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  • John Diamond-Nigh


Musée des Beaux-Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In #Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—W. H. Auden

I am not the world’s best moralist. On any trip to the grocery store I see yard signs from BLM to Jesus Saves. They quickly blur into one front lawn semiotics of salvation. Trouble is, I don’t like salvation. Long ago, a good Christian bishop––and most of his ‘flock’––burned down my adolescence. The skin grafts still hurt.

What's more, those yard signs begin to cancel each other out. The moral supremacy that saves souls and extols pop martyrs may also destroy the earth.

#Auden offers little help. Beautiful as the poem is, he ends up in a kind of cul-de-sac of expensive, delicate fatalism. Brazil can’t provide enough graves for its Covid dead. We, in Asheville, sail calmly on, our streets already full of partiers.

I cling to the romance of the single conscience. Icarus, tragic angel that he was, has always seemed to me to be the young flier, the sun-astronaut in every one of us who flies above the futility of our martyrdoms, the beer-colored, behind-scratching dogginess of our usual lives, and then, alas, who often #falls––how long is the list of the greats who have fallen––an unimportant, amazing fall the rest of the world ignores.

Image: ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1555.

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