• Andrew Melrose and Jen Webb

Intimacy is both a problem and a pleasure that has been a feature of narrative right across history. One very early example of intimacy and its discontents is the story of Daedalus and Icarus, remarkable not least for the way Icarus has become a trope, appearing in various guises in literary and visual art over the centuries since his early appearances in works by Ovid, Virgil, Apollodorus, Pausanias and Diodorus. The relationship between this artist father and his impressionable son is predicated on an intimacy that, like other intimacies, exploits the fragile relationship between self and other. Like so many such relationships, it ends badly, in a story that never reaches its end: Daedalus is always strapping the flawed wings onto his son, and kissing him for the last time; Icarus is always joyfully flying, and then falling.

A contemporary version of this story-with-no-(good)-end is, we suggest, to be found in various narratives that have emerged since the start of the so-called war on terror. We propose to tease out the tensions between several ephemeral points: between individuals, between ideologies, and between patterns of signification. Foucault writes of 'the buried kinships between things' that poetry can rediscover; Lacan and Levinas in their different ways write of the ethical problems involved in attempting to reconcile self and other, attempting to suture the space between while retaining the fantasy of a discrete, though intimately known, self. Following these concepts, we will test the extent to which creative expression can invoke the intimacy between world and word, or self and other.

Keywords: Intimacy – Icarus – myth – story

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

Those are the opening lines of one of Auden’s better-known poems, ‘Museé des beaux arts’ (1976: 179; first published 1938), an ekphrastic account of Breughel’s ‘Landscape with fall of Icarus’ (1558). These two works, separated by 400 years, are connected by a similar concern: to use a story out of mythology to illuminate something about contemporary life. Our paper engages with the same myth, and the same concern to think about the contemporary, and particularly to attempt to develop understandings of what Auden called the ‘human position’, which incorporates suffering, but includes more human connections, ethical relationships, and intimacy. Both Breughel and Auden seem to suggest that the Icarus story is marked by an absence of intimacy: each artist depicts a boy falling, alone and fundamentally unobserved, to a lonely death.

Taking a different view of the story, we choose to read it as an allegory of intimacy, and its pleasures and perils. The story of Icarus seems a reasonable point from which to examine such ideas, because there is an intimate quality to myth. Michel Foucault argues that literary writings are invested with distance, with neutrality—‘language getting as far away from itself as possible’ (1998: 149) and, in the process, crafting a ‘neutral space’ in which the narratorial ‘I’ can speak. Mythology, by contrast, is not neutral and not about the autonomous self, but about a collective voice. It crafts a space characterised by ‘us’ and thus is invested in intimate relationships.

The seemingly permanent resonance of the issues addressed in mythology—sexual and social politics, family relationships, poverty and wealth—means that though the origins of the stories may be untraceable, contemporary readers of ancient narratives can still find points of reference, and can engage closely, even intimately, with the themes and characters of those myths however distant the characters or events may be, however wide the temporal space between then and now, or the ontological space between reality and story.

This story, the story of Icarus and his father Daedalus, is one of the enduring tales in western culture, and it conveys something significant about the relationship between self and other that is at the core of social being: something we can understand as intimacy. The story itself is well known: Daedalus (which translates as ‘cunning artificer’), the greatest artist and architect of the ancient world, murderer of his nephew, fell out of favour with the king of Crete, Minos, who had given him refuge when he fled Athens. Daedalus was imprisoned with his son in the labyrinth he had himself designed and, longing to escape the island kingdom, he constructed wings for himself and his son, and they flew away towards the mainland. Icarus ignored his father’s instructions to hold the middle course and flew too close to the sun; the heat melted the wax that bound the wings, and Icarus fell to his death.

