Showing posts with label tragedy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tragedy. Show all posts


Icarus Falls to his Death; a Cautionary Tale from Greek Mythology

"Icarus", Henri Matisse
How many stories exist about a father who loses his son? How many stories are there of a son who fell away from his father? How many stories are there about a father, a flawed father, whose ambition causes him to lose sight of what’s closest to him? Of a son whose first taste of freedom is so great, he cannot contain it?
Visualizing the Story of Icarus in Art
Image source: Icarus (from the Four Disgracers) Hendrick Goltzius, 1588.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is one such story. It’s a cautionary tale that originates from the Grecian isle of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Ovid and Apollodorus are the writers we have to thank for not allowing the tale to extinguish into non-existence. I prefer Ovid’s telling of the story. But both writers tell the basic plot. It’s not spoiling it to say that Icarus dies at the end. It’s the part of the story most mentioned and memorialized in commentary and in art.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, one can see Hendrick Goltzius’s engraving of the tale (from an ignominiously titled series “The Four Disgracers”). Goltzius’s Icarus depicts a monstrous-looking body plummeting to its death (which the viewer witnesses in a neat trick of visual toe-on perspective). This Icarus looks up at the sun, his hair blown wild, and his face a contorted mix of rage and regret. His body is massive, too much weight to bear in the air. His rage is palpable - directed towards the sun as if the sun is a villain. Yet looking closely at the details of the engraving, the viewer sees Icarus forever fixed in this position, as if he is similar to Sisyphus who rolls the rock to the mountaintop only for it to fall back down again. We see Sisyphus at the top, almost there, almost victorious, and we freeze the frame. Goltzius does the same. We can almost imagine Icarus is victorious in his flight. But there is a clue to the tragedy of the tale. Daedalus is drawn into the image, placed visibly far way, and the shape of his body shows that he remains in flight, while his son, too brazen, will be banished by the sun’s blazing glory.

In Célestin Nanteuil’s depiction, and perhaps many like it, Icarus is a stretched-out angel, his body perfect and unscathed, but his wings are broken. Icarus lies dead on the craggy rock. The setting of the scene is the sea and not the sky. Icarus’s body looks dainty as if he were never meant to fly. Nanteuil’s print reminds me of a video game incarnation of Icarus.

Kid Icarus from Nintendo

As a kid, before I knew anything substantial about Greek myths, or ancient gods and goddesses, my brothers and I played Kid Icarus, a 1986 Nintendo gaming system title that featured a boy angel named Pit; he had wings, but he couldn’t fly (or had lost the ability). He looked more like Cupid, the baby child of Aphrodite, the goddess of Love; than the tragic son of Daedalus, the ambitious inventor of Crete. In the video game, Pit had agency despite his clipped wings; he carried with him a bow and a plentiful armory of arrows. The game was a side-scrolling 2D affair; the player collected hearts and I believe, if my memory serves me correct, there was a princess. And the goal was to regain Pit’s ability to fly. I think. Yet. It’s funny because the game actually has no link to the original myth at all - except for the wings. And in the myth, unlike the game, Icarus has no agency. Like most children, he is limited by the agency of his parents. And, in fact, the myth of Icarus really is about the limitations of parenting, and the sometimes destructive relationships that can arise out of dysfunctional family dynamics.
The Origin Story of Daedalus Foreshadows the Fate of Icarus
Film still from Jim Henson's "Storyteller" version of the Icarus Myth
Some sources say that Daedalus, Icarus’s father, was born in Athens. He fled to Crete after accidentally killing his nephew (yet Apollodorus’s account of the story suggest foul play). In the Jim Henson Storyteller version of the myth, this event is connected with Icarus’s later death. Daedalus’s nephew was amenable to learning and generously caught on to the craft of possibly building a machine that could fly; this may have caused Daedalus to have envy and it is this envy that arose in Daedalus a moment of insanity when he lifted the boy up to fly at the top of the Acropolis and he tragically fell off the roof to his death.

