The choice of Icarus

Nothing stings more than when we learn that no one cares about us as much as we think they do – especially when this applies to those whose influence is decisive on our lives. Perhaps that is why the Greek government and public opinion were so annoyed by an anonymous senior EU official’s estimate that the troika’s evaluation of progress in the Greek program would be completed “after the ski break” in February. Earlier in the crisis, in December 2010, Olli Rehn, commissioner for economic affairs, raised his own minor storm when he was quoted saying in his homely Finnish way that even though he was an avid soccer player he had been missing practices and matches because he was busy with Greece.

We, buckling under the burden of the crisis and of our obligations and anxieties, depend on the abilities of our politicians to manage the crisis and to negotiate successfully with our creditors, on whose evaluations of progress we depend in order to get the next loan installment. The trauma, the drama and the humiliation of our need reinforce the illusion that whatever takes place in Greece concerns the rest of the world to the same degree. We are shaken by the thought that even as we wonder when we will get the next loan, when we will have enough money to heat our homes, to pay our taxes, to support each other, those who will decide our fate will be skiing. Whoever may be responsible for the delay, when others stick to their routines we feel more keenly that here nothing is as it was. In this, too, we are not alone.

In his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” inspired by a visit to that museum in Brussels, W.H. Auden wrote: “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/ … In Brueghel’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/ … 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.”

Recently, the government has been anxiously trying to achieve a political easing of the commitments it has made with the troika, feeling that it cannot impose any more austerity on citizens. The Germans, though, who are the only ones with the power to make this happen, are occupied by the talks aimed at creating a coalition government – like Brueghel’s ploughman getting on with his work. The “expensive delicate” ship of the European Union, with too many incompetents in captains’ hats, with crew members high on dissent, fights the waves without a compass. If we are Icarus, our only choice is to learn to swim while others ski.

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