This story is found in the extant writings of Apollodorus, Diodorus, Pausanias, Diodorus, Virgil and others, but the best-known version is the one offered by Ovid who, in just a few lines in Book VIII of his Metamorphoses, brought his own perspective to it, and gave it enduring life. It has been told and retold since, across the ancient world, across cultures, time and text, appearing in stories dating back to 2BCE and earlier, and found also in 15th-century paintings, 18th-century morality tales, 20th-century poems, and 21st-century song lyrics. It has animated thought and art across these millennia, this remarkably generative myth, and in our reading of it, it is deeply concerned with intimacy. Icarus is bound to Daedalus in a particularly intimate relationship: that of father and son who live, apparently, alone together.1 Presumably Daedalus was what we would now call his primary caregiver, and certainly was his primary instructor. Ovid describes Icarus playing beside Daedalus, and in just a few lines he calls up the image of a child entirely at home in his father’s place of work. While his father crafted the wings, Icarus:

stood at his side, and, unaware
that he was touching his peril, the beaming boy
would try to catch feathers brown by the breeze,
or would knead the yellow wax with his thumb
and as he played generally get in the way
of his genius father at work. (Ovid trans Lombardo 2010: 212)

Though in all translations of this section it is evident that Icarus was in his father’s way,2 there is no indication in Ovid’s narration that Daedalus was irritated by this hindrance. Instead, he completes his task, teaches his son how to manage the wings, and then, ‘his face wet with tears … he kissed his son’ and launched them both into the air. Icarus, of course, did not follow his father’s instruction, but flew too close to the sun, to his doom: ‘Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea’, and Daedalus saw his worst fears realized as his son plummeted to his death. ‘The unlucky man, no longer father’ was left only to recover and bury Icarus’ body, and he ‘damned his art, his wretched cleverness’ (Ovid trans Gregory, 1958: 220-22).

In this short passage, Ovid crafts a vivid image of the relationship between father and son—the intimacy, the deep affection, and its heartrending end. But then he immediately casts doubt on Daedalus’ integrity, because no sooner does he recount the father’s burying of his son than in what, for film, would be a pull-focus moment, he introduces to the scene ‘a noisy partridge’, the incarnation of his murdered nephew Talus3 who appears, ‘cackling joyfully’ (in Gregory’s translation) and mocking the bereaved man’s grief. Now the story, and the mood, shift tack. No longer is Daedalus the brilliant inventor and tender father. Instead, we see him as small-minded, vicious and jealous, a man who murdered his own 12-year-old nephew because the boy had come up with marvelous inventions: the saw, the geometry compass. In a move that casts doubt on the father-son story that preceded this one of the uncle-nephew, Ovid relates the manner of the murder, writing that Daedalus ‘hurled the boy headlong from Minerva’s sacred citadel’ (Ovid trans Gregory: 220-22), the Acropolis, so that he would fall through the air to his death: a disturbing reminder of the manner of Icarus’ death.

So here we have two familial relationships and two similar deaths, each intimately associated with an act of Daedalus. In each case Daedalus was also connected to the boy—not only by family ties, but also by the bonds between teacher and student, master and apprentice. He worked alongside both boys, teaching them elements of his expert skill; and both boys were potentially skilful: Icarus, with his ‘brilliant face’, manipulating the wax, and Talus with his innovative approaches to the problems of geometry. But neither boy merits much attention from the writers of the ancient world,4 or merits a story of his own; each is mentioned only in passing, in the much more substantial tale of Daedalus.

Though in drawing attention to this uneven treatment of the characters we run the risk of falling into anachrony, we do not intend to laminate the present and the ancient worlds, or to suggest that there are immediate and direct parallels between the then and the now. Story is not history, and the pattern of stories unfolding over centuries does not follow a linear arc. But following TS Eliot (1920: 10-11), we suggest that all literature is contemporaneous: the ‘dead poets … assert their immortality’ in contemporary works, and contemporary works ‘readjust’ the great body of literature throughout the ages. What this means is that stories from the past are both available and relevant for contemporary analysis; and in appropriating them here and now, we necessarily change their character, if ever so slightly, while accepting that they and their ancient values and structures (ever so slightly) change us as well. We are appropriating the story of Icarus and Daedalus, as told by Ovid; and in doing so we necessarily rework it, while it in turn works on us, and our thinking. This particular story is rich in contemporary potential not only because of the plangent nature of the tale, but also because of its paucity, which leaves so much space for writers to enter the lacunae and attempt to fill them with a fresh way of seeing and being.