In Crete, Daedalus starts a new life in Crete. It is during this time that Icarus is born (most likely the result of a relationship between Daedalus and a Cretan slave named Naucrate). After the events of the minotaur, Icarus is confined to a cave with his father, held there by the mighty king Minos, who, after Daedalus had constructed a miraculous maze to entrap his son, the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, kept him in Crete on indefinite retainer. Reading the original sources, the story of the Minotaur, of Theseus, the hero who slays the creature, Minos, the king, and Daedalus the inventor are very much tightly knit together. It is Icarus and Daedalus who lead Theseus out of the labyrinth, with Ariadne to freedom. Yet that’s another story (for another blog post). Myth has a tendency to radiate out into different spokes. But for this story, the story of Icarus and Daedalus, the central conflict is played out between father and son. Imagine Icarus grew up amazed and bewildered by his father’s inventions, but as he grew older, and approached adolescence, he grew cagey and restless. In the Jim Henson version (which I love) Icarus is portrayed as fragile and clumsy, almost incompetent and difficult to love. Icarus had lived his entire life constrained, so when his father drew up a plan to build him wings so they both could escape Minos’s grasp, the news must have felt like a dream and a relief. But if you grow up never experiencing even a little bit of freedom, once freedom is granted, it’s like how first-year, coddled college freshman feels after being raised by careful, plodding helicopter parents. You’re going to break bad fast. And that’s exactly what happened to Icarus. Tasting the salt in his mouth and feeling the tang of the ocean air, once he was aloft in the mechanical wings his father had constructed for him, the exhilaration was too intense. Icarus had tasted freedom, and like an addictive drug, he wanted more. Daedalus had warned him: “Fly too low to the sea and the saltwater will saturate your feathers weighing you back to the earth. Fly too high, close to the sun the warmth will melt the wax that keeps your wing enclosure intact. It will fall apart”. Icarus most likely replied, “Yes, father” and flew off. Teaching restraint to a teenage boy is like asking a child to not eat the chocolate ice cream or giving him an iPhone loaded with video games and telling him to do his homework.
What is the Moral Message of this Greek Myth?
Traditionally, the story ends with a cautionary warning that those who do well to refuse to listen carefully to their totally well-meaning father will find peril and destruction. He should have listened. Why didn’t he listen? To return to the Jim Henson version of the story (which I love!) the connection is made to the beginning when Daedalus killed Talos, which in turn killed something inside of Daedalus which was also unconsciously transmitted to his son. When Talos fell, so did Daedalus and Icarus fall. That’s some deep generational toxicity. Should the son pay the sins of the father? It reminds me of another ancient tale, of Abraham and Isaac. While Abraham doesn’t slay his own son, he is about to do it (when at the last moment the angel stays his hand). There is something electric in the concept of the “sins of the father” - of this idea that the father’s downfall sets the stage for the son’s eventual demise. Is there a way to break the chain? I think this why this story resonates so strongly. We want Icarus to fly and survive, to thrive. No one wishes, deep down, that Icarus dies. We want an alternative narrative. We want to see a story where Icarus and Daedalus live happily ever after. In this story, however, things would have had to have been different from the get-go. Icarus would not have grown up in the shadow of his father’s guilt. He would not have felt so constrained. What would this Icarus look like? It is a good question because so often I see the Icarus-effect. And as a son myself, I see how we as men are often tied up to our fathers (even when we do not consciously recognize it).
The Story of Icarus Resonates With Me Personally
Cultivating agency is the stuff of adulthood. To go away from Icarus and to become something different, something alive and thriving is hard. To fly away from the comfort of the nest. How does the expression go? He flew the coop. I do think of another story of fathers and sons - which comes from the Christian New Testament Greek writings. Jesus talks about a son who flies the coop; he leaves the nest and squanders his father’s inheritance; yet, he comes back poor and laid low. The father forgives him and takes him back. His sins are forgiven. At any stage of life, I feel like, one is between this prodigal son feeling and the need (and want) for redemption and the fear that I can be burnt up by the sun if I fly too far.

