07: The triumphant fall.

- July 31, 2016 -

The opening line of “Failing and Flying,” a poem by Jack Gilbert, gives me chills: “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”

Indeed, how quickly we forget.

In the Greek myth, Icarus’ father constructs a pair of wings for him so that he might escape the dangers of the labyrinth. These wings were a remarkable invention, to be sure, but there was one caveat: because the wings were made from feathers and wax, they were far from indestructible.

His father warns him not to fly too low, but he also warns him not to fly too high. Icarus, then, must fly somewhere in the middle, between these two extremes, if he is to succeed.

Ultimately, Icarus does succeed in escaping from the labyrinth, but he then goes a step further. He becomes so exhilarated by this new sensation of flying, so eager to explore its bounds, that he starts to fly a bit higher.

Eventually, he flies so high that, as he nears the sun, his waxen wings begin to melt. And without his wings, of course, he can no longer fly. So he falls.

The vast majority of the time, the story ends there. And I think that, because it fits the dreamed-too-big narrative to which our society is so often eager to subscribe, we are content to have it end there. “Ah, yes,” we’ll hear it said. “The too-confident dreamer overstepped their bounds and fell from grace. I’m not surprised.”

I don’t know about you, but that is a narrative to which I choose not to subscribe.

In the last lines of the poem, Gilbert suggests an alternative interpretation of the Icarus myth which is much more in-line with how I believe we should approach success: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,” he writes, “but just coming to the end of his triumph.”


– J


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