Michel Foucault suggests that minimal narratives are particularly productive of thought and, potentially, of insights that extend beyond their historical era. He writes about those ‘brief lives’, those people who enter the record only in the form of ‘a few lines or a few pages, nameless misfortunes and adventures, gathered together in a handful of words … chanced upon in books and documents’ (Foucault 1979: 76). Foucault’s brief lives were in fact ‘infamous lives’: lives that were put on record in the form of a few ‘terrible words’ in order to disgrace those who entered the story, in order to explain their incarceration. Just as these brief lives were of those who had run afoul of the law, so too does the fleeting story of Daedalus and, by association, Icarus put into history those who were incarcerated, those who had done wrong, those who—at least in the case of Daedalus—had become an infamous person. Such a person is one who has nothing to say, no place to fill; who has no body, no voice, no existence outside of a fleeting and pejorative record in the pages of some official manuscript. Such manuscripts resonate with the distress that one would expect from encountering these harrowing lives, but can also provoke a dream of intimacy, the desire a reader may experience of wanting to take on that brief life, the identity that is barely known: losing oneself, in order to find a sort of freedom—the freedom of another’s being/of being another (Deleuze 1995: 108). And it can be done because there is nothing left of these brief lives but a moment of story, a few comments. For Foucault ‘it is rarity and not prolixity that makes [their] reality equivalent to fiction’ (1979: 80)—a fiction that we, writers and readers later in history, can inhabit because in the fragmentary nature of their stories, Foucault again suggests, ‘An art of language is born whose task is no longer to sing of the improbable, but to make what doesn’t appear—what can’t or mustn’t appear—appear’. Because it has a ‘double relation to truth and power’ such a narrative, such an art of language, ‘sets itself up in a decision of non-truth: it explicitly puts itself forward as artifice, but while undertaking to produce its effects of truth’ (Foucault 1979: 90). The story of Icarus and Daedalus is likewise a few lines only, a handful of fragments mobilised to fill out a story about the relation of self to other, and to ‘make what doesn’t appear’—the violence of intimacy, its brutal capability, and the relationship between truth and power—‘appear’.

The tragic (and possibly criminal5) outcome of the relationship between Icarus and Daedalus draws attention to the problem of intimacy which is that, on the one hand, ‘we all’ yearn to connect with others, but on the other hand, such connection brings with it profound risks that we equally yearn to avoid. Several centuries ago, the Jansenist writer Pierre Nicole discussed the anxieties associated with intimacy. Once we have been intimate with another, he suggested, once we have known another’s private fears, their deep desires, we find ourselves bound to them and, ‘insensibly wrought into their passions, … we give ourselves up to their opinions’ (1828: 226). He wrote this around 1715, before the birth of psychoanalysis, but the logic he applied then continues to inform thought. We must connect with others—identity is, after all, relational and not individual. But connection introduces great loss—particularly, the loss of control over our own emotional lives that comes hand-in-hand with attachment (Mitchell 2003: 69). And yet any successful avoidance of attachment and hence of the threats that accompany intimacy must result in an even more terrible outcome, exemplified for Maurice Blanchot in Beckett’s The Unnameable: the utter emptiness, the pointlessness, of neutral, unattached being.6

