The [Extra]Ordinary Phenomenon: Auden’s “Musee Des Beaux Arts”
by Crystal Hurd
My morning commute involves driving past the local hospital. On any given day, I will glance at the towering structure and drive blithely on (usually in a rush). Yet, it has occurred to me that while I am preoccupied with a mental inventory of daily tasks and muttering about slow drivers, there are people at that hospital who could only wish they were having an ordinary day. An ill man may be laying in his bed, eyes vacant and body broken, exhaling his sacred last breath. Or perhaps, on another floor, a new mother gasps as the refreshing cry of her newborn crescendos in the delivery room.
The juxtaposition here is what I wish to illuminate. The hurried lady driving down the interstate chomping on a granola bar compared to a monumental moment for a stranger in a nearby hospital. The ordinary and the extraordinary. This very juxtaposition is what W.H. Auden discussed when writing “Musee Des Beaux Arts”. It reads:
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.
Auden packs a strong message into these two stanzas. The first stanza is simply a reflection on how human suffering often takes place amid a flurry of mundane activities. There are children who do not want to welcome a new baby into the world. Dogs continue with their doggy lives (which if they are anything like my dogs means eating, sleeping, and barking at innocent neighbors). The torturer is terrorizing his victim, while the torturer’s horse is relieving an itch on his backside.
In the second stanza, Auden shifts to a description of Pieter Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In it, a pair of legs flails helplessly in the sea as a plowman is busy with his fields, a shepherd is daydreaming, a man is fishing, and a ship passes carelessly by. In fact, the painting depicts the fall as a background occurrence, illustrating how other people’s daily tasks and schedules usurp unfortunate events in the lives of others. No one pays attention to the young man who has just fallen out of the sky. Auden writes that people “turn away/Quite leisurely from the disaster”; they are absorbed in their own issues.
Have you ever experienced what Icarus experienced? I’m not referring to the “auditioning” of wax wings, but rather a moment when you were distressed and looked around to find people preoccupied with their daily tasks. I remember once having an argument while being a passenger in a car (my opponent was the driver). I was emotionally drained and on the verge of crying. We passed another vehicle whose operator drove pleasantly along. I remember thinking, “Boy I wish I could switch places with that guy and be out of this mess.” But then the thought occurred to me that he may have had a fight with someone yesterday (when I was blissfully unaware) and has now resolved the issue.
As Auden states, this is the essence of suffering. It is not an isolated event; rather it occurs simultaneously with other seemingly ordinary experiences. Icarus may be drowning, but the plowman is moving steadily along, thinking about his upcoming dinner or the gift he wishes to purchase for his wife’s birthday. Auden claims that Breughel captures an important juxtaposition. It is a comparison not of showing which is more important, but rather how suffering occurs in our universe – in concert with other boring episodes. Here a painting mingles the dull and the interesting, the significant and the insignificant. Insignificance is far more prominent in the artwork (four figures as opposed to one) as well as in life. Most people are busy carrying out their daily business. What makes a thing extraordinary is that it is not frequent; it doesn’t happen every day. How often does a young man fall from the sky? Not often (never, we hope!), but there is still work to be done. Collective pause is a luxury; some would even argue it impossible.
So every morning I carry on with my work. I drive by the hospital and sometimes whisper a prayer for those who are suffering that day, but also that today will be an ordinary day for me. In truth, there are times where I have visited that very same hospital under a burden of worry for a sick family member. Memories remain of trying times, incidents where I was submerged in the ocean of my own suffering, where my “white legs disappear[ed] into the green sea”. Today, though, is not that day. Those distressing experiences give me a renewed appreciation for normalcy, where I can push my plow quietly along, watch tranquilly while the sheep graze, or enjoy drifting as my sails catch wind.