Watching All Our Falling Icaruses

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J. A. 2008. Iowa City Press-Citizen (September 3): 14A.

A few days ago I went walking with Vidal. Vidal is a very handsome 10-year old yellow Lab who used to guide his former owner, Stephen Kuusisto, through the world. Mr. V is retired now, living with his new owners, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped paying attention. He follows his nose better than anyone I know. Alas, following his nose sometimes gets Vidal into trouble: he’ll eat anything. Yes, I mean anything.

For our walk Vidal and I went on a neighborly tour of North Side alleys. He and I meandered down the one between Davenport and Fairchild, checking out garage sales and sniffing the bushes. Just about the time we came to North Market Square Park, where a string quartet from the Preucil School of Music was performing at a fundraiser, Vidal let out one of his daunting “Woof, woofs.” Maybe I’m letting my overly-active imagination get the best of me, but it was as if he had just heard the forsaken cry of Icarus falling from the sky.

Who is Icarus? As some of you already know, he’s the mythical figure who famously flew too close to the sun, then fell to his death as his wings melted from the heat. But Icarus also figures prominently in “Musee des Beaux Arts,” a brilliant 1938 poem by W. H. Auden that was inspired by Auden’s viewing of Peter Breughel’s 16th Century painting, “The Fall of Icarus.” In both the painting and poem, people calmly go on with their lives, oblivious to the suffering of the falling figure.

If we pay attention, we will see Icaruses falling around us all the time. From time to time, unavoidably, we might even become Icarus ourselves. After all, as Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, inside of our “wash’d and trimm’d faces” one can often find “a secret silent loathing and despair.”

The specific Icarus I have in mind was a professor of political science at the University of Iowa who, apparently overcome by shame, recently killed himself in the thickets of Hickory Hill Park. While not knowing him very well, I thought of him as a friend and I admired his best work. And so I mourn for this fallen Icarus. But much more, I grieve for all those who were closest to him and whose lives have been changed by the melting of his wings.

When one Icarus falls, all of us are changed.

Which brings me back to Vidal and our walk on the North Side. As we spoke with neighbors met along the way, I could feel the effects of this Icarus’ fall resonating in the tenor of our voices, if not in the words we actually spoke.

So it is with powerful emotions such as joy, anger, love, fear, and hope. They circulate around town through the stories that we tell, affecting us all. As these emotionally-resonant stories circulate, they help construct an “economy of spirit” that is at least as important as the economy of our pocketbooks. It is this economy of spirit that is so important, that must be sustained, and which is perpetually at risk of being brought down by the melting of wings.

The way those stories circulate is influenced by the physical design of the neighborhood and city in which we live. That the North side neighborhood is constructed of sidewalks, front porches, houses set back not too far from the street, neighborhood parks, and alleys facilitates face-to-face interaction and—within limits—enables the diverse users of the place to continuously co-construct a shared story of who we are.

But it would be a mistake to think that built form determines the stories we can tell; rather stories and the physical design co-construct one another. Imagine, for example, the thicket we would build for ourselves if we designed the North Side out of stories rooted in anger and/or fear: walls here, a gate or two there, and armed sentries posted everywhere. Alternatively, imagine the kind of city that would emerge out of hope and joy: space to dance and sing, a place to learn and grow.

Vidal hasn’t told me which kind of city he would prefer, but if he could say more than “woof, woof” I know that he would choose a city of hope over a city of fear. So would I. How about you?

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