The Man Who Fell To Earth #3

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The painting of Icarus (Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Peter Bruegel the Elder) figures prominently in the novel, and prefigures the later events of the book. Did you interpret the discussion of the painting as such while reading? Did you misinterpret it? Did you mis the importance at the time? How well did this work for you?

Comments

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    edited October 10

    I didn't get a great deal from the painting, beyond the initial reading of Newton contemplating how he could never go back to his ideal home: he was the fallen Icarus. I think that means that I missed the importance of the discussion.

    But one other thing related to "Fall": I think the novel wants to tell us something about civilisation and decadence, and how the lack of physical labour in a modern society leads to problems and hence eventually nuclear annihilation. There were quite a few references to people not working 40+ hour weeks. Was that just a contemporary concern, or is it a wider theme?

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    It made me wonder, if Newton is Icarus (and he surely is) then who is Daedalus? That's an area that gets explored a little more in the recent streamed series, but not so much (I think) here in the original novel. And - perhaps pushing the analogy too far - what was the sun towards which Icarus approached too closely? Surely not booze, which if anything is the ocean in which he drowns... but then what? So I guess for me it was a striking piece of imagery but not one which I felt resonated on every level.

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    I think broadly Newton was someone who reached for something too far and then crashed and burned. With the first mention of Icarus, I sensed this is where the novel would go. I’m not sure it matters too much if there’s a sun or not. Perhaps the sun is humanity - he came to appreciate people too much, and called off his plan.

    Also, the story wouldn’t really work if there was a deadalus. It’s better if nobody succeeds, right?
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    Then the question is, was Newton Icarus, or was the Anthean society the overambitious Icarus and Newton was the "wings" (the part that was overstressed and failed)?

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    I think that for the book the point of the painting is that people don't care for exceptions because engrossed in everyday activities and concerns, but if you don't look at the picture you won't get that. I thought the book deepened my thinking about the painting.

    There's a reference to Newton reading Auden in a car. Here's is Auden's take on the painting from 1938:

    Title: Musée des Beaux Arts

    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.

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    I think that for the book the point of the painting is that people don't care for exceptions because engrossed in everyday activities and concerns, but if you don't look at the picture you won't get that. I thought the book deepened my thinking about the painting.

    There's a reference to Newton reading Auden in a car. Here's is Auden's take on the painting from 1938:
    [snip]
    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.

    That's really helpful, thanks. So if I'm reading this right, it's not really Icarus who is in focus, but the widespread disinterest in Icarus. Rather sobering, really... for him it was not an important failure

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    Barner - that is exactly what I think is so compelling about the Bruegel painting - how life didn't even break stride for the boy falling from the sky. No one cared. It didn't touch them. That is the reality. It's all too big to care. Too many things relatively more important. That is the tragedy.

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    I think that Auden's poem was composed in 1938 is also relevant to the theme of impending catastrophic failure in the novel. There is perhaps a critique of the the importance of technological advance in alleviating human misery that Tevis wanted to foreground also.

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    All this brings us back to another theme we have touched on already, namely what the novel is about on a metaphorical level. It's easy with today's eyes to see it as an ecological crisis story, with the central disaster of Icarus being ignored as everyone goes about business as usual. But Tevis is (I think) writing too early to have that in mind.

    I do think he was writing about the related problem of resource shortage - Anthea is running desperately short of water, and it's emphasised several times how our planet is following the same trajectory. So though (as @Apocryphal said, I think) there is no hint of pollution as an issue (nor global warming, nor climate change in general), scarcity is very much in the foreground, ultimately leading to insufficient time and goodwill to finish the rescue rocket programme.
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    A good insight about the Icarus painting. The theme of general uninterest in Newton's origins comes through the book.

    @RichardAbbott said:
    I do think he was writing about the related problem of resource shortage - Anthea is running desperately short of water, and it's emphasised several times how our planet is following the same trajectory. So though (as @Apocryphal said, I think) there is no hint of pollution as an issue (nor global warming, nor climate change in general), scarcity is very much in the foreground, ultimately leading to insufficient time and goodwill to finish the rescue rocket programme.

    Connected to this, I think, is the motif of increased leisure and lack of worthwhile work. The world is falling apart, resources are being used up, but a lot of people are sitting around and doing nothing. Is there an idea of self-centredness, a lack of general awareness and wisdom?

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    Very interesting discussion, and I would not have picked up on much of this were it not for you guys. Knowing, now, what the painting depicts, the themes become so much more intriguing.

    So, on it's surface, we have Newton, an alien who literally fell to earth to little acclaim/effect. I suppose the obvious path of inspiration is that Tevis sees Breugel's painting, then wonders "What if an alien fell to earth and nobody noticed?" Contemporaneous with the anti-war slogan: "Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came" (though I think the novel was too early to have been inspired by the slogan).

    The environmental link seems possible - Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962 - a year before The Man Who Fell to Earth.

    From Wikipedia:

    James Sallis declared that The Man Who Fell to Earth was "among the finest science fiction novels," saying "Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of the Fifties and of the Cold War. Beneath that as an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written."

    Newton is an Alien who fell to earth. Named after a scientist who famously theorized gravity after watching apples fall to earth. The apple represents a fall from grace. The alien, Newton, falls from grace as well. He flies too close to 'humanity' and, as a result, goes blind and fails in his mission. Just like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to earth. And meanwhile - life goes on, because nobody really cares. This lack of caring foreshadows Humanity's own potential fall due to environmental neglect.

    Is that about it? It's rather intricate, but quite compelling.

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    @Apocryphal said:
    Is that about it? It's rather intricate, but quite compelling.

