It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
As the Earth makes yet another revolution around the sun, a ball drops, and another year ends, I find myself reflecting on what all has happened over the last 365 days of 2012. A Korean pop star took the world by storm, receiving over one billion views on YouTube, an American ambassador was publically assassinated in a warring Libya, a President was re-elected during one of the worst economic situations in his country’s history, an ineffable tragedy in a small, Northeastern town shook a nation into a sense of unity and disbelief, a musical rendition of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece showed us life’s greatest joys and sorrows, and we were all told to call me…maybe. The world has been, is, and forever will be filled with both sorrow and joy; it is an inevitable fact that we all must accept. It is our job though to try and tilt these scales.
The year 2012 has had its fair share of ups and downs, no doubt. One month, we are all cheering for Gabby Douglas to stick her landing off the balance beam, but only a little later in the year we were told that a fourteen year old girl was shot in the head for thinking that women should have a voice. We were thrown into excitement about the name of the future heir to the British throne while sex trafficking thrived in many developing countries. According to the 2012 World Population Data Sheet, there were approximately 140,541,944 people who were born and approximately 56,238,002 people who died in 2012. There are countless other examples one could give to illustrate the idea that, in this dynamic and complex world, happiness and grief often occur simultaneously.
In the poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts,” W. H. Auden explains this dual nature of life:
“Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden
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.
The poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” does not follow a storyline but rather is a series of descriptions and observations about life. In the beginning of the poem, the narrator tells of several experiences with which we are all familiar. Auden describes how the old men and women wait until they die and how at the same time children, living in ignorant bliss, play on a pond or in the woods. In the second stanza of the poem, Auden alludes to a famous painting by Pieter Brueghel called The Fall of Icarus, which depicts a peaceful rural scene juxtaposed with fallen Icarus’s two legs sticking out the sea. Auden describes how the man ploughing in the painting and the ship sailing by are either unaware or indifferent to the fact that a great tragedy, the death of Icarus, has occurred within eyesight.
The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel
The central theme in Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts is that life is filled with both tragedy and joy, often occurring simultaneously. Auden states in the opening lines that “[suffering] takes place/While someone is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…” He is saying that while one person may be doing something as mundane as opening a window, great pain and suffering may be going on at the same time for someone else. Specifically when discussing The Fall of Icarus, he comments how to a casual passerby, the painting may seem to depict a quaint countryside only. After closer inspection, however, the viewer sees Icarus’s two legs as he is falling into the sea from flying too close to the sun. The poem is not written in a pessimistic nor an optimistic tone, but rather an objective and reflective one. Auden is not saying that we should be sad or happy that life is be filled with such peace and horror at the same time. Rather, we should be aware of it, understand it, and make peace with it.
As beautifully written in Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts and as clearly illustrated in real life, the world is filled with a vast range of emotions and occurrences that happen at the same time hundreds of miles away from one another. If nothing else, 2012 has proven to me that the world – and I am sorry if this is not beautifully phrased – is a crazy, mixed up place filled with crazy, mixed up people. In many ways, life has never been better for some and in many ways life has never been worse. For example, my family alone owns an iPad, Macbook, multiple iPhones, a flat screen television, a two story house, and three cars while hundreds of men, women, and children have little more than the clothes on their backs. The socio-economic gap is greater than it has ever been in some places. In the same country, there are those living like royalty and those living in dilapidated cardboard houses. We are unaware and often do not care about those living in these horrid conditions because as long as we are happy that is all that matters, right? But how can there be such wealth and such poverty in coexistence?
The year 2012 has taught us many lessons, one of the most important being that we need to help those who see the world for all the pain it holds. We need to bring attention to the sorrows of the world and try to end them. Unfortunately, I do believe that future conflicts, big and small, are inevitable in this new year. I hope for nothing more, however, than my being wrong. I hope that 2013 will be the year when the world will give diplomacy a try before violence, and that we will talk about our disagreements rather than use intimidation and brute force. If we can begin to do that, then maybe we can choose a world of peace and love and not one of war and hate. Which world will you choose?
by Philip Richardson