it's time to get above ourselves

The Fall of Icarus: From the Province of the Cat

XIR3675 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); 73.5x112 cm; Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium; (add.info.: Icarus seen with his legs thrashing in the sea;); Giraudon; Flemish, out of copyright

 

The yellow sunlight slaps wind-blown across the newly ploughed acres. The ewes, heavy with lambs, shelter behind flagstone dykes. Sudden, violent, irritations of hail bounce off the farm-roads. Brilliant brush strokes of colour catch the eye as the crocuses bravely persist into being. The sea heaves itself against the fulmar-speckled cliffs of Dunnet Head. A sparse slow parade of vessels have the Westerly at their back as they steam through the Pentland Firth. Spring has come to the Far North.

Theresa May has sailed into Glasgow on her newly painted grey-lead ship of certainty (actually a pair of wings made from wax and feathers) to lecture the immediate huddle of loyal Unionists at the Tory conference – and the untold numbers patrolling in cyber-space – about the dangers of flying too close to the Sun of independence. In Scotland we will politely go about our business, like the simple rustics in Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting, “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus”, and try to ignore the hopeless splash in the firth made by the fallen egomaniac.

Icarus, along with his Dad, was at least trying to escape from prison. That the Tories see being European and engaging in integration and co-operation as a prison is the political tragedy of recent years. The economic folly will soon be felt once Article 50 is triggered and their Great Repeal Bill lumbers through Westminster like a super-tanker full of dark matter, reducing our actual freedoms and rights to potential grants of grace from the ruling elite. Icarus fell to his vain death in the Spring, as Brueghel’s picture depicts. Will Theresa May’s visit cause a similar dismal splash to Tory hopes here as the lambs of aspiration are being born? Will they live or be sacrificed and their meat sold to England? Will the leg disappearing beneath the sea have a leopard-skin stiletto on its foot?

“That the Tories see being European and engaging in integration and co-operation as a prison is the political tragedy of recent years. The economic folly will soon be felt once Article 50 is triggered and their Great Repeal Bill lumbers through Westminster like a super-tanker full of dark matter, reducing our actual freedoms and rights to potential grants of grace from the ruling elite.”

The power of Brueghel’s painting is in the artists use of perspective. The action – the peasants in the fields, the ships on the sea, the splash of drowning Icarus, are seen from above – from the viewpoint of Icarus’s father, Daedalus, the master craftsman and the maker of the wings. Daedalus was also the inventor of the labyrinth in Crete and was imprisoned in a tower by King Minos to stop his dangerous knowledge spreading. It was from this tower that Daedalus and his son Icarus were escaping. When you view the painting, you recognise the personal disaster of Icarus drowning and see the apparent unconcern of the busy people on land, who are occupied with ploughing and tending sheep and you engage, through this perspective, with the artist in the protest that this fatal fall has gone un-noticed. Unlike his son, Daedalus was too wise to fly too close to the Sun. The people are too busy trying to make a living.

Brueghel’s painting, it seems to me from a Scottish perspective, captures perfectly the vain-glorious, Tory led enterprise of the UK leaving the European Union.

Unlike Ariadne Theresa May does not equip her Theseus (David Davis?) with the safety of red thread so that he can find his way back from the centre of the labyrinth, or a sword so that he can slay the Minotaur (the EU?) which is consuming her cherished “British sovereignty”, limb by succulent limb. Instead she chooses to dance around the edges of the structure, screaming and shouting like a harpy at whoever will listen, about their failings – “undemocratic” Europe, “obsessed” Scots, whilst blithely ignoring her own undemocratic obsessions. Will she, eventually, like Icarus, forget the purpose of her escape and get burned, fall and drown?

Theresa May became Prime Minister of the UK after a Tory organised coup history will remember as the Brexit referendum of June 2016. As the months pass by the true nature of that exercise becomes clear: that it was primarily to position the Tory party as the only electable party in “Britain” for the immediate future by allowing the Labour Party to destroy itself. Jeremy Corbyn’s non-engagement with the EU referendum campaign and his weak-kneed acceptance of Brexit as a process that cannot be reversed is proving to be a colossal misjudgement. It is apparent now that none of the leading Tories on either side of the “remain/leave” vote believed in anything other than the Tory party retaining power in England for a generation. For the Scots, this is the most important consideration of Brexit.

