When Da’ish (the Islamic State) burnt a Jordanian pilot alive, I gritted my teeth and went to find the video. As I watched the victim, Muadh al Kasasbeh, turn to skeleton on my 42” HD television screen, hooked up to my laptop, my gritting teeth were joined by clenched fists and tearful eyes.
At first, no words came to me. I was disgusted, sure, but that is the easiest thing to say about such an event. I felt hopeless, too — which, in the shock-value culture of modern entertainment media, may pass for a rarity. For weeks afterwards, when I thought about what I had seen, my eyes would blink and, in the intermittent darkness, waiting, were the flames.
I described the event to some friends of mine, but still struggled to find the words for it — miming seemed more appropriate. I put my hands over my ears and shook like a wet dog outside a summer pool. This was al Kasasbeh burning. But the words to capture that image did not arise until another week or so. While reading poetry, I came across two poems and the painting that inspired them, all three dealing in their own way with the theme of tragedy and its all-too-human nest: one of hastily thrown together materials, including apathy and solipsism. Out of the nest climbs the baby bird. She takes a single hop. Plummets.
In 1938, W.H. Auden published “Musée des Beaux Arts” and, 22 years later, William Carlos Williams penned “Landscape of the Fall of Icarus”. Both poems were based on the work of Dutch renaissance painter, Pieter Bruegel, depicting Icarus’ death. Icarus, if you recall, was the ambitious youth who flew too close to the sun, causing his make-shift wings to melt, and him to crash into the ocean and drown. The painting shows Icarus drowning while those around him — including a farmer tilling his field, a nearby ship sailing “calmly on”, and a man gazing wondrously in the wrong direction at something else — go about their daily lives, oblivious. This is a typical image of Bruegel, who, in another famous work, displayed Christ uneventfully carrying the cross amid a colorful and busy scene. No one seemed to notice. Both Williams and Auden take in their respective pieces to describing Bruegel’s landscape, capturing Icarus’ death in its anticlimactic shrug.
Yet there are some differences between their works, and also the painting. Auden’s poem is noticeably less potent than his contemporary’s. “Musée des Beaux Arts” comes with a clear moral, one to be taken as seriously as it is garrulous. There is a humor, after-all, a frivolity, in terseness, in a sigh of expectation. Disappointment ceases when it becomes predictable. Auden, determined to reject the humor of Bruegel’s vision, rejects also its distracting glare, its inevitability, its sun. Our eyes are pulled towards the sun in Bruegel’s work, and the sun shines on the farmer. Icarus, meanwhile, is tucked away, “in a corner”, but Auden is here to remind us that the sun is also shining on Icarus. Where the painting causes us to lose sight of his death, Auden is obsessed with it. Thus, while granting tragedy its fatalism — cooly noting in the strongest phrase of the poem that, “the sun shone / As it had to” — Auden will not let the moral of the image be lost in any sarcastic laugh or sigh. Humor is as often an ironic insight as it is a dismissive one: if one can laugh, one can move on. Auden is interested, here, in neither.
Williams, on the other hand, stays faithful to Bruegel. His “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is a short, witty poem. Its implications and succinctness produce an imagist example of high form, worthy even of Williams’ more famous piece, “The Red Wheelbarrow”. The language is unassuming, yet strong. We do not lose sight of the solipsism surrounding Icarus’ death — ” the whole pageantry / of the year was / awake tingling / with itself”. But it is much more sneaky here than Auden’s bludgeon: “the expensive delicate ship… / Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” I take Auden’s use of “expensive” and “delicate” to be blatant class references, whereas Williams’ three-line stanzas, while having of course their political implications, leave in themselves no space for politics.
Ironically, where Auden displays disgust with the inevitable, but a willingness to fight it, his work ends with the bludgeon just quoted, past tense and disapproving. Icarus is finished. But Williams’ ends in continuous form, meaning we are placed within the work by both tense and image, perhaps suggesting we also have a role.