This is a quandary that can perhaps never be resolved: the intimacy we want will cause us to lose ourselves; without it we are nothing and we have nothing. And it is a quandary magnified, Nicole and much contemporary psychoanalysis might say, by our dependence on love. We yearn to be loved, Nicole wrote, and to be connected with others, and for him this is ‘the strongest trace that sin has left on our souls’ (cited Dewald 1993: 123).7 Well, Nicole was a 17th-century theologian, so it is not surprising that he associated such longing with sin, or that this longing provoked anxiety, tension. Replace ‘sin’ with ‘subjectivity’ and we are getting close to contemporary thought, which wrestles with a similar problem in that the post-Enlightenment individual yearns to be self-actualising, constituted as a discrete and autonomous subject, and yet is simultaneously searching for connection, and is utterly dependent on intersubjectivity. In becoming a subject, we necessarily acquire the phantasy that an ‘I’ exists, with discrete edges, with intrinsic difference from everyone and everything else; and yet we constantly run up against evidences that we are not much more than fragments in a larger story. Relationships of intimacy make this particularly evident:8 being-with (an)other inevitably incorporates loss of autonomy and the necessary modulation of the self: ‘I’ must be changed, in any ex-change, must give away some of my self to the one to whom I connect, because ‘the other person is someone who always already has a claim on me’ (Cohen 1989: 39).

Let us return to the story of Daedalus, Icarus and Talus. Both boys were in an intimate relationship with the man: relationships not only of family ties, but also professional relationships manifested through his role as their teacher. Talus was being trained in craftsmanship and the production of new technologies. Icarus was being trained in performance—teaching the earthbound body to become a body capable of flight. And both were radically transformed by this professional intimacy: to the point of reductio ad absurdum. Talus was transformed from apprentice to partridge, Icarus from child to trope, and both were transformed from life to death. There is a long history of men transforming boys from life to death, usually in the process of teaching them (something) in the context of an intimate relationship. Indeed, one of the enduring characteristics of both military and terrorist organisations is of an older man crafting and shaping and training younger men, who are characterised by a longing for meaning and identity: to make what will almost certainly be a brief life achieve more than a fragment in the long record of history.9

Does the story of Daedalus and his boys contain within it elements that might be identified with the story of contemporary terror and wars on terror? Possibly. The traditional reading of Icarus’ story is that it is a moral tale (Talus is not typically part of the discussion). It is usually couched as a warning to obey the authorities, not to overreach oneself. Icarus, the perceived wisdom goes, was a foolish boy because he failed to heed his father’s wise advice being, as Ovid said, ‘much taken by the pleasure of his wings’ (Ovid trans Melville 1986: 172). Indeed, he takes so much pleasure in his wings that they become the object of his downfall, and the story of Icarus (in its many retellings) is a tale of folly; the folly of the boy who didn’t listen to his father’s advice; advice gleaned from long experience. So the lesson is as much about not getting above yourself as it is a warning against reckless behaviour.

Yet this is troubling. The story tells us that Daedalus was the survivor who witnessed his own son falling into the sea. But a very real question remains; was Daedalus a credible narrator of the event that led to the death of Icarus? Daedalus, the known murderer of Talus, creator of the laberinthe hic minotaurus, the great conjurer who gifted flight to Icarus only to put a restriction on it; can we believe his testimony? Certainly he wept as he bound the wings onto his son, but his tears were not necessarily those of an anxious father for a beloved child; they could as easily have been tears of anticipatory guilt, knowing he was sending his son to certain death. In one (more recent) version of the death of Icarus, Daedalus cries: ‘Ah! wretched Youth … / Thou’rt now a dire Example made, / Of those who with ungovern’d Heat / Aspire to be supremely great’ (Chudleigh 1748: 566). These are hardly the words of a grieving father. Indeed, given that Icarus had flown higher than his father ever would, and thus—like his cousin Talus—had outstripped him in knowledge and skill, it is easy to suggest that Daedalus may have murdered again because he refused to be overshadowed. In flying so high, Icarus had surpassed the experience of his father, and shifted the terms of power that are inherent in all relationships of intimacy.

