The Fall of Icarus and Re-imagining Technology

Wolhee Choe

I'll begin with a couple of truisms. (1) An argument that does not initiate a perceptual change in the reader provides tedium. (2) Genuine metamorphoses of the self occur conceptually, never physically, except in death.

Conceptual transformations are metaphoric. They are called poetic when focused on an art object in imagination, and aesthetic when experienced from life in metaphoric acts. Even when we feel physically transported--as when our body literally is flown from New York to Paris--it is the imagination that constructs pleasure-giving possibilities, distinct from the actual city. Machines, however, are made and used instrumentally, only to be imagined metaphorically. We fly "like a bird," shoot missiles "like Zeus," and kill "like a monster,"--but we do not literally become a bird, Zeus, or a monster. Pleasure is found in becoming, changing, in being transported as a part of metaphoric acts.

To explore the nature of metaphoric acts in the experience of technology, let us first understand the metaphoric act as Breughel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" demonstrates. The material for the painting is Ovid's narrative of Daedalus in Metamorphoses which deals with, at one level, the technological and human failure of the inventor. Breughel re-imagines, within his poetic reality, the event of the fall as Daedalus's aesthetic success. Ovid's and Breughel's expressions of the Greek myth share little apparent surface content, although both are made of the same narrative material, each attempting to understand homo faber and each contributing uniquely to our understanding of human beings.

Breughel's transformation of Ovid has both novelty and clarity which allows a structure of aesthetic perception. First consider the myth according to Bulfinch. The subject matter, the spectacular failure of Daedalus, deals with his flying machine that kills his own son, Icarus, as well as with the failure of the inventor as a man. Daedalus intends to murder his apprentice, his nephew, because of professional jealousy.

Daedalus--whose name was given to Joyce's artist as a young man and to the journal for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences--is often identified as the archetypal artist or inventor, rather than as the person as homo faber, one who may fail aesthetically and technologically.

Next, let's look at Breughel's material itself, Ovid's Daedalus and Icarus. Ovid transforms the Greek myth to give it a new perspective. His purpose in writing Metamorphoses is "to tell the bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind." His invocation says: "You heavenly powers, since you were responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favorably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own time" (Ovid 29). Change is the key to life and poetry in Ovid's conception of the myth. He offers two kinds of metamorphoses in the "Death of Icarus" episode. He tells of a twelve year old boy apprenticed by his unsuspecting mother to the inventor, her brother, and transformed into a "chattering lapwing." As Daedalus "flung his nephew headlong down from Minerva's sacred citadel" intending to kill him, the goddess Pallas changes the boy into a bird, "clothing him with feathers in mid-air" (Ovid 186).

Imitating the goddess, Daedalus fabricates wings with feathers and, like birds, Daedalus and Icarus fly. This second metamorphosis which allows them to fly like birds is contrasted with the first in which a boy becomes a bird. Ovid distinguishes metaphoric change from metonymic change of the self. The world of Daedalus' invention and, consequently, his life do not change in Ovid's tale, as it does in Breughel's painting (as we will soon see). Daedalus, according to Ovid, is a man whose technologically styled perception remains outside his own self. His perception and invention do not change him; he remains, we suspect, murderously jealous and aggrieved, while burying his drowned young son and being mocked by the metamorphosed nephew/bird. Metonymic change has no transforming power on the self; Daedalus' technological experience has no formal claim on his perception of himself. Note also that the body of Icarus is not transformed into another shape; he is simply drowned and buried.

Now we turn to Breughel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." A construct within which an engineer is something of a Nietzschean superman with a Freudian death wish may not be novel to us, but it has certainly been neglected in the past readings of the fall of Icarus. Breughel's painting, done in the 16th century, may be characterized in modern terms. Its transformation of Ovid suggests a wild departure from the material and yet gives us a deeper understanding of homo faber, by vitally transforming our view of the world. Breughel divides his canvas diagonally in two; his novel juxtaposition of the day-to-day world in the foreground with the mythical dream world in the background triggers a whole sequence of contrasting dimensions of reality freshly revealed as Breughel's poetic conception of Daedalus.

Daedalus's murder of his nephew, for instance, which in Ovid was yoked, for poetic justice, with the fall of Icarus--relating Icarus' physical fall to Daedalus' moral or aesthetic fall--appears now in an entirely different perspective. Breughel's canvas, interlocking the world of everyday experience and that of the imagination, introduces a new Daedalian imagination. The mythical bird placed in the quotidian foreground of the painting is only intent on the catch the nearby fisherman may bring up any moment. In Ovid's tale this bird "popped its head out of a muddy ditch, flapped its wings and crowed with joy," watching the grief-stricken Daedalus bury his ill-fated son.