No-one with a political memory believes that the Tories will keep any of their promises about devolving powers whether they concern farming or fishing or the sturdiness (or not) of wax and feather wings. How much longer are we prepared to put up with English politicians coming to Scotland to hector us on our desire to have what every self-respecting European nation possesses: the right to rule ourselves? As long as we comply and bow our political heads it is the poor and the weak who will suffer because we will not have the political or social mechanisms or the financial resources to help and protect them. Each day that Scotland is locked into this political union, lost in this constitutional labyrinth the more difficult it is to find a way out. Each financial year Ariadne’s red thread gets thinner, weaker, more frayed.

“How much longer are we prepared to put up with English politicians coming to Scotland to hector us on our desire to have what every self-respecting European nation possesses: the right to rule ourselves? As long as we comply and bow our political heads it is the poor and the weak who will suffer because we will not have the political or social mechanisms or the financial resources to help and protect them. Each day that Scotland is locked into this political union, lost in this constitutional labyrinth the more difficult it is to find a way out.”

So how do we escape the labyrinth and how do we avoid the fate of Icarus? Unlike a normal country, which would look to its writers to hear their voice articulated, the Scots are not encouraged to do so. Somehow reading Scottish writers is a threat to democracy, education, your career prospects and even your sanity. The education establishment and the ruling elite, historically by their actions, curriculum and legislation, disapprove of Scots people reading Scottish literature or seeing a Scottish play in a Scottish theatre. In truth, what they prefer, is silence. That is what Theresa May is saying to the Scottish people: shut up, know your place, do what you are told. As was said of the Bourbon kings of the 18th and 19th century so it is of the Tories, they learn nothing and forget nothing. We are deemed not fit to have a voice. Servants were, traditionally, not allowed to speak until spoken to. We are, on the other hand, encouraged to be multi-cultural, to be “international”, to watch American films and listen to American music, read English literature and watch English theatre. This stops us becoming parochial.

Because of economics Scottish writers are forced to comply with this madness: you must write about anything except what you see in front of you. You must write about crime as fantasy and fantasy as history to serve tourism. If you don’t, no-one is likely to hear you. You are free talk to yourself, but if you expect anyone outside of your immediate area to listen to you – forget it. The truth is not a popular addition to a publishers list. The language of truth, of the majority of the people, is not recognised. So in the labyrinth of British culture and politics no-one is listening to the Scottish voice. Out with our own small cacophony the voice that is heard, the articulate message the media broadcasts when it engages with Scotland, is silence. Our writers have internalised the silence and their agents have sold it back to us our voice. It is not. It is a lie.

This is what the May’s, Corbyn’s and Khan’s do not understand – that until Scotland is a free, independent nation there can be no dialogue, not because the Scots no not deeply want one – we do – but because they refuse to recognise our need for our voice to be heard in the world or to listen to what we have to say. They even refuse to recognise our language. We can no longer afford to whisper to each other: we need to engage fully, as equals, with our large, deaf neighbour – as we must engage with ourselves. This is a time for Scottish writers to shake off this silence and fill the ears, minds and hearts of the people with the beautiful, optimistic truth of what is possible. Is this really a “golden age” of Scottish writing, or is it an illusion?

Theresa May stood in Glasgow last week and told us how “precious” the union of the “four nations” was. Whatever this Prime Minister, or any other senior Unionist politician may say, the truth is that their “precious union” is falling apart, and not just in Scotland. If in the coming weeks Sinn Féin refuse to play ball at Stormont and the British government enter into direct rule in Northern Ireland the significant gains made by those who desire a united Ireland at the recent election will begin to, inevitably, unravel the increasingly fragile constitutional arrangement which has held the six counties within the UK since 1921. The fallout from Brexit and the question of a hard/soft border will only exacerbate this.