Though the poem that seems to condemn Daedalus was written nearly two millennia after the original versions of the story, it draws on and expands that narrative, and willy-nilly draws attention to the dubious nature of the man’s relationship to the boys in his care. Daedalus is not an honest broker; not only does his name (Δαίδαλος) mean ‘cunning worker’, but he himself is implicated in a number of shady deals. Think, for example, of his dealings with King Minos, who provided him sanctuary against the sentence of death imposed on him after he murdered Talus. The writers recount his implication in the adultery of Pasiphaë, queen of Crete and wife of King Minos; whether her lust was actually for a bull, or the bull was cover for another passion is not clear, but certainly Minos blamed Daedalus for his cuckolding. Years later he cheated Minos again, when Theseus, the son of Minos’ enemy, arrived at Crete as one of the regular sacrifices to the Minotaur. Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, fell in love with Theseus and Daedalus showed her how to save him and, incidentally, ensured the slaughter of her brother the Minotaur, broke the power of Crete over Athens, and anticipated the collapse of the kingdom. And later again, after Daedalus’ escape from Crete, Minos hunted him across the Adriatic, finally cornering him in Sicily, where King Cocalus had given him refuge. Minos demanded that Daedalus be handed over to him, but was himself murdered—by Cocalus, according to some, by Cocalus’ daughters, impressed as they were by Daedalus—according to others. Whoever did the deed, Daedalus was no innocent bystander in the death of Minos, and in many other deaths: he is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of his nephew Talus (murder), his sister Perdix (suicide), the Minotaur (trickery), Ariadne (various options, all associated with her flight from Crete with Theseus), Icarus (wing failure) and Minos (suffocated in a bath). One has to wonder too about the fate of his wife, Naucrate. All these people were in relations of intimacy with him; all died as a direct result of, or association with, his art/artifice and his ability to convince others of the validity of his vision.

Under contemporary law, Daedalus is most certainly a criminal. He assiduously worked against the instituted authority in each of the city-states to which he owed allegiance, and followed his own interests and desires rather than those of his employers or his community. In doing so, he brought about a series of damaging, sometimes disastrous events. Goethe writes, ‘Coming events cast their shadows before’, and we suggest that this story can be read as a shadow of what has come recently into history. Think, for example, of what we saw in New York on the day now called simply 9/11, when 19 young men, persuaded and moulded and trained by older men, launched themselves and nearly 3,000 others into the air, and into history. For all its horrible consequence, the attack on the World Trade Centre had a rare macabre impact, which, because of the media used to record and reproduce it, forced it into contemporary sensibility, and changed the inner life of the culture being targeted. Walter Benjamin’s notion of Dialektic im Stillstand—dialectics at a standstill—is a way of attempting to make sense of what happened on that day, and continued to happen in the years that followed. Benjamin writes, in the Arcades Project, that it is art that ‘prefigures’ the arresting of thought and action, and then the massive shift in thought and practice that is effected by the collision of ‘dialectical oppositions’ and the images to which this gives birth.10 In such a catastrophe, historical time becomes encapsulated so that time is no longer past but, rather, coagulated in the imagistic configuration of the now, and in the immediacy of the actual event as it unfolds. In the case of the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York, the mediated representation of the event, the reiterations of such mediations, and the differing but always fragmentary perspectives offered from professional and amateur camera operators, both arrested time, and brought the event and its analysis to us, as it were, in ellipses. Like Foucault’s ‘Infamous men’, the 19 terrorists and the nearly 3,000 victims are known to (most of) us only through brief mentions in official records, their ‘nameless misfortunes and adventures, gathered together in a handful of words’; and in consequence their (real, true) stories have become more fiction than history. Our imaginations, shaped as they are by the twin impulses to connect and to detach, fill in the gaps.

The Icarus narrative too is one whose bigger story lies in the ellipses, lurks in the unsaid, and loiters in the silences as hypothetical postulates that exist in and around the story itself; in and around the story of the other and otherness. Stories in images, metaphors and symbols which shoulder this load because, as Delueze and Guattari write:

It is here that concepts, sensations and functions become indecidable, at the same time as philosophy, art, and science become indiscernible, as if they shared the same shadow that extends itself across their different nature and constantly accompanies them. (Deleuze and Guattari 1996: 218)