Things are no longer as clear cut as they are in Ovid. The sun is setting in the mythical background while Icarus is drowning in its foreground. The sun that has just melted his wings is nowhere to be seen. Where is Daedalus? In the dark forest of the foreground, there is a dreamy, luminescent circle out of keeping with the surrounding colors in the "realistic" zone. Traditionally, critics have conjectured that a corpse is hidden there. But the circle is so small that it could barely contain a full figure, alive or dead. Perhaps it is Daedalus' aesthetic self, sitting alone re-imagining the universe in which he finds himself creating, murdering, and suffering.

Other occurrences, too numerous to account for now, may be observed in passing. The most striking thing about this busy canvas is its absolute tranquility: the unifying vision of life that Breughel projects. Despite his diagonal separation between the actual and the imaginary, there is no strident argument, no cry of men over the tragedy of Icarus, only men too preoccupied with their own world to notice the fall of Icarus who is drowning alone in a small corner of the painting. Daedalian imagination thus projected by Breughel is worthy of Steven Daedalus' aesthetic aspirations and all the imaginative discourses printed in the American Academy's journal, and countless other imaginings to come. It is a cosmos so complex and so complete that the mind swirls into an autonomous motion.

Before reflecting on the implications of Breughel's work, imagine another text which would contain a further transformation in the Daedalus story. This new possible text would not be as unified as either of the previous two, but would consist of various news stories about a group of students at an engineering university who decide to recreate Daedalus's flight--successfully. Having read of the flight of the Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel, they build a human-powered plane to fly from the island of Crete to the Greek mainland. Their world is cut in two: the foreground of imaginative action and the background of quotidian life. The imaginative act is initiated by dreams inspired by Daedalus' flapping wings of feathers and wax, developed into a formal understanding of the state of the arts in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics, and consummated in restructuring of aircraft technology to re-conceive man-powered aerodynamic designs. Quotidian life takes on the character of public recognition and power. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the background overtakes the foreground as newspapers get wind of the idea. Then their effort is successful.

Now the danger of the Icarian fall lurks behind their success. The danger lies, not in the Daedalian imagination, however, but in the infinitely duplicative machine itself. It may be fated to become a successful consumer product, soon falling into the sea of technological debris. Or it may remain to inspire other Daedaluses. Not all new wings inspire aesthetic experience; in fact, most of them, once invented, are consumed and discarded with phenomenal speed. Even so, some technological artifacts may be appropriated aesthetically for new experiences, new perspectives, and new selves as they have been in the past, though, without being so acknowledged.

The idea of fall, whether Edenic or Icarian, is singular in its power to initiate thinking and making allowances for cases otherwise and hitherto ignored. Juxtaposed with the fall, an imaginative construct, whether of life or progress, gains a new perspective. In a flurry of mental activity, familiar forms of knowledge reorganize themselves and generate expectations about what is coming next. Through the principle of opposition and through the recorded imagination of our own mortality, our mind is activated, oscillating between life and death, construction and destruction. This motion teases us "out of thought/As doth eternity" (Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn") as it moves toward other selves. If an ordinary mode of experiencing the world is habitual, ideological, and willful, an aesthetic mode of experiencing the world is critical, formal, and vitally transforming. This is a simultaneously rational and inspirational experience that allows a new perspective. Aesthetic pleasure is linked, as poets have described it, to this vital transformation of one form to another.

Aristotle, in his poetics, also discusses knowledge in this sense, imitation being pleasurable. Understanding through structure and imitation of structure suggests more than a logic of understanding and of sensation; it suggests a change from one form to another emergent form which opens up new dimensions to a given layer of reality. Roland Barthes' "plaisir" and "jouissance" transform Aristotelian pleasure of knowledge into "perverse pleasure." He notes that that part of us which experiences aesthetically his selfhood (that is, his pleasure) and seeks its loss (that is, his bliss) is "a subject split twice over, doubly perverse." But his dichotomy implies that there is a self which is motionless. In truth the normal state of the subject is "split twice over"; with every aesthetic experience, it splits over to greater unity, if only to re-split. The pattern of perceptual growth in the self's testing, imagining, and transforming is perpetual metamorphoses of itself.

The distinction between aesthetic pleasure and sensuous pleasure is crucial if we are to understand the aesthetic notion of cultivating personhood through one's style of perception. Style, the self re-conceived with each new aesthetic experience, is the person. To experience the world aesthetically, be it a poem, a person, or a new technological artifact, is to expand the self's boundaries, to create a person, the third person within the "I."

