By Sofia Galli.
Evaluating the Myth of Daedalus and Icarus through Irvin D. Yalom’s Staring at the Sun
In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a dexterous artisan who embodied the concept of acumen and power. Daedalus was father to Icarus and had created the intricate Labyrinth of Knossos for King Minos, in Crete, which served to retain the Minotaur, the monstrous son of Minos’ wife with head and tail of a bull, and body of a man. According to one of the versions of the myth, every nine years, seven boys and seven girls from Athens, the city that Minos had defeated, were entombed in the maze to be devoured by the Minotaur. The Athenian citizen Theseus volunteered to be part of the group that was sent to the labyrinth with the aim of killing the Minotaur. Once he reached Crete, Arianna, Minos’ daughter, fell in love with him and decided to contact Daedalus to receive information on how to help Theseus not to get lost in the intricate network of paths. In response, Daedalus suggested unraveling a thread throughout the labyrinth to keep track of the route. Thanks to this procedure, Theseus eventually killed the Minotaur and found his way out. Freed from the anguish of losing one another, Arianna and the hero Theseus ran away together. Upon finding out that Daedalus had helped Arianna and Theseus, Minos imprisoned the architect in his own labyrinth, together with his son Icarus. Although Daedalus was the inventor of the maze, he knew that it was nearly impossible to escape it. However, thanks to his intellect and willpower, Daedalus fabricated two sets of wings with feathers and wax that he was able to gather in the labyrinth as a means to escape. Before they set free, he admonished Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, as the heat would have melted the wax, but Icarus could not help thinking that he had to reach those alluring sunrays and, gradually, he started to fly towards the sun. As anticipated by Daedalus, the wax welding the wings ultimately unglued, so that Icarus fell in the sea, where he died.
Irvin D. Yalom is a psychotherapist, a professor, an expert in thanatology, and a cancer survivor. In his book Staring at the Sun, Yalom explores the dynamics at the base of death anxiety. To fear death is an omnipresent, human predisposition. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to constantly think about death:
It’s like trying to stare the sun in the face: you can stand only so much of it. Because we cannot live frozen in fear, we generate methods to soften death’s terror. We project ourselves into the future through our children; we grow rich, famous, ever larger; we develop compulsive protective rituals; or we embrace an impregnable belief in an ultimate rescuer. (2008: 5)
Therefore, we are required to find an often insecure equilibrium between living life without being aware of death at all times and living life whilst remembering that we will eventually die. The stresses and worries coming from the latter (un)balance manifest themselves in a plethora of ways. Yalom proposes many illustrations and asserts that some people can find it petrifying to realise how enormous eternity is; others fear the impossibility of knowing for sure where we go after we die, while others cannot cope with the idea of having their whole reality vanish.
So, what did Icarus fear? Is there a correlation between his behaviour and death anxiety?
Everyone knows, out of experience, that it is impossible to stare at the sun for a protracted amount of time. Your eyes start to water; they fill with tears. Nonetheless, despite the consequences, each of us episodically ends up staring at the sun. Staring at the sun is not pleasurable, but it seems to be unavoidable. In a way, Icarus feared the labyrinth. From the labyrinth he was trapped in, he could not enjoy the sun but only stare at it. When Icarus was given wings to escape the labyrinth, together with the information not to fly too close to the sun, he was blinded from that same sun that he defencelessly stared at whilst he was held on the ground.
In the deadly labyrinth, all he dreamed of was freedom. Once given the instrument to escape, he finally had the chance to conquer true delight. He sought happiness in peril. He sought ecstasy in vulnerability. It may seem paradoxical, but Icarus is the perfect representation of the eternal concomitance of Eros and Thanatos. In Greek mythology, Eros is the god of love, and he frequently symbolises the drive towards life, whereas Thanatos is the god of death. They thus personify two opposing, yet intrinsically parallel, principles. Life and death are synchronised concepts, even if they do not necessarily emerge as such. Sigmund Freud argued that Eros and Thanatos are inherent to all humans: we strive for preservation, but we have a built-in drive towards self-destruction. We love and we hate, we preserve and we destroy. It is within us – no matter how much we refrain our urges and adapt to the written and unwritten norms we are socialised within. Modernity is based upon the pre-eminence of medicine and science, which endeavour to cure illnesses and decelerate ageing. To put it another way, modernity praises progress and rejects decay. Therefore, in a secular world that refuses deterioration, death is hidden from us; it is segregated. Consequently, the absence of a contemporary script around death makes it increasingly intimidating.
