One of the best-known Greek stories is of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus was a master carpenter who had made a great labyrinth under the court of King Minos of Crete where the dread Minotaur lived. Taking issue with Daedalus, Minos had imprisoned him and his son, Icarus, in that very maze. Surely they would be attacked by the Minotaur (half human and half bull) if they couldn’t devise some means of escape. Daedalus constructed two pairs of great wings made of feathers and wax, and they were able to fly away to safety. Before taking off, the caring father admonished his son not to fly either too low or too high, but to take the “middle path.” Flying too low would mean seawater would clog the wings; flying too high would mean the sun’s extreme heat would melt the wings. Daedalus followed his own advice and reached safety, but Icarus became giddy about being a bird and so he went too close to the sun. The delicate wings melted fast and Icarus plunged to his death by drowning in a body of water now known as the Icarian Sea which surrounds the Island of Icari, southwest of Samos. Clearly this is a story about impatience and hubris .
As I try to manage the almost daily evidence of politicians and cabinet members in Washington, D.C. and many state governments who refuse to stand by their own values when doing so might jeopardize their own advancement in the halls of power, I find myself thinking of a more modern system of belief in which a powerful force called Fortuna or Dame Fortune explained the rise and fall of politicians in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe and England. This theory held that once a person put his or her foot on the Wheel of Fortune, s/he might have a glorious rise to the top of the wheel or circle. They might even pause a while at the zenith and wield major power for a little while. But wheels don’t stay stationary, so that same person would soon find themself tumbling head first towards some hard landing, ending up exactly where they had started. In a lively conversation recently with an old friend, we lapsed into the inevitable lament over words and actions of the occupants of the White House and the U.S. Congress. At one point, as we were discussing our feelings about Elizabeth Warren, my friend commented that Warren had been “born to form and head up that agency to protect us from big banks,” but she couldn’t celebrate that because she was like Icarus and was probably “flying too close to the sun.”
In the days since our talk, I’ve decided the Icarus myth applies better to today’s political aspirants than does the theory in which Fortuna reigns. So, since our conversation, I’ve carried that image of the young and beautiful aspirant catapulting arms akimbo and face terrified. I find a growing list of women and men I can name off easily, all of whom qualify for that hubristic giddiness that beset the young Icarus. So I went back to W. H. Auden’s powerful poem, “Le Musee des Beaux Artes” in which he describes the actual fall, based on his having seen the painting by Bruegel that hangs in the title museum in Brussels, Belgium. Bruegel’s visual point, echoed by Auden’s verbal recital, is that no one is even looking as the dead body plunges into the sea. Instead a farmer continues plowing his field, a shepherd herbs his little white sheep away from the cliff overlooking the water, and a couple of full-masted ships continue on their route to wherever they are going. In Auden’s own words, “the dogs go on with their doggy life.” I wonder if we don’t treat some of our present-day political Icaruses the same way, i.e., when their flying too high ruins their beautiful wings and they crash, do we even stop to mark what is being lost, had they been able to occupy the space they best occupy instead of soaring to some next level?
Now I find myself thinking hard and sadly about this possibility: What if there are Icaruses who fly too close to the melting heat of the sun and crash, but do not die. Somehow they are able to swim to some shore and be expected to get on with their lives, to move on, to “find closure,” that ridiculous present day outcome sought by so many. Not surprisingly in my case, the first face that flashed into my mind’s eye was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s. After being a fine First Lady and a superb Senator from New York, Hillary ran for the presidency. Her wings were not made of feathers and wax; they were constructed of decades of public service at virtually every level of American social and political life. They were burnished by an intellect of considerable range and depth. And they were finished off by a very large heart that could feel empathy with those having less privilege than she enjoys. No wonder many of us believed she’d remain aloft and even wind up occupying the highest political “nest” America has to offer. That didn’t happen, of course. And Hillary Rodham Clinton today, two years after the wings melted in the course of a few hours, seems unable to recover firm footing after her meteoric rise and meteoric fall. Having flown so very close to that political “sun,” she seems unable to let go of the flight plan; she seems off kilter and hanging on to a dream that those considerable wings were supposed to make come true.
If I ponder about present day politicians who don’t follow Daedalus’ advice to his son about not flying too low where seawater and high humidity would clog his feathers, the list is too long even to consider listing. It’s virtually every Republican in office who knows they do not agree policies tweeted by the person serving as president, or sanction much of his rhetoric and behavior, but who is too afraid of losing the high office currently occupied should he (or she, though these days there are a only handful of women serving in positions worth protecting) speak truth to power or even carry out the duties to which elected or appointed. These people are simple moral cowards. And for Democrats, the powerful temptation is to try and maintain the high ground, to “hover” while beating current wings to exhaustion, to refuse any humble compromises that might slow down their perceived chance to soar to the upper ethers.
So, the old Greek story obtains all too clearly in my world today, and I can only hope that some of the fresh new faces in government might listen to their political “fathers” and “mothers” and try for a flight pattern that can last and that can carry them safely from port to port. Maybe somebody could show them the Breugel painting or read them the Auden poem or just argue for modesty and moderation, those old and steady emotional states.