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An Important Failure

By January 29, 2014 No Comments

During this long, cold month of January, I’ve spent my time teaching—with my lovely friend and very talented colleague, Jane Zwart—an interim class entitled “Faith and Fiction: Stories That Preach.”  Over three weeks, we’ve examined novels and films, poems and short stories to find out how literature might give us, in the words of Henry Zylstra, “more to be Christian with.”  We had some fine discussions—and the next time my turn comes up here on The Twelve, Jane will be writing about some of the ways our students found to do just that.

The best reading of literature, I believe, has to involve not just intellectual understanding and aesthetic appreciation, but a cultivation of certain habits of heart and mind.  I opened our class, then, by talking about a painting by Bruegel, projected on the screen at the front of the room.

In the painting’s foreground, a man and his horse are plowing a field; in the middle section, a man is tending sheep; along the shore, a man crouches as ships are sailing along; in the background are mountains and a city. All in all, a bustle of human activity, everyone absorbed in the business of living.

Except the painting has one more element: if you look very carefully in the bottom right-hand corner—near the shepherd on land and largest of the sailing ships at sea—you will see a pair of legs upended out of the sea. But when I asked students what they saw in the picture, none of my students initially spotted this pair of legs—why should they, with so much else going on in the painting?

And yet, the painting is entitled “Fall of Icarus.” You probably remember the story of Icarus: he and his father, Daedalus, escape from their imprisonment by making wings out of feathers and wax. Although Icarus is warned to not fly too close to the sun, lest it melt his wings, he becomes so excited by the feeling of flying that he rises higher and higher until, of course, his wings melt, he falls, and he is drowned in the sea.

In Bruegel’s representation, however, this dramatic and tragic story makes no impact on the witnesses, because none of them seem to notice that it is happening—or even worse, if they do notice, they don’t act on what they see. You would think that seeing a boy with wings falling from the sky might generate some reaction, but Bruegel’s people are all looking somewhere else, caught up in their own practicalities.

One possible way of reading this painting is through using the lens of literature. There’s a long tradition in English of poems that comment on other forms of art, called ekphrastic poetry. In his ekphrastic poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W. H. Auden reflects on the people’s lack of reaction in the painting, observing:

….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.

In a way, this painting—especially when refracted through the lens of Auden’s poem—reminds me a little bit of the story of the good Samaritan, where the first two men that pass by the wounded man are not moved by the “important failure” that they see. Their busyness blinds them, and they don’t act as their faith would have them. 

We can relate: we are all busy, we all have “somewhere to get to,” and so, boys drown all around us, metaphorically, every day.

One thing we wanted our students to grasp is this: not only does literature show us the great need of the world and remind us of our responsibility to pay attention, but literature also calls us to respond to the world’s needs and to live out our part in God’s story of redemption. My hope for my students—and for all of us People of the Book—is that they/we are never people who merely witnesses “something amazing” and then “sails calmly on” in the face of calamity.

May the literature that we read make us ever more attuned to the stories of brokenness and blessing all around us.


Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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