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What if Icarus Isn’t Dead?

Jean Hoefling

Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus

Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus

When two competing theories make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.Occam's Razor

We all remember the Greek myth, the Fall of Icarus, in which Daedalus the inventor crafted two sets of wings out of beeswax and bird feathers so that he and his son, Icarus, could escape the labyrinth where the hideous Minotaur lurked. In the story’s tragic climax, Icarus’s flimsy wings melt and the impetuous kid plunges to his death in the Aegean Sea because he disregarded his father’s cautions not to fly too near the sun. What to say? It was Daedalus’s fault in the first place, for designing a labyrinth so ingenious that even he couldn’t figure out how to get out of it.

But did Icarus really drown that mythological day, or was it just fake news? That the boy might have been a great swimmer with a self-preservation streak a mile wide is a definite possibility. Like Occam, I like to think that the simplest outcome is the probable one for this story. Poet Edward Field suggests this in his poem, "Icarus"

…So the report filed and forgotten in the archives read simply
“Drowned,” but it was wrong: Icarus
Had swum away, coming at last to the city
Where he rented a house and tended the garden.

“That nice Mr. Hicks,” the neighbors called,
Never dreaming that the gray, respectable suit
Concealed arms that had controlled huge wings
Nor that those sad, defeated eyes had once
Compelled the sun.

Too many of us can probably identify with the haunted soul in Field’s poem. In some Camelot-hued moment we once reached high, striving for what didn’t seem impossible at the time, and still might not be. People don’t care that something was simply amiss that day—in the timing, the budget, the brain chemistry, or a tiny flaw in the aerodynamics of the endeavor; all they’ll usually see is the fall: some stranger crawling sopping wet onto dry land to pick up the pieces with dignity. These are the myriad white martyrs; those who accept the quadriplegia, the bankruptcy, the broken marriage, or the quiet life as “that nice Mr. Hicks” among people who will never know how close that dreamer came to touching the sun.

What if Icarus isn’t dead?