Firstly a brief tale of Icarus:
Icarus needed to escape from Crete, constructing wings to fly to safety, the wings were made of feathers and wax. He was warned not to fly to low lest his wings get wet and not too high lest the sun melts the wax. The young Icarus was thrilled by the flight, but did not heed the warnings; he flew too close to the sun, at which point the wax melted and he fell into the sea.
Psychology has termed a concept the ‘Icarus complex’ which centers on a person’s insatiable ambition and the need to achieve excess in all things. To the Greeks the Icarus complex was known as hubris, the excessive pride and ambition usually leading to the downfall of the hero in a classical tragedy. The Icarus complex psychologically becomes a pattern that humanity exhibits through burning ambition and exhibitionism, often understood through the subjective lens that depicts a precipitous fall whilst craving immortality. The psychological characterisation of Icarus before his fall becomes an inevitable connection between the ascensionist and the narcissist cynosure. Finally when Icarus has attained an excessive height he falls as his waxen wings have been melted by the sun. Stanley Kubrick taking the Apollonian stance towards Icarus’ flight: “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings”. Contrasting to Kubrick is Oscar Wilde and his stance that one should:
“Never regret thy fall,
O Icarus of the fearless flight
For the greatest tragedy of them all
Is never to feel the burning light.”
The fall of Icarus becomes a cautionary tale to understand the value of moderation. Henry Murray first coined the term ‘Icarus complex’, later the complex has been associated to mania, whereby a person exhibits grandiosity or narcissistic inclinations and a fascination for heights. The tale of Icarus is to take the middle way, cautioning against the heedless pursuit of instant gratification. The concept of the Icarus complex reveals that when the gap between the idealised goal and reality is great, there is a greater chance that the endeavour will end in failure. Icarus represents the sin of hubris, which can be interpreted through biblical texts which state that pride goes before a fall.
Imagery of Icarus shows him smiling as he descends as his father watches in horror, the painting illustrates that life goes on, the plight of Icarus is irrelevant, the farmer will continue to plough and the ship captain will continue on his voyage without a care as Icarus drowns in the water. The image of Icarus conveys the joy in flight, the value in his triumph, no matter how short-lived. The complex associated with Icarus conveys the pendulous emotional polarities, mania is exhibited by flying too high, whereby he got “burned”, followed closely by his inevitable emotional crash that followed his flight of mania into depression – drowning in the ‘sea’ of depression.
It can be argued that mania can therefore be interpreted as a form of ambition, an excessive ambition that ends in disaster. Another interpretation of Icarus regards his pursuit of enlightenment by transcending the Earth, this suggests grandiosity. The story of Icarus also embodies every humans potential to have differing levels of manic-depressive states, our moods fluctuating. The psychoanalysis of Icarus suggests that he was in a manic state, dominated by hyperactivity and euphoria. Icarus’ state of mind remaining unchecked, progressively losing his sense of reality and oblivious to the potentially fatal risk associated with his flight. His grandiose belief and overestimation of his personal capabilities allow a never ending energy and illusion to drive him onwards.
“It is not a matter of indifference whether one calls something a ‘mania’ or a ‘god’. To serve a mania is detestable and undignified, but to serve a god is full of meaning.” C. G. Jung.