I say “I” because of the story of Icarus, of the Prodigal Son, and other stories of freeing oneself from the nest is a powerful one. I can relate to it and I am sure many can. I think about my own upbringing, and how I grew up; I learned from my parents how to live in the world, for better or for worst, and then at High School graduation I was thrust into the world. I had a second upbringing. Then I graduated from college; lived in a monastery for a while; then, I left and became a school teacher! I look at the successes of my adult life, my teaching, my career, projects I have completed and articles and stories I have written and I compare those things to how I was as a kid. Did one lead from another? Is it possible to trace who I am now from who I was then? The line is not continuous; there are broken lines; new lines drawn over old ones; and lines that are going in opposite directions. That’s probably why, as a teacher, I have gravitated to teaching this story a lot in my career. I have taught it to Sixth Graders, and to Ninth Graders. Kids like the story, and they are appalled by the tragedy. But they all say they would never fly too close to the sun. Or, they remind me, “Mr. Roselli, why didn’t Icarus just use better glue?!” Good point!
Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Higher Education, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific - Teaching the Myth of Icarus to your Students in a Middle or High School Classroom
The story of Icarus and Daedalus is a powerful one. So, I put together a simple 3-day lesson plan that teachers can implement in their classroom with kids (preferably Middle or High School students). There are a ton of books that have reprinted the myth and there are a ton of artistic representations. I like using Edith Hamilton’s Mythology by the book Parallel Myths is my favorite. There is a gorgeous children’s book version of the Icarus myth that is fabulous because the illustrations are evocative. Use my lesson plan with any text of the story and guide your students through this remarkable tale.


Movie Clip: The Worst Christmas Eve Ever (Gremlins)

Gremlins (1984)
This otherwise comic film is lodged with perhaps the most tragic dialogue in Hollywood history ...
Kate: Now I have another reason to hate Christmas.
Billy Peltzer: What are you talking about?
Kate: The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn't home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That's when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead, they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He'd been climbing down the chimney... his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus. 
Gremlins (1984): Directed by Joe Dante. Written by Chris Columbus. Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, and Hoyt Axton


What is the Difference between Comedy and Tragedy?

"Midway in my life's journey, 'I stumbled into a wood.'" 
 Dante, Inferno, Canto I, Line 1
    What is the difference between comedy and tragedy? We enter the woods; at the threshold of woods and plain are the dividing lines between tragic and comedic, between love and loss. The woods represent chaos in literary symbolism. Or not. Everything depends on the red wheelbarrow. Is it how we see it? In Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, when the eloping lovers enter the woods at night, all hell breaks loose. Lovers are switched. A wayward actors' troop is also lost, set to perform at a state wedding, but one of their players is turned into an ass, being an ass anyway - his name is Bottom. Puck, the mischievous sprite, pours a potion into the Queen of the Fairies' eyes and she falls in love with Bottom.
    In the morning, though, after all the enchantments have worn off, everything is turned right - the basic structure of a comedy. A comedy is technically a narrative that begins with a conflict, like mixed up lovers or lost in a wood, but in the end conflict is resolved - which is why Dante's journey through Hell is called a comedy. Dante goes through the stages of hell and survives to tell the tale. Dante, with Virgil the poet's help, makes it to Purgatory and, eventually, with Beatrice's intercession, ends up seeing the beatific vision (which is quite boring, if you ask me). Isn't the journey in the telling?
    And what is the difference between a comedy and a tragedy? Is the line always direct, written in the sand? I agree the line is a thin one, as played out in Woody Allen's farce Melinda and Melinda. The movie is a demonstration of the thin line between both genres. Is life at its essence tragic or comic? The movie tells the story of Melinda from two perspectives, one tragic, the other comedic. In the tragic version, Melinda shows up at her sister's dinner party unannounced and all hell breaks loose. She dumps her husband for a younger photographer but the center cannot hold and she ends up in the tragic version in a mental hospital. In the comic version, Melinda shows up at the dinner party as a childless and down-trodden neighbor who captures the attention and delight of the guests. The film cleverly goes back and forth between the two stories as a way to illustrate the point the difference between tragedy and comedy. For the ancient Greeks, tragedy was primarily a cathartic experience. To process tragedy, the events of the narrative are re-enacted on the stage and by seeing the horrible events unfold on stage (or on screen) the spectator comes away cleansed from the experience. Thus the invention of drama. Emotion is processed publicly as a way to experience collectively the pain of tragedy. Even today don't we go to a sad movie and cry? What happens in this experience? Are we sad for our own sorrows or someone else's? Are our tears and identification with a character on the stage? Do we cry so we can replace our own sufferings with the sorrows of someone else, an emotional scapegoat? Tragedy is not a private act, but a public one. We publicly place sorrow on the stage to feel better afterward in the same way we laugh collectively in front of a prime time TV show even when it is not funny. Catharsis is a purging of the emotions but the same can be said when we witness, and privately enjoy the suffering of others; a little bit of schadenfreude, gaining pleasure from the downfall of others somehow makes us feel a little bit more exalted. Even though we don't like to admit it, don't we often say to ourselves about someone else's tragic story, I am glad it isn't me?
Odysseus slays the suitors
Comedy and tragedy depend on a slight twist of fate; Woody Allen likes to play with this idea, beginning Melinda and Melinda with a discussion of the difference between the two. It is a gross deduction, but life is a comedy when we are the ones who do not suffer and it's a tragedy when the tables are turned. When Dante is in hell he is a comedy for he goes through hell commenting on the suffering of other people. Dante meets Odysseus in hell, the man of many wiles who was separated from his wife and family for twenty years. Dante punished Odysseus in hell for his extreme pride or hubris, a lack of understanding of his own human weakness. Odysseus in life is punished to roam the seas in a search for home because he relied on his own intellect and not on the gods. Odysseus returns home, rids his halls of the suitors and he reunites with his wife and son. Dante does not view Odysseus so comedically, however, and remains suspicious of Odysseus as if inspired by Poseidon's rage. Dante sees Odysseus as the man of many deceits. The flip flop is directly related to fate, perception, choices, and perhaps luck. If I am deceived to believe life is merely either a comedy or a tragedy, I deceive myself. Pride and self-deception cause war; cause intolerance - the inability to see truth in any given situation. The blindness is our own. Someone may ask, why are seers physically blind? By losing their physical sight, they gain an inner sight of the mind. It is not what you see but how you see it. The narcissist sees only himself. The hero sees his victories. A murder does not see his crime. A lover sees an ideal. I am blinded from truth not because truth is absolute, but I am unable to decode properly what I see before me. The Greeks seem to have understood this which is why they created the blind seer who could see but they also saw that most of us are Cassandra and we do not listen. It is not that we do want to listen, but rather, we are blocked - flustered for a bit, and we cannot read properly. It is in the tangle of interpretation that we go back and forth: comedy, tragedy, comedy, tragedy, comedy, tragedy, comedy, tragedy . . .