Neither the Irish or Scottish people, in their dealings with this London Tory government, can afford “To take them at their word” as Stephen Gethins, the SNP spokesperson on Europe, said on Newsnight last Friday, in relation to the Tories having read the SNP’s consultation document on leaving the EU. The Tories are not interested in what is in the SNP’s proposals. That was made glaringly obvious by Theresa May in her Glasgow speech. At their core the Tories are the same entitled, xenophobic, little Englanders who fought the notorious Smethwick election of 1964 on a racist ticket and who fought the EU referendum of 2016 on a fear of immigrants. After the event, through their control of the media, they deny it. It is this, coupled with their arrogance and blindness, which will destroy their “precious union”. They are the embodiment of Icarus.

The bourgeoisfication of Scottish literature has contributed to the Tories continually getting away with this. In part this is because many of our “successful” writers have been captured by Scottish universities, who themselves have abandoned and betrayed Scottish educational values and traditions, a process so brilliantly and forensically described in a recent article by John O’Dowd here on Bella. This is a major concern for the intellectual and artistic development of Scotland, as such emasculation breeds indifference, like that shown to Icarus. Like Daedalus our writers cannot be imprisoned forever in an academic tower in case the truth gets out.

The radical power of Brueghel’s painting “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” was in the perspective: in how the viewer saw the incident. The American poet William Carlos Williams, who was fascinated by painters, wrote a poem with an exact same title. It goes:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Here the lack of punctuation and the ordinary, conversational language is the protest against indifference. The poet asks us to feel the hellish scenario of death in the middle of human activity, of working the fields in the pursuit of life, of the pathos of Icarus’s needless fall. It is the poems understatement that gives the work its power.

William Carlos William, as well as being a writer, was a doctor. Both disciplines depend, essentially, on observation. Once when the poet was an old man and he was conducting one of his famous poetry courses, at the end of the semester a student asked the great man if he had any advice to give to young writers starting out on their careers. The poet rose from his chair and went over to a window in the university room and looked out. After he had thought for a bit he slowly but firmly replied, “Yes. Always remember there are a lot of bastards out there.”

Theresa May has, unwittingly, reminded us of the same.

©George Gunn 2017

“Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” is from Collected Poems: 1939-1962, Volume II by William Carlos Williams, published by New Directions Publishing Corp. © 1962 by William Carlos Williams. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Donate Subscribe

Related Articles

See all related articles >

21 Comments

  • c rober 3 months ago

    Scotland – even its flag embraces immigration , unlike that of the deniers and the St George , whom had whippets , sky telly and drank bitter.

    The UK is moving RIGHT , its govt in power with 35 percent of the vote protecting England in every single step it makes , offered as “best for the whole of the UK” , offering nationalism bad but promoting it , yet Scotland seems to have either no voice or no ears on its masters to listen with.

    We are 2nd class uk citizens every day we fail to demand being equal to/in our own and drive home self determination.

    If Scotland today is representative of a fair and equal union , then its only as being a willing submissive.

    Reply
  • bringiton 3 months ago

    The underlying problem in Scotland is that there are a lot of sheep who prefer the Tory pen to the open fields.
    They will hang onto every promise made by the Tories as a cover for their underlying fear of freedom and continue to insist,no matter what,that they are better off where they are.
    I hope I am wrong and that people start to realise that there is an alternative to ongoing Tory austerity but am not too optimistic.
    A few more will need to escape before significant movement can take place.

    Reply
    • c rober 3 months ago

      Taking back control – funny perspective really.

      Westminster taking back control from the EU , but not devolving it to Scotland , Scotland not devolving control local to region , regional councils not devolving it to community.

      For me either things change with an Indy II , or I will no longer allow anyone to describe themselves as Scottish , but instead British , and all it stands for – for being said sheep , of which Scotland produces 30 percent of the UK supply , punching above its demographic once again.

      We are not too poor , too wee , we are controlled , via the ten percent that submit to the 1 percenters , if we are indeed too poor , too wee , then whom is on the reins should be changed – after all it is therfore under their whip , their yoke , their control.