Walter Pater toward the close of the l9th century, continuing the Romantic tradition, asked a phenomenological question in his own terms: how to create a living system of thought that is the experience of a person, as opposed to how to interpret a person's experience in terms of his inherited ideas. Pater, as phenomenologists did later, turned to poetry for a new way of looking at life free of the systems of thought that no longer had an intellectual hold on him, and found that creative possibilities in poetry operate within structural necessities that allow human understanding and freedom. In poetry he found the paradigm of human perception that sustains humanity. In poetry he found the man who requires perceptual or formal growth and who finds pleasure in it. Thus he urged us to live in the spirit of art. The spirit of art, to him, was the spirit of truth, as it was to Heidegger. Truth is composed like poetry "the clearing and concealing of what is," he says underscoring the formal nature of truth that needs to be de-composed before reconstructing it. And all art is essentially poetry that allows "the advent of truth of what is" to happen (Heidegger, 51). To "dwell poetically on this earth" is then to critically construct truth. And to critically construct "what is" ushers in the future. This is not a reduction of truth to the status of cultural fiction since something composed in poetry refers to something perceived in a new way or to the discovery of a not-yet-perceived something. It suggests change in perception, not in that something which truth forever approximates.

Aesthetic perception, a metamorphosis of the metaphoric kind, reorganizes the self's perspective formally. The death favored by a goddess in the Ovidian context is the most physical self-transformation, but the second most thorough going change is aesthetic change. Ovid's Daedalus, though grief-stricken, is not changed by the experience of the flying machine and the fall of Icarus. Neither are those who witness the flight and fall capable of re-conceiving "what is," though they are amazed and sympathetic, according to Ovid.

The self as created by Romantic poets in the early part of the 19th century was a problematic one, subject to solipsism and, with its lack of shared methods and interpretations, to an incapacity for establishing itself as the epistemological center. At least our understanding of the Romantic self has long been subject to such apparent pitfalls. However, reinterpretation of the Romantic self has never completely ceased, as I have suggested, particularly in Pater's writings in the late l9th century and in phenomenologists' studies of perception in general. In this latter context, the Romantic self appears as an object of awareness aesthetically cultivated, of style, and therefore part of the identity of the understanding network. How is this stylistic network established and cultivated? According to Pater, it is, again, through aesthetic perception of novelty, that is, through formal novelty, that our mind is awakened to be creative and autonomous.

How do we partake of a world which is increasingly technological, a world which demands our metonymic transformation only? Is it possible to experience technology critically and vitally? Is technologically induced experience capable of creating multiplied consciousness open to other dimensions of reality in the world and the self? Does the maker experience technology differently from the user? Is reading inherently a more powerful means for the self to grow aesthetically than TV? These are questions that cannot be answered with a brief description of the patterns involved in perceptual change that occur in our verbal and visual discourse. But this description does, I think, clarify some of the tools of analysis necessary for attempting answers.

While awaiting answers, this description may allow us to clarify, for instance, Aristotle's notion of "supervening perfection," which does not change the disposition of the perssone who experiences but completes a mental act (Nicomachean Ethics, X, 4, 1174 b-35). If the supervening perfection does not change the disposition of the person, at least it changes his style of perception. Understanding formal structures of experience and history is the first step in aesthetic perception. When it leads to the next step which is restructuring the de-constructed form under the organizing principle of a novel metaphor, our aesthetic self "becomes," whether it is through a poem or a life.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text, New York: Hill and Wang, 1970

Blake, W., The Complete Writings of William Blake (ed.). G. Keynes, London, Oxford UP, 1966.

Butcher, S. H., Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, with a critical text and translation of The Poetics, Dover Publications, 1951.

Heidegger, M., Poetry, Language, Thought, (tr.) A. Hofstadter, New York, Harper & Row, 1971.

Keat, John, Complete Poems & Selected Letters, (ed.) by Clarence Dewitt Thorp, Indianapolis, Odyssey Press, 1935.

Pater, W. 10 vols. London & New York, MacMillan, 1925.

The Renaissance


Plato and Platonism

The Romantic poets, like Blake and Keats, have spelled out the primacy of aesthetic experience over all others, although we have not taken it seriously. Walter Pater, the late Romantic, also declared, "Not the fruit of experience but experience itself is the aim in life" (R 187), pointing to the aesthetic experience that subsumes rationality and morality. His plea for aesthetic pleasure that unifies mental acts was largely misunderstood as ethical hedonism by those who reduce the structure of aesthetic experience to simple sensations. According to Pater, it is through perception of formal novelty that our mind is awakened. Recognition of formal novelty produces pleasure.

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