This blog entry contains a number of links which I hope that you will follow. The first link (and the kicking-off point for the blog) is to a cartoon in a recent issue of the New Yorker: http://www.condenaststore.com/-sp/Captain-Ahab-looks-out-into-the-ocean-at-a-bright-red-whale-New-Yorker-Cartoon-Prints_i9504419_.htm.
It is generally acknowledged that to explain a joke is to ruin it; but in the expectation that you have looked at the cartoon and already gotten the joke, I feel free to expatiate upon it. We laugh at Captain Ahab in the cartoon because in his fervent quest for revenge upon the creature that has cost him his leg he registers only disappointment in not seeing the white whale--when he should be staring with wild surmise at A RED WHALE! As we move out from the joke itself, we should recognize that this discovery of such an anomalous creature offers Ahab the opportunity for a positive fame above that of most men; but he cannot see beyond his obsession—the desire to destroy the white whale. And so he ends up destroying himself and his fellow men.
W. H. Auden's poem “Musee de Beaux Arts” concerns another watery death, that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and had the wax of his fabricated wings melt away, and so plunged to his demise in the sea. Auden focuses on the painting “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” by the 16th Century Flemish master Pieter Breughel. (http://www.artchive.com/artchive/b/bruegel/icarus.jpg) He observes that people who could have witnessed “Something amazing” were too absorbed in their mundane tasks to turn away from them:
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.
And so death occurs (in the lower right hand part of the painting) without acknowledgment.
But we need not talk just about death and destruction here. The singlemindedness of obsession or the narrowly-focused pursuit of one's everyday tasks can also lead one to miss the exceptional which is also the beautiful and the sublime. On January 12, 2007, the great American violinist Joshua Bell undertook an experiment (arranged by the Washington Post) to play works by Bach and other masters during the morning rush hour at a location in a Washington metro station. A few months later the British newspaper the Independent decided to replicate the D. C. experiment in London with the help of one of Britain's foremost violinists Tasmin Little. In the paper's words, “The Independent decided to give Little one of the more difficult challenges of her career - to test how people would react to a great artist giving a performance in a totally unexpected setting,” in her case the tunnel under the railway bridge by Waterloo station.
The Post clocked 1,097 people passing by Bell during the three-quarters of an hour he played, while the Independent estimated 900 to 1,000 passers-by in the London tunnel during the same amount of time. With some of the world's greatest music being played by great artists how many people were not absorbed in the singleminded purpose that they had “somewhere to get to and [so] sailed calmly on”? In Little's case, eight people, “of whom one was under the age of three.” For Bell, seven stopped.
Little summed up the experiment astutely:
"Sometimes we're guilty of giving ourselves a goal, even if it's only catching a train, and leaving very little room for spontaneity in our lives. We don't deviate from our pattern. People forget to take into account that something different might happen."
They might even discover a red whale!
For Auden (full text of "Musee des Beaux Arts"):