Icarus has fallen and Mrs. Ramsay has died.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Credit: Wikimedia)

A recent BBC article touched on something that I’ve always had a deep connection to: the background details, information, contexts, of our lives. Without knowing where, or when, or under what peculiar circumstances an action is occurring, it cannot deliver the full impact of its message to us. Quite often, in learning a single seemingly insignificant detail regarding a subject with which one may already have a high degree of familiarity, one can be transported to a wholly other understanding.

Alfred Hitchcock (or more correctly one of his cinematographers, Irmin Roberts) shocked us with his visual revelation of this in the dolly zoom (or vertigo effect) he used in a number of his films. By pulling the camera back, away from the subject, and at the same time zooming in on the subject, thereby keeping its size relatively constant, the background seems to come out of hiding, and suddenly dominates the scene. It changes the entire texture of the moment, from an isolated activity, to a part of a puzzle; from the general to the specific.

In the picture above, thought to be a copy rather than the original of Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the background detail of a pair of legs disappearing into the sea, could be all but lost, as we admire the painting’s other qualities of scene, light, movement, activity. But that detail, the fact that it is occurring even as we look on, comes as a bit of a shock to our daily lives, thrusting us into the life of the picture itself.

We all know the story. Daedalus, inventor, fashions a pair of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape from Crete, where they have been imprisoned by King Minos (something about Theseus, and the Minotaur, but that’s beside the point). Daedalus cautions Icarus to fly “at a middle height.” Too low, and the sea water with soften the wings. Too high, and the sun will melt them. Ahh, impetuous youth. Icarus gets carried away with himself, flies too high, the wings melt, and he plummets into the sea, to his death.

And in the painting, this has just happened! Nobody knew it was going to happen. No one was prepared for it. They were just doing what they always do. The ploughman, plowing. The shepherd, shepherding. The angler, angling. Ahh, but there, Icarus falls! In an instant, an ordinary day has become extraordinary.

In her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf spends the entire first chapter of the book, by far the longest chapter, telling the story of the Ramsays, on a visit to their summer home in the Hebrides, mostly as it relates to Mrs. Ramsay. It’s a lovely story, exposing the details of peoples’ lives with the deft hand of a master.

The bridge between that visit and the next (in the world of the novel, at least), is a chapter of a mere 20 or so pages, titled, Time Passes. Within this already slender chapter, bracketed at the end of section III, almost as a footnote, is this:

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

That’s it. That’s how we learn that this woman whom we have gotten to know so well in the whole of everything we know about this family, has died, and we only learn of it, literally, in passing. The shock of reading that sentence in that way, in that part of the story, remains with me 40 years on, so far. An ordinary story of an ordinary family, became extraordinary in that moment.

All of these examples serve to reinforce the importance of what’s not talked about, what’s not planned, what’s not provided for, in determining our entire relationship with the things that actually happen in our daily existence. In today’s world, it could be argued that the background is often deliberately obscured by the current events made to swirl around in front of it, serving as a smokescreen, trying to keep us from noticing it. It is there, however, and it is an actor in the events transpiring center stage. Our ability to detect it, or not, may not in any way change the outcome of what actually happens in that particular moment. But in seeing it, in witnessing it, it may indeed have a profound impact on what happens for each of us, as we move off-screen, to enact our own next scenes.