First, let me set a scene.
It’s an early May morning and I am on my hands and knees, intently scanning the gravel that has accumulated at a bend in the stream. Small blossom petals, fallen from the trees overhead, have blackened and rolled into narrow pointed cones that lie amid the quartz pebbles. I try to distinguish the decaying petals from the tiny fossil shark teeth with their black needle-like crowns that may lie hidden here.
For a moment, the most important aspect of my life, indeed, the world (sight and sound), lies right before me at this single spot in this stream bed which may or may not yield a fossil.
A sudden plop of something hitting the water breaks my concentration. Certainly all the time I’ve been in the woods I’ve registered at some level of consciousness the noises of life around me. Dominating is the intermittent raucous chatter of a leaf blower coming from the housing development hidden from sight by a hill and trees. At those moments when the blower ceases, the air fills with the faint whir of traffic, the calls of birds from the black cherry and locusts high overhead, and the shuffling of squirrels on the hunt themselves in the leafy detritus beneath the mountain laurel and young dogwoods.
Clearly my search and I are just very, very small elements in a huge, complex living scene. And, for nearly every other nearby living creature, my search for fossils is insignificant, meaningless, unknown – their lives continuing unaffected by my presence.
That is a fundamental incongruity of the search for fossils – how it takes me out into a location that offers vistas of woods, mountains, or the waters of rivers, bays, or oceans, but then I render that world into a single point perspective scene focused only on me and the ground at my feet.
Driving away from the fossil site that afternoon, I listened to Studio 360 where Kurt Andersen, host of the public radio show, interviewed playwright Tony Kushner about his new play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. Andersen noted that the play has scenes in which several characters on stage speak at once, their voices clashing, mingling, obscuring. Though I have not seen the play, Andersen ran snippets of those scenes so I have a sense of what that’s like. Indeed, in one scene, 11 characters speak simultaneously. Andersen interpreted this as the playwright undercutting the presumption in a play that every word is precious. Kushner’s response went deeper. He noted that members of the audience have to decide what’s important because their attention cannot be everywhere. This is art reflecting life. He observed (this is my transcription of this part of the interview),
There’s something that Brecht says, that Renaissance painting with a single point perspective where all the lines guide the eye towards the baby, the Madonna and the child, and he compares that to Brueghel or Asian painting where you don’t know where to look, you’re not being told where to look, you kind of have to wander around in the world before you can find Icarus falling in the sea. And that sense of freedom to roam around I think is an interesting experience.The “freedom to roam around” may be an “interesting” or liberating or challenging aspect of the play or the Brueghel painting for outside observers (and I like the idea that most things are of equal weight and perhaps worthy of exploration and writing about). But that’s not what particularly struck me. Rather, I found myself thinking that the absence of a single point perspective for the viewer from afar is complemented with a unique single point perspective held by every character in the play or the painting.
What did poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht actually have to say about Brueghel? In a collection of Brecht’s notes and essays is a small piece titled “Alienation Effects in the Narrative Pictures of the Elder Brueghel” (Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited and translated by John Willett, 1964). In the interview, Kushner was referencing Brecht’s notes on The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (~1525 – 1569) (I’m spelling his surname as Brecht did) which captured the tragedy of Icarus who crashed into the sea when he failed to heed his father Daedalus’ warning and flew with his wings of feathers and wax too close to the sun. (The image below of the painting is from the WebMuseum, created by Nicolas Pioch and licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.)
A truly amazing painting. The tragedy, the end of Icarus’ world, passes unnoticed. As Icarus’ legs disappear beneath the waves (an almost comic touch), the world moves on, the plowman plows, the fisherman fishes, and the shepherd gazes contemplatively skyward (but certainly not in response to the vision of a man falling from the sky). Only the fisherman appears to be facing where Icarus plunged into the water, but there seems no urgency to his actions which I think remain all about fishing.
Here’s Brecht on the painting:
In The Fall of Icarus the catastrophe breaks into the idyll in such a way that it is clearly set apart from it and valuable insights into the idyll can be gained. He doesn’t allow the catastrophe to alter the idyll; the latter rather remains unaltered and survives undestroyed, merely disturbed.The fall into the sea, a disturbance, nothing more. Disturbing thought, but, by virtue of our own consciousness, I think we have to make our lives a succession of single point perspectives (single points of perspective?), that’s how we relate to the generally uninterested world around us. The fossil hunt seems a special case where we turn our back on the world and our awareness of the contrast between our narrowly focused perspective and the obliviousness of much of the rest of the world can be particularly acute.
. . . . Tiny scale of this legendary event (you have to hunt for the victim). The characters turn their backs on the incident. Lovely picture of the concentration needed for ploughing. The man fishing in the right foreground, and his particular relationship to the water. The setting of the sun, which many people find surprising, presumably means that the fall was a long one. How otherwise can it be shown that Icarus flew too high? Daedalus passed from sight long ago. Contemporary Flemings in an ancient Mediterranean landscape. Special beauty and gaiety of the landscape during the frightful event. (p. 157)
Oh, and yes, (back to me, of course), on this day, I found a few fossils in this Cretaceous site (the two fossil teeth from sand tiger sharks pictured above are among them) where specimens from more than 65 million years ago turn up just often enough to keep a few of the committed believing we each have a reason to return, though the fossil gods don't care.