Let's Go to the Museum: "Oedipus Wrecks" in the Ninth Grade English Classroom

In this post, I write about a recent Ninth Grade English lesson based on the New York Times Learning Center curriculum where we turned our classroom into a museum full of objects based on the Greek Tragedy Oedipus the King by Sophocles.

Museum Exhibition of Oedipus the King
In all periods of my Ninth Grade English class at De La Salle High School in New Orleans, we created a museum exhibition for Sophocles tragedy Oedipus Rex.
Students create a puzzle game based on
Oedipus the King in a Ninth Grade English class.

In every corner of the room galleries were set up to showcase different significant objects from the play: the noose, the brooch, the crown, the walking stick, the nail, the masks the actors wore, to demonstrate non-linguistically the themes of the Ancient Greek tragedy.

In quadrant one museum-goers played the memory game, trying to remember different objects from the play. Can anyone remember where the brooch went? If you look carefully you can see one museum-goer chose a noose to demonstrate the noose Jocasta chose to commit suicide; I thought they performed the act with appropriate cheer.


I am glad we didn't have demonstrations of the brooch.

One group of students brought Oedipus cupcakes.

One group had sword fights to act out the fatal battle between Oedipus and his father at the crossroads. Clever. But, I heard one girl say, "He wants to kill his father?"

I liked the Oedipus crossword puzzle the kids created on the smartboard. That was fun. I found "furnace" and "citadel".

But, I could not get the smartpen to work. Doi *me imitating Homer Simpson*. So we had to remember what words were previously discovered.

I noticed that the success rate for the project was high. I should try to implement more projects like this one in the classroom. What do you think? I think it is important to try to encourage students to express in a non-linguistic form the themes of a piece of literature. Students react to thematic significance when they see the potent art of the literary piece brought to life. Isn't this what the Greeks did? They did not sit around in a classroom and underline important passages. In a way, it is the artistic expression of the work. It is a way to bring the work back to life; to take it from the textbook and reify the dramatic action.

I got the idea for the project from a New York Times learning center lesson plan using the idea of Orhan Pamuk's new novel the Museum of Innocence. In his new novel, every chapter is devoted to an object the main character Kemal associates with his ex-lover. We read the article in class and discussed ways we could create our own museum of innocence for Oedipus Rex. Fun stuff.

Well, I am off to attend a birthday party for my cousin. He turned sixteen today. Ain't that sweet?