Thursday, February 16, 2012

The daedal fates of Icarus

As noted the other day, Ovid's Daedalus has much in common with his Arachne. Both are painstaking artificers who seek to go beyond merely imitating nature. Daedalus' design for the labyrinth of Crete was, Ovid notes, inspired by the Maeander River, near Miletus in ancient Caria:
No differently from the way in which the watery Maeander deludes the sight, flowing backwards and forwards in its changeable course, through the meadows of Phrygia, facing the running waves advancing to meet it, now directing its uncertain waters towards its source, now towards the open sea:
His design for his escape from Crete was based upon nature's model as well:
he applied his thought to new invention and altered the natural order of things. He laid down lines of feathers, beginning with the smallest, following the shorter with longer ones, so that you might think they had grown like that, on a slant. In that way, long ago, the rustic pan-pipes were graduated, with lengthening reeds. Then he fastened them together with thread at the middle, and bees’-wax at the base, and, when he had arranged them, he flexed each one into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings. (Kline)
Like Arachne, Daedalus is entirely absorbed by his art, his techne. He is a problem solver. He solves Pasiphae's problem, then has to contain the problematic issue of that "solution" for Minos:

When Theseus penetrates the labyrinth, Daedalus resolves to fly from Crete, and does so, transforming himself and Icarus into birdmen, seen from afar and thought to be gods by the ploughmen and shepherds and fishermen.

But Icarus plunges into the sea. The pathos of that story is still moving today. Daedalus calls after his son:
‘Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?’ ‘Icarus’ he called again. Then he caught sight of the feathers on the waves, and cursed his inventions.
At pater infelix, nec iam pater,“Icare,” dixit,
Icare,” dixit “ubi esqua te regione requiram?”
Icare” dicebat:  
Note that his calling Icarus three times echoes Virgil's scene, in Georgics IV (525-27), when another great maker, Orpheus, after nearly bringing her back from the Underworld, calls upon his twice-lost wife:
Eurydicen vox ipsa et frigida lingua
ah miseram Eurydicen! anima fugiente vocabat:
Eurydicen toto referebant flumine ripae.
The voice itself and the cold tongue cried,
"Eurydice, ah, miserable Euridice!" as life fled:
the banks of the entire river echoed "Eurydice."
What's strictly Ovidian about the scene in the Metamorphoses is what comes right after it: the mournful view of the artificer burying his dead child receives a disconcerting clack of cartoon applause from the partridge, Perdix, who turns out to be Talus, Daedalus's 12-year-old nephew. This is a total discontinuity of tone, from tragic pathos to Aesopian fable. Daedalus had thrown his nephew from the Acropolis years before, because the child showed too much inventive talent.
As he was consigning his unfortunate son to the grave, a noisy partridge poked its head out from a muddy ditch, and, called, cackling joyfully, with whirring wings. It was the only one of its kind, not seen in previous years, and only recently made a bird, as a lasting reproach to you, Daedalus. Your sister, Perdix, oblivious to the fates, sent you her son, Talus, to be taught: twelve years old, his mind ready for knowledge. Indeed, the child, studying the spine of a fish, took it as a model, and cut continuous teeth out of sharp metal, inventing the use of the saw. He was also the first to pivot two iron arms on a pin, so that, with the arms at a set distance, one part could be fixed, and the other sweep out a circle. Daedalus was jealous, and hurled the boy headlong from Minerva’s sacred citadel, claiming that he had fallen. But Pallas Minerva, who favours those with quick minds, caught him, and turned him into the partridge, masking him with feathers in mid-air. His inborn energy was transferred to swift wings and feet, and he kept his mother’s name, Perdix, from before. But the bird does not perch above the ground, and does not make its nest on branches or on high points, but flies low on whirring wings over the soil, and lays its eggs in a sheltered place.
Daedalus, crafter of every kind of device to baffle and to overcome bafflement, here encounters an uncanny trick of fate, rooted in his past: When Talus showed Daedalus, his teacher, his brilliant ideas, the teacher threw him off a cliff. One must be careful around proud artists, and not try to "rise too high." Talus would have plunged to his death, not being a bird. But he's saved by Minerva, who favors ingeniis -- the clever -- and turns him into a bird who loves low places. It's this bird that applauds with baleful glee as Daedalus piles earth upon Icarus, the son whom he tried to warn not to fly too high, the pupil whose wings would have brought him safely home, had he listened.

With the geometric precision of a two-armed iron compass, a fatal sentence snaps shut. The applause of Perdix brings the orbit of Daedalus' fate back to its starting point. The exquisite comeuppance -- like those of Arachne and Niobe  -- is too perfect to be mere chance, yet Ovid never claims they are anything else.

Icaria, Samos

Ovid's tale limns a further fatal irony: Icarus falls into what becomes known as the Icarian sea. This sea is nowhere near either Athens, or Sicily, Daedalus's plausible destinations. Rather, the island of Icaria, close to Samos, was founded by people from Miletus, which sits at the mouth of the Maeander River. Daedalus's meandering escape from the cage of Crete has led him back almost full-circle to the Ur-model of his labyrinthine design.

Samos, Miletus, Maeander

Finally, an observation a comparatist cannot resist making. Some will recall the pathos-laden scene at the top of the mount in Dante's Purgatorio where the Christian poet turns back to ask his guide, Virgil, for help in coming to grips with the arrival of Beatrice and her astonishing entourage. He turns, but Virgil is not there:
Ma Virgilio n'avea lasciati scemi
di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre,
Virgilio a cui per mia salute die' mi; (Purg. XXX.49-51)
But Virgil had left us bereft,
Virgil, sweetest father,
Virgil to whom I had given myself for my safe deliverance. 
It's long been noted that the lines, thrice calling upon the beloved's name, potently echo Virgil's account of the death of Orpheus, but I'm not sure the Ovidian echo has been fully articulated. The allusion to the calls of Daedalus posits Dante as a new Icarus, turning back to see the "sweetest father" to whom he's entrusted his life. But that guide is not there. At this moment in Dante's journey, the pagan poet can offer no further direction. Dante and his poet-guide have reached the end of the labyrinth that began with Minos in the Inferno, but at this momentous threshold, when Dante is found (and named), Virgil is lost. He has no map to enable him to proceed further, because what is coming (from above) is an unnatural mode of radiance emanating from a scriptural source. Beatrice's arriving caravan is a living, moving, singing, dreaming, book.

In his passage, Dante echoes not just the ineluctable failure of pagan poetry (Orpheus) to overcome mortality. He also trumps Ovid's tale of the ironic fate of the greatest ancient artificer. In this moment, the poet who had been Icarus following Virgil's lead turns back and cries Virgilio!, echoing the paternal grief of Daedalus. The role reversal is complete. From the vantage of the classical world, Dante is the new Daedalus. In lamenting the fall of Virgil, the Commedia compounds and reverses the tragic ironies of its predecessors. Emerging from the labyrinth of the fallen world to Eden, Dante is both Daedalus and the new Icarus, poised to fly above his father, with new help, safely to a freedom beyond the sun.

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