Bruegel’s Icarus: Responding to Suffering in the Media Age

by Corrie McCloy

It seems that we wake each morning to a new story of tragedy. Some, like the Parkland shooting, remain in the news for days. Others, like the Syrian refugee crisis, remain on the front of newspapers so long they disappear emotionally. In an age flooded with news media, the sound of suffering, whether local, national, or international, becomes a constant background noise that we are too busy to acknowledge. We know we should care; we don’t always know how.

The excess of news is a modern problem, but what is not new is the uneasy relationship between the individual and public suffering.The Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, commonly attributed to Renaissance artist Pietr Bruegel, is a visual meditation on the public’s relationship with individual suffering. The title itself says it all: the painting is essentially a landscape, with a farmer and shepherd going about their business, a few ships leaving the harbor. Only by accident, it seems, is the tail-end of Icarus’ fall captured, as if in a photograph. His legs disappear into the water, momentous only in their smallness.

The tragedy — and miracle — of Icarus goes unseen, or if seen, unnoticed. The painting jars the viewer; there is something incongruous about the most important part of the painting being relegated to the lower right corner. To us, the working men may seem insensitive and brutal by ignoring the boy’s death: shouldn’t they react under Bruegel’s paintbrush with wide eyes, up-thrown hands, and exaggerated shock at what is occurring only a few yards away?

Yet the same is often true of us in an age flooded with news media. Story after story of suffering and tragedy crosses our television screens or our Facebook feeds: twenty-three-year old Mark Conditt killed three people and blew himself up in Austin; in Sacramento, police murdered twenty-two-year-old Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, shooting him twenty times in his grandmother’s backyard. We read the news articles, look at the pictures, and know that in a month’s time — usually less — the suffering of those involved will have sunk below the surface of the public’s consciousness, ours included.

Some people quit reading or watching the news all together. After all, doesn’t the news just waste our time and make us less healthy and happy? This may be true, and it sounds attractive — in the same way it sounds attractive to do freelance work and travel the world: feasible for some, but impossible for all. Stopping reading or watching the news does not mean one stops consuming any news at all. We will never be able to entirely remove ourselves from interacting with news events. What we can do is grow aware of our necessary relationship with public suffering in a world flooded with news. It is an old question: technology has merely aggravated a dilemma that has long predated the iPhone.

W.H. Auden, the twentieth century poet and critic, meditates on Bruegel’s Icarus and what it implies about our relationship with suffering. His insights are especially relevant today. Composed in 1939, the poem alludes to a number of Bruegel’s paintings, and Auden refers to Bruegel’s perspective nostalgically, finding it a helpful counterpoint to the modern obsession. He begins:

About suffering they were never wrong
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position:

He describes how it inevitably occurs whether or not anyone is paying attention or not.

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.

As much as we may speak of how tragedies grip the national consciousness, on the individual level, our engagement with suffering is usually short-lived. We mourn the tragedy by reading an article or two, retweeting a potent message, and maybe even having a conversation about it with a friend. Most of the time, however, we move on “quite leisurely.” One factor is simply the influx of news: we try to read the same story from numerous sources to prevent bias, our phones send us daily news notifications; our friends share articles on Facebook. It is impossible to take every sound bite seriously.

Our disinterest seems damning: it seems to designate others’ suffering as unimportant. Auden specifies, however, that it is only “for him,” the ploughman, that the failure is not important. Icarus’ fall does not affect the ploughman—in fact, it seems to affect Icarus alone. Auden even describes how the sun shines on Icarus’ white, stick-like legs by necessity “as it had to.” Even nature seems calculated to express its disinterest.

On the surface, Auden seems to be advocating this cold reaction by admitting that Bruegel is accurately describing suffering’s “human position.” It is true that most tragic events in the news occur tangentially to us, out of the corner of our eye. Few of them actually affect the way we live our lives, what we do first thing in the morning, how we treat our family or what we do at work. Some may. Most will not.

If we are to learn how to relate correctly to suffering in the news, we must first be aware of our relationship with it, a relationship that is necessarily removed, usually irrelevant. Our empathy, well-meaning though it may be, is also limited in expression through media. It is a common fact that media connects us, making aware of what is happening across our state, country, and even the world. What we recognize less often is how media separates. News media is like the sea in Bruegel’s painting: it allows for ships to pass, but it also divides individual from individual, swallowing them and their suffering. The digital age has simultaneously brought us nearer and farther away from tragedy.

Our primary duty is towards the people we know personally as friends, family, or colleagues. Theirs is the suffering we are called to bear. Theirs is the tragedy which will not disappear from our lives in a manner of days, or even hours, but a tragedy that will require our faithfulness, our strength, and our empathy.

This answer still does not address the suffering of those beyond our personal connections. Daedalus cares about Icarus’ fall; how can the ploughman? When a story of tragedy goes viral on social media or on the news, the comment section of the article fills with condolences: “thoughts and prayers”; “praying for your precious family”; “God give you peace.” They sometimes sound kind; sometimes hollow and kitschy, and no matter how many there are, such responses are only as valuable as the hearts and hands on the other side of the screen. Maybe a prayer would do some good — even better, a prayer tomorrow or the next day. We must learn to acknowledge our literal distance from tragedy on the news, but our sympathy need not be limited. If we trained our sympathy towards suffering to endure past the week or four-day period of its news coverage, we might be able to do some practical good.

Corrie McCloy is a Writing and English major at Houston Baptist University; she loves well-made guacamole and each of her thirteen nieces and nephews.

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