o’er leaps itself” or a kind of overconfidence, or ineptness. Breughel’s painting, which, in itself, is a “classic” questions the “human position” of Icarus. A self-reflexive piece of art - this question of self-importance, and human obsession with merit and narcissism - is further deepened with the perspective that Auden brings to it. Auden, the observer who, rarely minces words, brings home the terrible brilliance of “something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky”, but also the mundanity of life going on. It is always a pleasure to see artists speaking to each other. across the ages. Auden affords us this - he applauds Breughel, who tips his hat to Ovid.