To Icarus the Unsung

Spare a thought for Icarus too.

Think of what he must have gone through — he was just a boy — his wings of wax melted, the sea rushing up from below as he hurtled down from the sky, bereft of the air’s buoyancy.

The fabled high-flier from Greek mythology had flown too close to the sun in a moment of foolhardy daring that an older man, his father, master craftsman Daedalus, had counselled against.

The future, with its retrospective wisdom, has been somewhat unkind to Icarus. Now, aeons after his impatient ascent became forever associated with excessive ambition and hubris, maybe, maybe, it’s time for a fresh assessment; more so when the world is about to celebrate next month one hundred years of another audacious flight.

Back then too, on June 14, 1919, two young men were getting impatient. The Great War was over, at least on paper; the guns had fallen silent in the sullen trenches of the Western Front and the time had come to test new limits. It was afternoon and ahead on the route lay the vast expanse of the Atlantic.

So impatient were John Alcock and Arthur Brown that while their competitors checked and rechecked their flights, the two — both former British military pilots — got into the cockpit and took off, for what would be the world’s first non-stop transatlantic flight.

Alcock, 26, and Brown, 32, were on their way. At stake was a place in history and a £10,000 prize on offer from the Daily Mail of London for the first to cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane. The condition was contestants had to take off from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and land in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 consecutive hours.

Human passion for flying had taken a long, big — and eventually triumphant — leap since the Wright Brothers, Americans Orville and Wilbur, tested their rudimentary machine a decade back.

It was a difficult takeoff for Alcock and Brown. The Vickers Vimy bumped on rough ground as it gathered speed before its wheels lifted and the modified World War I bomber lumbered into the air, barely clearing the treetops ahead.

Wikipedia gives an account of how tough it was. The wind-driven electrical generator failed; an exhaust pipe burst shortly afterwards; they had to fly blind through thick fog, and twice the aircraft nearly hit the sea.

Next morning, on June 15, they crash-landed in a bog in County Galway, Ireland, not far from their intended landing place, after about sixteen hours of flying time. Neither Alcock nor Brown was hurt. The two had flown 3,040km at an average speed of 185kmph.

“Yesterday I was in America, and I am the first man in Europe to say that,” Alcock had reportedly said after the flight. Forgivable exuberance after such triumph of human dare.

Many centuries ago a Carthaginian general called Hannibal Barca too had dared when he took his bellowing war elephants across the mountains in a failed bid to humble Rome. If it was the Alps in 218 BC, it was the Atlantic in June 1919.

In six months, Alcock was dead, killed in a flying accident in December that year.

In less than eight years, another young man, Charles Lindbergh, would overtake Alcock’s and Brown’s record when he flew — solo — from New York to Paris, covering the 33-and-a-half-hour, 5,800km flight in his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Time does not stop for moments of individual triumph or tragedy.

The Old Masters, as W.H. Auden would say in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts, understood it very well.

In Breughels Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster…” Auden would write in 1938 of the painting.

“…the sun shone/ As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/ Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Even the boy’s father had continued with his flight, his grief-burdened wings carrying him on to Sicily and to literary immortality as James Joyce’s fictional hero Stephen Dedalus.

The son remained in the pages of mythology a symbol of artistic revolt and self-destructive ambition.

Maybe, it’s time for a fresh look. Someone has to raise the bar of defiance for others to draw the line.

4 thoughts on “To Icarus the Unsung

  1. This is a rare voice, literary and erudite, yet without a trace of humbug. This is a fine piece of prose to be savoured at a time when noise and gimmicks are the order of the day.


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