The Fall of Icarus: From the Province of the Cat
6th March 2017
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
the whole pageantry
of the year was
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
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.