Icarus as an Artist

The myth of Icarus, who, with his father, Daedalus, tried to escape from Crete, using wings that his father made from feathers and wax, is subject to interpretation.  Icarus disobeyed his father’s instructions not to fly too high, because the heat of the sun would melt the wax of his wings.  Icarus flew too high, the wax melted and he fell into the sea.


The usual interpretation seems to be that it was hubris – over-ambition – which caused Icarus to fall to his death.  The moral being that we should not fly too low in our lives, as that would not do justice to our capabilities, but we should not try to fly higher than or capabilities.

A few days ago, I heard another interpretation: that Icarus is a symbol of the artist, trying always to stretch and improve his art.  This was suggested by Jorg Widman, clarinettist, composer and conductor.  He was conducting the London Chamber Orchestra and introducing his own piece: Icarus’ Lament.  He said that his piece was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poem Lament of an Icarus:

Lovers of whores don’t care,
happy, calm and replete:
But my arms are incomplete,
grasping the empty air.
Thanks to stars, incomparable ones,
that blaze in the depths of the skies,
all my destroyed eyes
see, are the memories of suns.
I look, in vain, for beginning and end
of the heavens’ slow revolve:
Under an unknown eye of fire, I ascend
feeling my wings dissolve.
And, scorched by desire for the beautiful,
I will not know the bliss,
of giving my name to that abyss,
that knows my tomb and funeral.

Jorg Widman’s Icarus Lament was an interesting piece – quite unconventional- played only by the string section of the orchestra.  It began with the violins playing a very high note, pausing momentarily and continuing.  One could visualise a winged creature beating its wings laboriously in very high flight.  Then came the cellos, playing a more sombre melody, as a sort of counter-force to the violins.  Finally, the violas joined in playing a more lively melody.  One definitely had the feeling of the creative force (violins) struggling to assert themselves over the force of gravity (cellos), while the world (violas) looked on.

So I suppose that Icarus could stand as a symbol of the artist who is not content with the safe journey, and who yearns to stretch his talents.

For myself, I see it slightly differently: as a learning and development process.  With each novel, I feel well, I’ve done that; what can I do next that’s a little more challenging?  I suppose what I don’t do is to focus on what my readers would like, because that will tend to be ‘more of the same’.  Rather, I think, if I do this new novel well, my readers will probably like it And if they don’t?  I hope that they’ll tell me what they didn’t like.  But, if they do like it, and I feel I’ve met my challenge, I’m ready to move on to the next challenge!

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