Monday, June 19, 2006

Musee des Beaux Arts

Musee des Beaux Arts
by W.H. Auden

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;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's "Icarus," for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; 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.

At a writing conference, a poet explained the history of this poem---that it ironically portrayed Auden's fears for the world with the rise of the Nazis and the infighting Communists in the late 1930's. Then the poet showed a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel's painting, "The Fall of Icarus."

And I thought, yes, that's likely all true, but I was irritated he didn't mention the obvious. The poem perfectly portrays the nature of suffering. How many times has something hard happened to a friend--a death, a disease--and we send a card or send up some prayers--but are secretly grateful we've been spared. And we go on our doggy way. And I'm not saying that's wrong. You can't worry about every person and every issue at all times. That would be too much weight to carry.

But something changes when it is you touched by disease. You see it in the celebrity world all the time. A sport's star's daughter needs a bone marrow transplant, and, because he has been personally, desperately affected by the issue-- of the need for donors to the bone marrow registry--he appears, a sudden activist, on television and in magazines.

I was the same way. A few months before I was diagnosed with cancer, I read Gilda Radner's autobiography, and I thought, "Well, that's sad." But I felt her story far more keenly when I found I had the same monster in my own body. Dehumanizing and rehumanizing me.

Best, Jumbliegirl


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