Fallen to Earth

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along...

-- From “Musée des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden

Recently I heard Scott Simon on NPR's Weekend Edition commenting on how trick-or-treaters had been out in force on Halloween in the same New York City neighborhood where a terrorist in a truck had mowed down pedestrians on a bike path only hours earlier. As it happened, my 10-year-old granddaughter, dressed as some sort of voodoo child, had been out trick-or-treating herself only a few miles away. Simon cited Auden's poem about suffering, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which notes that the world keeps going about its business, regardless of the disasters that befall it.

Auden’s poem makes mention of a painting once attributed to Bruegel called "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” that hung in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels. I googled the painting, which appears at first glance to have nothing to do with the hapless Icarus, the mythological figure who fell to earth after flying too close to the sun with his waxen wings. The painting looks down on a body of water from some height. A farmer plows his field in the foreground, and beyond him a shepherd tends to his flock. Far below them is a bay with a large wooden ship heading out to sea, its sails billowing in the wind. I scanned the sky looking for Icarus, who was nowhere to be seen -- but wait, there was a tiny pair of legs thrashing in the water in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, with no one paying the least bit of attention. And so a mythic figure meets his ignominious end, his heroic feat unremarked by anyone.

Eight people died in that Halloween terrorist attack on a bike path in New York, six of them tourists from abroad. For the Belgian mother and for the five Argentine classmates celebrating their 30th reunion, the events of that day could not have been more consequential. The same was true of the two local victims. But for the rest of New York, the attack was barely more than a day’s headline as they went about their business. For local trick-or-treaters like my granddaughter, their memories of that Halloween will be of the costumes and candy, not the carnage on the pedestrian walkway nearby. And that perhaps is as it should be.

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