The Myth of Icarus and the Limits of Imagination

 

et ignotas animum dimittit in artes

—Ovid, Metamorphoses

In Crete when the world was young, Daedalus, weary of his long years of exile, decides to escape and return to his homeland. He takes his son Icarus with him in his plan to flee, and crafts with his skilful hands wings made of feathers and wax. Before they take flight, he warns Icarus not to fly too low lest the waves weigh down his wings nor too high lest the sun scorch them. But Icarus, ecstatic with his new-found freedom, forgets his father’s words of warning and, drunk with glory, soars even higher into the sky. The sun melts the fragrant wax and Icarus, wingless now, is swept into the blue sea. Yes: Icarus dies.

But there is a part of me that would like to believe that just as his father defied King Minos by escaping from his island, so, too, did Icarus defy history, defy the fates, by living through that ordeal. I imagine him struggling to reach the shore, his weak arms flailing wet, his face convoluted with both pain and the determination to survive. Then a fisherman’s wife would chance to pass by and seeing his drenched body lying in the shore, would rescue him and give him shelter for the night. I’d like to believe this version of things because I’d like to believe that the people who had the courage to say ‘no’ are not always doomed from the start, or that those who dream too high or build castles in the air are not always destined to fail.

But simple minds could easily transform this myth into a cautionary tale against having too strong a will or too high a dream. This unfortunate interpretation transcends cultures, too: in our own there is the tale of the young moth who dies by getting too close to the fire of a gas-lamp; the Chinese have Kuafu who wanted to chase the sun; the Jews, the tower of Babel—tales which are almost always used to preach the morality of mediocrity and warn against the danger of aiming for the impossible. It takes wisdom to distinguish the difficult from the impossible and it takes courage—a lot of courage—not to shy away from the task of accomplishing what is only difficult.

I challenge this morality which sees in Icarus’s flight nothing but a careless, mindless act of rebellion, or in the moth’s curiosity nothing but the stupidity of youth. These very characteristics which simple minds misinterpret and condemn are the substance of imagination, and cautioning against it would be cautioning against imagination itself. In their minds imagination is so dangerous they would rather have no imagination at all.

Yet there is a reason why the ancients wrote the story of Icarus as it stands, why they decided the sun should melt his wings and that he should fall into the sea: die. And that reason was not to caution us against living our lives to the fullest. For though the ancients adhered to moderation as their only moral guide (the idea of the Golden Mean permeates in the works of Aristotle, foreshadowing the Buddha’s middle way centuries later) they who were filled with an enterprising spirit unknown to us in the present to conquer their young world would never for a moment have thought of using the tale of Icarus to warn us from having farfetched dreams, and thus set a limit to what we can do and what we can imagine.

To live too cautiously is to cheat yourself of life. Those who live too cautious a life mostly do so because they are afraid to fail. But failure is inevitable. Living with your eyes watching your every step instead of letting them wander at the world around you would be refusing to live an authentic life, opting instead for an artifice of cares, of dos and don’ts, of falsehoods, of everything but life. And that is the only failure we must fear.

What would have happened if Icarus had refused to join his father’s escape from Crete? He would have lived, most likely, instead of drowning helplessly in the sea. But would anyone remember him? If he had refused to take the wings his father gave him, I imagine him years later, an old man now walking at twilight in the shore of Crete, his tired eyes haunted by the doubt over his decision then, thinking what it is he has lost, something infinite, something he will never recover.■

This work originally appeared in The Executives.

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