Icarus

Above my bookshelf, in my room, on white wall, hangs a copy of a copy of a copy… of Hokusai’s seminal yet clichéd painting, The Great Wave. I had bought the piece because I have always felt a strange draw to this image. The wave, a massive monster anthropomorphized into a sinister demon with a thousand vicious hands. Mt. Fuji in the background rendered minuscule by this strange trick of perspective, or by the feeling of helplessness of man lost at sea. It took me a while after buying this piece and having it on my wall, this symphony of horror staring at me in the safety of my home day after week after month, to see what this strange draw was.

The message is clear of course – Nature is big, Man is small. There are fishermen on three boats bracing for impact with the Giant. The image captures well the dread of the moment before calamity. The eddies rock the boats. The men bow to their new master, death epitomized in water, as if kneeling in prayer or unconditional surrender.

For much of my life, I have been what you would call a Techno-optimist – that eery breed of humans who believe that making tools, trinkets and widgets will solve all our problems. Reading about the discoveries of science and working to master technology has been my catharsis, my solace in a world ruled by chaos. I remember watching, as a child, a National Geographic special on cloud seeding. Man, with his toys, soaring over the clouds and forcing them to rain prematurely. The act seems outrageous, almost blasphemous, a violation of Mother Nature. I didn’t see it that way. To me it was a dance of victory . A flex of a muscle directed at our oldest foe. Nature has tried to kill us for millennia and we seem to have finally triumphed. And who doesn’t feel this at times in our hyper connected world. With every task made frictionless, all distance, across land, mountains, and sea, across time itself, shrunk to the span of a tiny glowing rectangle I hold in my palm. One almost wants to reach up and draw a submarine around the fishermen, or draw a surfer on the top of this pale imitation of fury, thumbing his nose at nature’s hubris.

Yet, in the times of a Global respiratory pandemic, mankind rendered helpless once again by nature’s fury, my strange draw to this painting beckons me again. An Image I recently saw of a row of refrigerated trucks in a Manhattan parking lot, being used as makeshift morgues to contain the uncountable dead, seems to me to provoke a similar pang of horror. This is New York! The city that never seeps! Its The Mecca of urban exceptionalism, The utopia of techno-optimistic dreams! The Big Apple – laid low by an army of Nature’s most minuscule henchmen. This is the image of Icarus, tumbling form the sky, his wings aflame, his vision upturned.

The medical examiner’s office set up a makeshift morgue on East 30th Street in Manhattan. Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

He will not stay fallen forever. He will not lay supine on the ground for too long. Of that I am sure. He will get up, dust himself off and get to constructing better wings. But perhaps he will hang a totem of his failure above his workbench. Perhaps he will meditate on the tentacles towering above the mountain, above the boats, above the fishermen. Perhaps he will learn to practice humility.

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