Saturday, September 26, 2015
"And, burned because I beauty loved/ I shall not know the highest bliss,/ And give my name to the abyss/ Which waits to claim me as its own." Charles Baudelaire
"Do you remember that statue of Icarus that used to be at the Departure Gate of Melbourne Airport?" a friend asked me recently. "You know the one, you couldn't miss it. We would always stand around it. It's not there anymore. What do you think happened to it?"
I remember the Melburnian Icarus well, for he was the personification of my childhood longing for a land in which I felt I belonged, even though I had never stepped foot in it. In those days, travelling to Greece was an event of significant and the entire extended family would turn out tearfully to bid their loved ones goodbye. Congregating around the statue of Icarus, they would make cryptic comments about «αποδημητικά πουλιά,» (migratory birds) returning home, before reaching into their bags and springing last minute presents to be passed on to relatives, upon the only partially unsuspecting travelers.
For my part, as an infant, I would circumambulate the statue of Icarus in dolorous fashion, wallowing in my own misery. Not only would I lose the company of my cousins for the next three months, but of all my cousins, I was the only one that had never been to Greece, and the prospects of my visiting the mythical land of my ancestors any time soon, where Greek sailors perched upon the rigging of brightly painted but decidedly rickety vessels, liable to break out in spontaneous song at any moment, were, according to my parents, inordinately dim.
Looking up at the strong arms of Icarus, gazing rapturously up towards the ceiling and holding what looked like an elongated pair of Inuit snow-shoes rather than wings, I would variously imagine that a) I could climb onto his back and ask him to fly me to Greece himself, or that b) if they were not wings but rather (more plausibly) paddles, I could compel him to paddle me to Greece Arion and the dolphin style. This in my opinion, would most poetically symbolize the Greek migration story: arriving here via sea, returning there by air. Failing that, Icarus' wings/paddles could always be used to scoop up luggage from a distance, from the rotating luggage conveyor belt at Arrivals.
At some stage after this I was introduced to Greek mythology and began to appreciate the wisdom of the airport authorities choosing to afford pride of place in the Departure Lounge, a statue of the first ever pilot in human history. What seemed paradoxical however, was the fact that he happened to also be the first ever air crash victim in human history. Was this in fact a giant legal disclaimer? Was it connected to the renaming of the Hellenic Air Force Academy as the "Icarus School" and was this wise given the propensity of Greek fighter jets to fall out of the sky? Mentioning this to an aged aunt who was about to fly to the motherland, I received a clip on the ear as she spat at her breasts three times and crossed herself. «Σκάσε γρουσόυζικο,» she muttered as she tried to zip up her handbag over an electric blender, cursing me and telling me that she would hold me personally responsible should her aeroplane actually crash.
Being of neo-hellenic extraction and thus having absolutely no understanding of hubris as a concept, in my early teens, I could not understand the purpose of Icarus. Why celebrate a victim of his father's design flaws? Why were we told at school to bend and stretch and reach for the stars, if flying too far towards the sun would bring about our certain demise? Would not Perseus, with his winged booties that evolved over time to become Reebok Wings, have been more suitable? Would not Pegasus, an ungulate mammal capable of airborne locomotion have been more fitting? After all, it was his rider Bellerophon's hubris after killing the Chimera, not Pegasus' that caused him to attempt to fly to Mount Olympus. Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus, causing Bellerophon to fall all the way back to Earth, whereupon Pegasus successfully completed the flight to Olympus where Zeus used him as a pack horse for his thunderbolts, thus becoming the first ever aeroplane and fighter jet, all neatly combined into one.
Nonetheless, the statue of Icarus became synonymous in my consciousness both with departure and also of being grounded, given my inability to go to Greece. This is because I observed that although Icarus seemed to take off for the heavens, the base of his statue, a remnant of the labyrinth in which he was imprisoned, was contriving to capture his legs and keep them firmly fixed upon the ground, causing me to identify with him completely and, at a later date upon learning that Icarus is an extremely important piece of Australian art, sculpted in 1971 by acclaimed artist, John Stuart Dowie, assistant to Australia's official war sculptor, Lyndon Dadswell and one of the Rats of Tobruk, to appreciate the artists' immense genius at such a subtle interpretation of the Icarus myth, especially so, considering that the very name Icarus means "follower," Dowie ensuring that his creation would prevent itself from doing anything of the sort.
There are many would-be Icaroi in world mythology but none approach Icarus for sheer patheticity. Jatayu, the Hindu demi-god was saved by his brother when flying to close to the sun and while his brother lost his wings, he got off unscathed. Etana, the Babylonian king was taken up to the heaven of the god Anu by an eagle, but unlike the brave and foolhardy Icarus, he became afraid while in the air and was returned safely to the ground. It is only when we get to the necromancer British King Bladud, who through his art of divination through raising the spirits of the dead, constructed wings for himself and to have tried to fly to the temple of Apollo in Trinovantum (London) only to die when he hit a wall, that we get anywhere near Icarus and even then, Icarus is far more sympathetic. He is the victim of the gravity that in its multifarious forms, afflicts us all.
Upon attaining the age of fifteen, I finally managed to get to Greece by means of a winter program. Though I remember glancing at the stylized wings on the Departure Gate, I gave Icarus not even a sideways glance, having at last been, at least in my own opinion, emancipated from my enforced solidarity with him. Somewhere within the ten journeys to Greece that I have undertaken since that time, the statue of Icarus was imperceptibly removed from Melbourne Airport and he remained unmissed and invisible to me until prompted recently by my friend's enquiry.
It transpires that John Dowie's Icarus is now housed in the Langwarrin Gallery and Sculpture Park. No longer enclosed within a terminal, Icarus is now free to gaze at the sun he so lusted after, his feet still firmly restrained by his pedestal, for Occupational Health and Safety reasons of course. These days, as life and its ancillary obligations have conspired to keep me from becoming airborne for an insufferably long time, I find myself once more identifying with and missing Melburnian Icarus terribly. One of these days, I will make the pilgrimage to Langwarrin and instead of reciting to him, Oscar Wilde-style: "Never regret thy fall,/O Icarus of the fearless flight/ For the greatest tragedy of them all /Is never to feel the burning light," I will pay homage to an old and dear friend by way of pouring him a libation, from an aluminum can of Red Bull, of course.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 September 2015