In cutting through this idea, Benjamin uses the single word Erfahrung, or ‘the wholly unique experience’ (Benjamin 1999: 838), to come to mean the waking from a dream. It is a combined idea of ‘lived through’ and ‘narratable’ experience through which we understand history and ‘penetrate’ the past, interrogating rather than accommodating its truths. In this sense, an Icarus-like narrative can be read as a fable whose bigger job as ‘story’ is revealed to us in almost all cultural fields to articulate positions, to criticise societal contradictions and disparities and, working metaphorically, to tease out the complex relationship of time and history. TS Eliot (1944: 13) opened ‘Burnt Norton’ in his Four quartets with such an idea when he wrote:

Time present and past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past …

As Jacques Derrida has written, the ‘future, this beyond, is not another time, a day after history. It is present at the heart of experience. Present not as a total presence but as a trace ’ (Derrida 1978: 95). And this could be rephrased as ‘the future story’: an as-yet unread, unheard narrative, which is not situated in another time, a day after history, but is present at the heart of experience. Present not as a total presence but as a trace. The intimacies of such temporal and ontological connections, working in ancient and retold stories, can shed light on present contexts as they absorb the past and open up to the future. This is very much the point made by Milan Kundera who introduces us to what he has called ‘the grammatical future of nostalgia’ (Kundera 2009: 106-7); it is this thought-provoking concept of opening up the future with prior knowledge and experience that offers a way in to contemporary appropriations of the Icarus story. Kundera explores this concept when referring to the poem, ‘November symphony’ by Oscar Milosz, in which an uncanny narrative twist reveals nostalgia being expressed grammatically by the future, rather than by the past:

You will be all in pale violet, beautiful grief
And the flowers of your hat will be sad and small
(Milosz 1984)

As Kundera explains, the grammatical form projects a lamented past into a distant future, ‘that transforms the melancholy evocation of a thing that no longer exists into the heartbreaking sorrow of a promise that can never be realized’. This brings to mind an evocation of Walter Benjamin’s thorough reading of another winged subject, Paul Klee’s Angelus novus, where he proposes that historical progress is a cruel illusion. He writes:

Klee’s drawing named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin 1992: 249)

There is a clear link between this story of the Angel of History, and the story of Icarus and Daedalus. The terrible destruction of the present/future, the impossibility of achieving an ethical, a satisfying life through ‘progress’ is mirrored in the terrible event of Icarus’ premature death, the result of ‘progress’ (invention), an event that has perhaps been, in a small way, an instance of dialectics at a standstill (because it is a story that we have not been able to resolve, over the past 2000 years). Like Benjamin’s/Klee’s angel, Ovid’s Icarus is a nostalgic account of unrealised promise, of wasted life, wasted time; of the failure to connect.

But surely there can be a dialectical reproach to the Benjaminian reading where the unsaid and unwritten words that lurk in the margins of Icarus’ short life reveal not only the intimacy of secrecy and the unsaid but also the anticipated and the yet to come. In the face of Benjamin’s pessimism, we feel that the Icarus story, in the projected intimacy it encourages, provides an optimism that intimacy may continue, may be achieved, in the story yet to come and the experience yet to be gained. In this it departs markedly from Kundera’s ‘grammatical future of nostalgia’ that brings ‘heartbreaking sorrow’. Icarus is flying from intimacy and delight into astonishment and surprise; though his story ends in tragedy (the perils of intimacy), it incorporates delight—in his relationship with his father, in the pleasures of craftsmanship, and in the launching of himself into the great adventure of flight. We suggest that the Icarus story, though it resonates with Benjamin’s angel as he backs away from the catastrophe of the past, and with Kundera’s perceived ‘heartbreaking sorrow’ in anticipated nostalgia, does something else, something more: in this story, intimacy and the anticipation of intimacy prevail, and for many artists, time is arrested as they look back to this story, and forward to its potential, while re-appropriating it in the present.