      Reply
      • Interpolar 3 months ago

        British … or indeed English?

        What I fear most in the months ahead is narrative capture by the May regime, depicting the EU with its allegedly outrageous demands as the enemy-at-the-gate. Many Scots might contract Stockholm Syndrome.

        Reply
        • c rober 3 months ago

          55 percent in 2014 already had Jockholm syndrome

          Reply
  • Gordon McShean 3 months ago

    Your comment, “The bourgeoisfication (sic) of Scottish literature has contributed to the Tories continually getting away with this” is true on a number of levels. We can only guess at the number of Scottish writers whose attempts to depict social and political reality in their homeland has resulted in their drowning, like Icarus, after their very existence was put into question as “lambs of aspiration … sacrificed and their meat sold to England” by Scottish publishers who demanded a depiction of heather and bagpipes to qualify their artistry.

    In my memoir RETIRED TERRORIST (Trafford, 2011), I tell of my exile from Scotland (1958) after being identified as having associations with radical nationalist elements. My subsequent acceptance at El Camino College in California to undertake political science studies gave a great boost to my self esteem. In 1962, when I was nominated by the faculty to interview Earl Attlee (who was making a whistle stop tour of the USA), I couldn’t have been more pleased.

    However, in undertaking this interview with this prominent ex-Prime Minister, I had not considered that his audience would largely be ignorant of the role he had played during and after WW11 in facilitating the independence of India, Ceylon and Burma. Further – I never could have anticipated he’d claim the powers you have attributed to May, Corbyn and Khan!

    I started to offer my perspective to Attlee at an informal gathering following his address. I got things going by citing Winston Churchill’s before-the-war comment that the best thing that could happen for Scotland would be the reestablishment of its parliament. He answered, “How could you know what was said before the war – what age are you, 21?” By the time I had corrected his guess about my age (I was 24!) he had answered “… he was known to say many silly things during his long and eventful life!”

    I knew Attlees’ age was close to 80 -I’ve now been able to get past that significant milepost. (A more complete summary of that day’s events and our conversation can be found in my memoir, pages 310 and 311). By the time I’d left that auditorium I’d reached the conclusion that I’d never make a politician. Further, my exile has been quietly accepted in New Zealand, which offered me shelter after Americans found my criticism of political censorship unjustified (this was before Trump!). New Zealanders occasionally look at me cynically when I seem to be attempting to compare the politics of Scotland, the US and New Zealand. As Icarus might have said, “What the Hell!”

    Reply
    • c rober 3 months ago

      Hope you have been warning the kiwis about empire 2.0 Gordon

      Reply
  • Richard MacKinnon 3 months ago

    George Gunn,
    What will it take to get you to see reality? Another referendum? Would that be enough to put and end to your tiresome lamentations? I doubt it.
    Please stop blaming every one else because your garden isn’t as you like it. If your not happy do something about it. Point the finger at your own knights not at your enemies. Beseech your Princess to call another plebiscite. Christ knows, she’s been going on about it long enough, how long can the patience of her subjects be stretched? as you can tell mines snapped years ago. Her continual dire warnings remind me of your awful prose.
    But this time let us up the stakes. This time the question has to be final. The self flagellation has to stop, it is becoming an national embarrassment. So lets do it properly this time and fix the bloody constitution for good. This time the question has to the big one: ‘Westminster or Holyrood’? Which one do we, Scotland want to abolish imperpetuum. (thats Latin for ‘forever’, thought you might like that George, your not the only one that knows big words).

    Reply
    • Graeme Purves 3 months ago

      You are beginning to sound overwrought, Richard. Perhaps a wee lie doon?

      Reply
      • Richard MacKinnon 3 months ago

        Graeme,
        Perhaps a wee attempt at responding to the substantive point I am making? It is an important one. Indyref2 I think is the jargon. And therefore, the next obvious question that comes from it; what should the question be?
        If there has to be a next time, why not up the stakes? what do you think? settle the question once and for all? Put it all on the last throw, so we all get back to what we were doing before 2011.
        I notice John O’Dowd and yourself prefer ridicule to discussion. That tells me something. It tells me you are rattled. Are you Graeme? Dont you like talking about Indyref2? Getting to you am I? Dont like reading my nasty comments? Tough.
        By the way, that is another thing that puzzles me, your man George Gunn? he fair loves the sound of his own keyboard, but why no replies to honest comment? Probably George thinks that one way angst ridden soliloquies from The Province, are preferable to mixing it with those without a full grasp of the improper pronoun.