    I'm sold :)

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    What an amazing discussion!

    I read this when the movie came out in 1976, although I didn’t see the movie until four years later. I turned 14 the year I read it, and, while I did not have the philosophical or psychological depth to fully appreciate the themes of alienation, existentialism, and nihilism, I was already beginning to personally experience them to a small degree. I was a really smart kid and teen in a small pond with no real intellectual peers. At the age of 13 or 14, I hadn’t yet begun to experience the “distracting” effects of alcohol, but, by the time I saw the movie in my first semester of college, I had already had several disturbing bouts with alcohol abuse, culminating in alcohol poisoning that very semester. Even though I had found intellectual peers and superiors there, I had grown up in poverty and my classmates had largely attended prep schools. I was alienated at home because of my intellect and at college because of the cultural gulf. I drank to fit in, and I drank to excess because I knew I didn’t. I really identified with Newton, both in print and on screen. (By the way, the alcohol poisoning scared me so badly that it was was the last time I ever abused alcohol; my maladaptive behaviors became more chronic than acute.)

    On this side of seminary and grad school (interdisciplinary humanities), I contemplate the painting in question. Bruegel often depicted peasants at work, ignoring the activities of the nobility. They may have had to serve at the dinner parties, but the things that were important to the nobility were completely absent in their own lives. There was no alienation in the life of Bruegel’s peasants. Between their life and that of the nobility, there was a huge gulf, but they did not long for what the nobility had. Their joys and griefs were from their own world, not that of the nobility. So, when Icarus crashes, they notice it and go about their lives. It makes not one whit of difference in their lives.

    Does it matter that, since the publication of this book, critical consensus is that the painting is not authentically Bruegel’s, although it may be based on a lost Bruegel composition?

    (By the way, finding communities of fellow science-fiction-reading geeks on electronic bulletin boards and later the internet did a lot to dispel the existential pain of my youth.)

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    @WildCard said:
    (By the way, finding communities of fellow science-fiction-reading geeks on electronic bulletin boards and later the internet did a lot to dispel the existential pain of my youth.)

    I'm leaning a lot about our members this week, beyond what Wildcard tells us, Clash is a hopeless extrovert. Richard, seemingly not, and Barner has grandkids!

    More of less on a whim, I created a Discord chatroom a few weeks ago called The Agora, and I'd like to invite any club members who wish to join. It's not meant to replace the book club at all, though I'm sure there will be some book discussions - it's more of a general chat room intended to capture some of the fun experience we had on G+, or (for those who have been around long enough) the old Roludo board.

    Many gamers are already on Discord, so for some of you it might be an easy add. If you're not already on discord, I suppose there's no point joining just for this. One nice thing about Discord is we could do the occasional live chat, which we've never done before, even on G+, that I can recall.

    Here's the time-limited link: https://discord.gg/KawYkVSc

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    @WildCard said:
    What an amazing discussion!

    [snip]

    Does it matter that, since the publication of this book, critical consensus is that the painting is not authentically Bruegel’s, although it may be based on a lost Bruegel composition?

    I agree, this discussion has been very stimulating, not least because of your own addition. I don't think - for the purposes of this novel, at least - that the authenticity of the painting matters. Being perhaps more radical, I don't think it would matter if the artist were unknown, as it's the theme and the attitudes conveyed that are the key. (I'm sure it does matter to art historians, but that's another story).

    (By the way, finding communities of fellow science-fiction-reading geeks on electronic bulletin boards and later the internet did a lot to dispel the existential pain of my youth.)

    Yes, I can identify with that as well.

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    @Apocryphal said:
    More of less on a whim, I created a Discord chatroom a few weeks ago called The Agora, and I'd like to invite any club members who wish to join. It's not meant to replace the book club at all, though I'm sure there will be some book discussions - it's more of a general chat room intended to capture some of the fun experience we had on G+, or (for those who have been around long enough) the old Roludo board.

    Many gamers are already on Discord, so for some of you it might be an easy add. If you're not already on discord, I suppose there's no point joining just for this. One nice thing about Discord is we could do the occasional live chat, which we've never done before, even on G+, that I can recall.

    Here's the time-limited link: https://discord.gg/KawYkVSc

    From first impressions it seems easy and fun nattering with others though I'm sure I'm not really getting the proper purpose of it - currently it feels a bit like Twitter of (dare I say it) FB, though without the nastiness one encounters so often there. Is it, in its original sense, an actual gaming arena or simply a kind of hang-out space to meet like-minded people?

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    A hang-out space for like-minded people, where interests can be shared. There are already good communities for gaming, and this won’t compete with them. We have this forum for the book club. But this fills the gap on the things I miss about G+.

    Yes, you might already get that from FB or Twitter, but I’m not on either, so I need a different outlet. And Discord already has a lot of people like me on it, for whom it’s easy to simply add another server and join - so it seemed a natural fit. We’ll see how it goes. I’m feeling good about the first weekend.
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    Seems great to me - I very rapidly drop any participation in FB when time presses, and have long since stopped using Twitter for anything discursive. But this looks at first sight like a Good Thing and so thanks for setting it up.
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    edited October 23

    I game on Discord twice a week - once in text and once via voice. I also game over IRC and face to face.

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    (And he games while he sleeps, too, his wife once told me)
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    @Apocryphal said:
    (And he games while he sleeps, too, his wife once told me)

    Sleep? Sleep is for weaklings! :D

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    @Apocryphal said:

    >

    Here's the time-limited link: https://discord.gg/KawYkVSc

    Unfortunately I did not make it during the time limit.

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