Althusser wrote extensively on time and its complexities, and argued that:

we cannot restrict ourselves to reflecting the existence of the visible and measureable times … we must, of absolute necessity, pose the question of the mode of existence of invisible times, of the invisible rhythms and punctuations concealed beneath the surface of each visible time. (Althusser and Balibar 1997: 100-1)

Philosophy of course examines the invisible concealed within the visible, but so too does narrative. Intimacy, astonishment and surprise chime the visible and invisible rhythms and punctuations of the story narrative that is life; and in making such connections we can ride a winged story into the future, rather than being pinned to the past as is Benjamin’s bleak angel, trapped by a ‘storm [which] irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned…’ (Benjamin 1992: 249). It is in this idea then, that we can see Icarus as a phoenix-like figure, forever flying and falling and flying and falling and rising again, intimate as a lover.

It is not surprising, then, that over the past two millennia artists and writers have been moved to fill the gaps in the story of Icarus, and to tell and retell it in line with contemporary axiology and epistemology. Such intercessions can work as devices that allow us to articulate Foucault’s insistence that anyone’s life can be a work of art. But art is created only with effort, and with a conscious decision to intervene in the present. This involves several epistemological acknowledgements. One is to confirm that we are indeed dependent upon intimacy, and that it is incumbent upon us all to nurture such relationships. This is at the heart of the African philosophy of the self, ubuntu, the ideal that can be loosely translated as, ‘a person is only a person in relation to others’. It is also at the heart of the communicative mode known as parrhesia: free speech, or openness; the speech that is about intimacy, honesty and truth. Intimacy is about communication with the other, and parrhesia is a form of intimacy that requires courage because there is risk involved in it: the risk of offending those to whom we are attached, the risk of hurting those we love, or those who love us, the risk of damaging our own reputation (Foucault 2001: 15-16).

What is necessary, it seems, is to set aside the fear of this risk. Certainly there was danger, betrayal and loss for all the protagonists of the story of Icarus, but there was also elation, illumination, sexual and emotional delight, and the raw vitality of being a person in relation to other people, to art and to ideas. ‘Life,’ wrote Freud, ‘is impoverished, it loses interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked’ (Freud 1915: 290). Icarus suggests that we attempt to intervene anyway, regardless of the danger, because as Adam Phillips (1995: 53) writes, ‘Fear is a state of mind in which the object of knowledge is the future, but it is, of course, a knowledge that can only be derived from the past’.


1Icarus’ mother Naucrate is barely mentioned in the literature: named only briefly in Apollodorus’ version, she is otherwise invisible.

2Ovid’s phrase reads: ‘lusuque tuo mirabile patris / impediebat opus’, page 285 from Edition 4, printed for B. Law, London, in 1797 (text held at the University of Lausanne).

3Also known as Talos, Calos, or by what some of the ancients say was his mother’s and some his father’s name, Perdix (Pausanias names the mother Polycaste, and records that she committed suicide after the death of her son at the hands of her brother).

4Apollodorus mentions Icarus in two paragraphs only (Apollodorus 1921 [c2nd Century CE) The Library (trans Sir James George Frazer), Loeb Classical Library Volumes 121 & 122, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann; Epitome 1.12 and 1.13), and says only that he and Daedalus were imprisoned in the labyrinth, that Daedalus built wings for their escape, and that Icarus perished in the sea. In the Aeneid, Virgil describes the grief of Daedalus, so profound that he was unable to craft a statue of his son Icarus: he tried on two separate occasions, but on each occasion ‘the father’s hands failed’ (Virgil 2005 [c30-19BCE] Aeneid (trans Stanley Lombardo), Hackett Publishing; Book VI: lines 37-40). Pausanias tells it differently, leaving out the wings and the flight; in his version, the two escaped Crete by sea, and Icarus overturned his boat and drowned because he was ‘unskilled in the art of piloting the ship’ (Pausanais 1824 [c2CE] The description of Greece Volume 3 (trans Thomas Taylor), London: Priestley and Weale, 22). Diodorus has a bet each way, suggesting that the likelihood was that Daedalus and Icarus left Crete by sea, but that ‘certain writers of myths’ had Daedalus crafting the wings, and Icarus—‘because of the ignorance of youth’—falling to his death: ‘even though the myth is a tale of marvel,’ he writes, ‘we none the less have thought it best not to leave it unmentioned’ (Diodorus Siculus 1935 [c1BCE], Library of History (trans CH Oldfather), Loeb Classical Library Volumes 303, 340, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann: 4.77.5 – 4.77.9). Talus receives even less attention. Diodorus gives him three paragraphs in the larger story of Daedalus (4.76.4 – 4.76.6); Ovid allows the paragraph mentioned above; Hyginus mentions him in passing in his Fabulae (Hyginus 1960[c1CE] The Myths of Hyginus (trans Mary Grant), University of Kansas Publications in Humanistic Studies, no. 34, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press: 39). Each of these classical era authors includes the story only in a few lines, providing only a fleeting reference to what was clearly a well-known story. Each presents a slightly different perspective of the relationships that shaped the lives of the two: Apollodorus names Icarus’ mother; Diodorus mentions that Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos, intervened to protect Icarus and Daedalus (either by providing the boat, or by hiding them while Daedalus crafted the wings); Pausanias brings Heracles into the picture, stating that the hero found and buried the body of Icarus.