        Reply
        • Graeme Purves 3 months ago

          “replies to honest comment”… “loves the sound of his own keyboard”… Chortle! Take a look at yourself!

          Why don’t you go back to whatever you were doing before 2011? ‘At a loose end?

          Reply
  • John O’Dowd 3 months ago

    “as you can tell mines snapped years ago. ”

    “If your not happy do something about it.”

    “So lets do it properly”

    “your not the only one that knows big words.”

    – R MacKinnon

    George not only knows big words, but unlike Mr MacKinnon, he knows how to spell and punctuate the little ones too!

    George Gunn’s learning and erudition appear to be beyond the meagre intellectual means of some of his readers.

    it is becoming an national embarrassment.

    Reply
    • Richard MacKinnon 3 months ago

      John,
      The important thing isnae the spelling its what am tryin to say. I think yer gettin it. Are you now gonea repromand me fur sayin in Scots?

      Reply
      • John O’Dowd 3 months ago

        Scots is guid.

        “The important thing isnae the spelling its what am tryin to say”

        That’s the problem Richard. Whitiver it is yer tryin tae say – yer no managin- an whit’s intelligible is pure cack!

        In Scots or in Inglis!

        Reply
        • Richard MacKinnon 3 months ago

          John,
          See my answer to Graeme Purvis above. It is perfectly clear what I am trying to say.

          Reply
      • Graeme Purves 3 months ago

        A dinna ken fit leid “repromand” is. It’s no Scots.

        Reply
  • Chris Clark 3 months ago

    Thank you, George, for a perceptive and intelligent article. Our writers, broadcasters and musicians need to be bold as well as creative. A fine example of the “Food Bank” attitude from London came last month with another Establishment Diva, Tony Hall, venturing northwards to tell us that BBC Scotland will be gifted an additional £30m a year but “you will spend it as we, your betters, see fit”. Give us the BBC we deserve, independent and Scottish, not the invariably biased propaganda from England’s South-Eastern alternative factory.

    Reply
    • c rober 3 months ago

      A commonwealth of Broadcasters?

      It makes no sense what so ever to not devolve the BBC , other than a weapon of control , so to dissect it is the only option , but given that the likes of Wales and its 95 percent returned fee would keep the status qou , then dont expect the devolved powerhouses to demand it. Funny the demise of Plaid C these days , the SNP should take note , no teeth , no support.

      If its good enough an argument for EVERY UTILITY since PO Telecom became BT , disposing of monopolies , which only formed oligopolies … then why not FOR the BBC , and before its offered for sale , its the last fiscal jewel in the crown , next to that Empire 1.0 Kohinoor.

      I can see Murdoch , should he fail in getting the total control of SKY , arguing as much to ofcom , of good for the goose…. good enough too for the licence funded gander.

      So the SNP , Holyrood , should perhaps instead have two visions for the BBC , one for complete poeple control in Scotland , the other being its demise… either way works.

      Reply
  • Alf Baird 3 months ago

    “The education establishment and the ruling elite, historically by their actions, curriculum and legislation, disapprove of Scots people reading Scottish literature or seeing a Scottish play in a Scottish theatre.”

    So true. Of nine plays just performed in our local theatre as part of the Scottish Community Drama Association event just one was by a Scottish playwright. Selection of plays appears heavily influenced and driven by people who come from outwith Scotland who will understandably have less interest in, or knowledge of Scottish plays/language.

    Reply
    • c rober 3 months ago

      whit nae sunshine on leith or trainspotting ?

      Reply
      • Alf Baird 3 months ago

        Or even where Scotland sits now – The New Purgatory.

        Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other articles in Commentary

See all in Commentary >