Upon reading these poems, I discovered the image with which I could convey al Kasasbeh’s murder. It could be done in line with the tradition of the three artists above, and concern the same subject, Icarus, but as a burning Jordanian pilot. Flying? Yes. Falling? Yes. Drowning? In a way, yes. I wanted to express in my work an unmistakable politics, but with the imagery of Williams. I wanted to express how we — whatever you take “we” to mean — failed to protect Icarus, failed to notice as he drowned. And since the events are more current, I wanted the piece to express the hopelessness of Auden’s work, but, in the contemporary nature of its subject, leave room for action. It is too late for Icarus, but not for us. I, likewise, wanted the work to be humorless, as humorless as war.
Much of America, because of this humorlessness, does not wish to get caught in ‘another war’ in Iraq. I do not blame them. But I must admit I am unsure what they mean by ‘another.’ For the people of Iraq and the Kurdish regions this has been one long war; and in the spirit of internationalism, we should not let our definitions fail us when the time zone shifts. That Kurdish autonomy exists to the extent it does is partly a product of two decades of American intervention; intervention currently cooperating with leftist forces on the ground — ironies some would rather not acknowledge. Better, they insist, we keep our hands busy at home, hands-off abroad, and pretend a backwards-looking provincialism makes us ‘anti-war.’
In Bruegel’s painting, we would be the farmer tilling — perhaps, even, in a responsible way, delivering prosperity and eradicating poverty and disease for whoever happened to win the geographical lottery. Meanwhile, “off the coast”, Icarus’s “white legs” sink out of view. But, upon achieving ‘utopia’, would there not be a moral obligation to spread our prosperity abroad? To be generous? Or, at the least, in our strength, to have a hand in preventing genocide and mass murder where we could? Insisting that America get its own house ‘in order’ before doing any cleaning abroad is not an argument one can respond to because it relies on an impossibility: one’s house is never ‘in order.’ There will always be contradictions, hypocrisies, failures, and mistakes — big and small, well-meaning and otherwise. The obligation to help a neighbor is derived from the ability to do so, not from moral purity; and America is quite powerful enough to do something. What that something should be is the question of politics and human conscience, the goal of democratic action. How do we take a cautious, responsible step forward, into a complicated landscape? Responding that we ought to keep our feet still is capitulation — a quitting made easier in direct relation to how unlikely one’s own head is to roll.
The ‘anti-war’ movement, by analogy, is primarily concerned with its own head, which is to say it is not ‘anti-war’, but ‘anti-Western-war.’ While the generic odds imply that this position is correct a majority of the time, it is correct for the wrong reasons, and those missed minorities cannot be shrugged off. If Da’ish attempts genocide again in the region, continues enslaving human beings, or threatens to crush the promise of an exciting democratic confederalism in the Kurdish cantons, that war, and its victims, by definition interest the ‘anti-Western-war’ movement less. This is not to say they do not care (the politics of feeling is paramount in today’s world; I am quite sure most everyone cares), it is that they are not interested in forming a political response. But this is like saying you ‘care’ about homeless people even though you do not seek to understand and then implement a solution to homelessness. The ‘anti-war’ movement cares about the Kurds, but they would really prefer to remain voiceless in creating a meaningful foreign policy to aid them; rather insisting, as conservatives say of the poor, that they “lift themselves up by their own boot-straps.”
There are necessary questions concerning how to conduct an intervention that is desired, defensible, and effective, as part of an international political response in a globalized world. To sit these questions out is to insist they are answered by those neoliberal forces already globally organized. If the people truly interested in solidarity are convinced we will only “make things worse” or, more detestably, insist “it’s not our problem”, then the political responses that do emerge will be formed by the most base of financial and reactionary interests, both global and local. Any truly democratic victory achieved in this atmosphere will be achieved despite us.
Of course, the bigger fear is that much of the United States is really not that interested in solidarity to begin with. The creeping isolationism among the American left, for example, mirroring that of the Pat Buchanan/Ron Paul right, is neither a realistic nor moral response to the complicated problem of acting responsibly in the world. I do not have the answers, but I do know that, “There’s nothing we can do about it”, aside from being a non-answer, is also the surest guarantee of perpetuating a status quo.
If we are to till our own fields while Icarus drowns, then we had better yield quite a harvest. But something tells me the world’s most geopolitically privileged nation is capable of more than that.