Monday, September 10, 2007


For those unfamiliar, please recall Icarus, son of Daedalus, who flew too close to the sun and, as the wax securing his feathered wings melted, plunged into the sea below. Icarus' legs can be seen in the lower right of the painting, just before the waters close over him forever.

Musee des Beaux Arts

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.
--W.H. Auden

I have been thinking quite a bit about the recent deaths in my area of operations, deaths which, in some ways, have affected more than some that should have been closer (e.g., the death of my father). But my father, as I knew him, died ten years before the shell of his body gave out.

The men struck down recently were, well, other versions of me, that is, they belonged to my age/education/goals/position/outlook cohort. And they are gone. Could have been me; indeed, might be me.

As I was leaving the wake for one of the passed fellows, I was wondering where Death was that night; had he seen me? Had the bullet that was to end my life been cast? Was it now in someone's box of ammo, just, well, waiting? Was the part that was to fail in the plane in which I would be flying into the ground already on a warehouse shelf? Had my bout with pneumonia ten years ago gone about calcifying my aorta yet? Was the cancer already there?

Is it really that Les Jeux Sont Faits (A 1947 Sartre novel in which Pierre and Eve were predestined to be soulmates, but their premature deaths delay their meeting until their passing into the afterlife where, despite being allowed a second chance, they remain powerless to escape, avoid, or otherwise change the consequences of their choices in life and they die once again, unfilled)? I do not think so.

The first instance of the irrepeatability (a term which somehow better conveys the concept better than the more grammatical "unrepeatable") of action had to do with a supercomputer being forced to reproduce a weather system. Despite all factors being the same, some minute variable was off, eventually leading to an entirely different weather system (Sorry for the vagueness here, I forget the reference: I was in high school when it happened, although I believe it was at MIT). The point is that dynamic interactions (and their outcomes) are not always predictable and, more importantly, not always the same. That is, if you could go back in time, time very likely would not repeat itself.

My point? Even if I could find the bullet with my name on it, I could not stop the (real) bullet with my name on it. Or, said differently, although we have greater influence over our destinies than Sartre believed, we likely have far, far less than we, as individuals, generally believe.

"Live for today" does not work because the mortgage still comes due, the children still get hungry or need their faces washed. The catbox needs cleaning.

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