However, it is sometimes scarier to merely exist, rather than live.
According to Yalom, “everyone is destined to experience both the exhilaration of life and the fear of mortality”. Hence, we oscillate between the elation that leads us to stare at the sun and the recognition of the impossibility to look at it for more than a moment. Icarus ultimately embraced his alacrity to reach the sun. For him, staring for a fleeting instant was not sufficient, so he relinquished a long, ordinary life characterised by occasional stares at the sun for a total, complete enchantment that resulted in his own death. He feared mortality from the labyrinth but did not do so from the sky. In Greek épos, the heros does not escape death but acknowledges it as a means to triumph, and though Icarus does not possess the classic characteristics of a Homeric hero, he accepts vulnerability as a means to accomplish his willingness: get closer to the sun. Certainly, it is rather conceivable to believe that his actions are the product of a rather childish stubbornness, and, in the end, it is a matter of personal interpretation. However, it is essential to acknowledge that Icarus chose how to live and chose how to die. He knew the risk, and whether he decided to ignore his father’s words because of naivety, or well-rounded consciousness, Icarus made his choice. Icarus had a choice. Yalom states that “major decisions often have deep roots. Every choice involves a relinquishment, and each relinquishment makes us aware of limitations and temporality”. Therefore, Icarus gave survival up for a maximised, yet short experience of animation.
The fact that Icarus had a choice leads to another crucial question: should we be entitled to control our own death? Due to still engrained religious dogmas, all practices associated to suicide, such as assisted suicide and euthanasia, remain stigmatised. Life is the most precious gift that has ever been given to us, so the idea of resigning from it is unbearable. Icarus was not accustomed to contemporary Western understandings of death and the dying. The geopolitical context was profoundly different, and this needs to be taken into account. At the same time, his tale offers significant points of reflection that still find functional applications today. Different suicides have different roots and different labels. This paper’s interpretation of Icarus’ tale allows for a comparison with the contemporary refusal of aggressive treatments as a means to live the last moments of life as fully as possible. Speaking of patients facing death from cancer, Yalom asserts:They communicated more deeply with those they loved, and appreciated more keenly the elemental facts of life – the changing seasons, the beauty of nature, the last Christmas or New Year. Many reported a diminishment of their fears of other people, a greater willingness to take risks, and less concern about rejection. One of my patients commented drolly that “cancer cures psychoneuroses”; another said to me, “What a pity I had to wait till now, till my body was riddled with cancer, to learn how to live!” (2008: 34)
From a labyrinth, which in this case can be associated to a metaphor for cancer, the affected individual has the ability to escape through the realisation that the beauty of life is not proportionate to its length but to its intensity. Yalom, a survivor of cancer himself, cites the admiration of nature and the disposition to take risks as two common outcomes of terminal cancer. From an allegorical point of view, Icarus escaped a psychological and/or physical labyrinth and subsequently combined his enhanced aspiration to reach the sun with the readiness to take an enormous risk. He appreciated nature: light, sunrays, heat. He took a risk that resulted in his own death. Nonetheless, Icarus chose to live much more than he chose to die. Death is inherently inscribed in life, but life is not inherently inscribed in death. Fear is a component of the equation; yet, it is not the finalised formula. The myth of Icarus, as analysed through Yalom’s Staring at the Sun, can prompt thoughts concerning contemporary attitudes towards death. Icarus’ pursuit of the sun can elicit a plethora of consequent considerations. In death resides not only fear but also recognition of the beauty surrounding us. Death can be a choice because choosing how to die is an act of living. The last act of living. Therefore, in spite of the undeniable truth by which death spawns an array of fears and anxieties, in death can, and perhaps should, be two substantial elements: life, and choice.