5Did he fall or, like Talus, was he pushed?

6‘experience lived under the threat of the impersonal, the approach of a neutral speech that speaks itself alone, that goes through the one who hears it, that is without intimacy, excludes any intimacy, one that cannot be silenced, for it is the incessant, the interminable’ (Blanchot 2003: 213).

7‘Since the passion of love is the strongest trace that sin has left on our souls, there is nothing more dangerous than to excite it, nourish it, and destroy what holds it in check … Now, nothing serves this purpose better than the horror of love that custom and a good education establish; and nothing more diminishes that horror than theater and novels, for that passion appears there with honor, in ways that, far from making it seem horrible, make it lovable. It appears there without shame or infamy; the characters boast of being touched by it … It does not justify novels and comedies, to say that only legitimate passions appear there, passions that end in marriage. For even though marriage turns sinful desire to good use, desire in itself is always bad and uncontrolled … Representations of legitimate and of sinful loves have almost the same effect and excite the same feelings … Indeed, portrayal of love covered by this veil of honor is the more dangerous, for the observer watches less warily.’ (Nicole, Pierre [c1671] Oeuvres philosophiques et morales: 438–39).

8This is Lévinas’ point when he writes, ‘My problem consists in inquiring into how to reconcile what I call the infinite ethical requirement of the face that meets me, dissimulated by its appearance, and the appearance of the other as an individual and as an object.’ Lévinas, Emmanuel 2006 Entre nous: thinking-of-the-other (trans Michael Bradley Smith, Barbara Harshav), Continuum International Publishing Group: 177.

9The myth of Achilles explores this longing: he chose an early death and enduring fame, over a long but inglorious life. The desire for simultaneous connection and individuation is also demonstrated in the literature, both research and biography. A somewhat pathologising official definition of terrorists identifies them as possessed of contradictory yearnings: ‘the desire for depersonalisation’ and ‘the desire for intimacy’ (Thackrah 2004: 208); the many autobiographies of military lives suggest a similar desire for intimacy, to be one of a band of brothers, while also being able to keep one’s own counsel.

10‘dialectics at a standstill—this is the quintessence of the method’, writes Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project (Benjamin 1999: 865). ‘Dialectics at a standstill’ refers to many of the ideas Walter Benjamin traced in the Passengen Werk or Arcades Project. See The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1991) where Susan Buck-Morss offers an inventive reconstruction of the Passagen Werk, or Arcades Project, as it might have taken form, arguing that Benjamin's magnum opus was a book he did not live to write. Much can be made of Theodor Adorno and the whole Frankfurt School’s ideas in relation to this idea. But, as The Arcades Project editor, Rolf Tiedemann, maintains, there is a noteworthy drift away from the traditional Marxian conception of historical materialism and dialectic in Benjamin’s work. After many years of organising the various snippets of dialogue, image and discourse that constitute the Passagen-Werk, Tiedemann arrived at the conclusion that the whole project involves the state of ‘dialectics at a standstill’.


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