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The Sacrificial Wheel of Fortune

Engraving by Raffaello Guidi before 1600.

In Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce, Campbell embarks on a mythically based, archetypal study of James Joyce, beginning with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is here that Campbell picks up the notion of “the Wings of Art” using Joyce’s imagery from the novel. The myth of Daedalus plays a large role in the novel as can be gleaned by the name of the title character, young Daedalus. But the image of Icarus also comes into play at a crucial moment of the young man’s conversion into the path of the artist. This is the vision of a birdman rising toward the sky, “a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea,” which stands, in the context of the novel, as a symbol of the most radical form of human individuation. Thus Campbell’s idea of the Wings of Art evokes the “transcendent function” which enables our humanity to soar into the heights of cultural achievement. 

Thus the transcendent quality of all cultural creativity is evoked by the image of the Wings of Art. Notwithstanding the loss of Icarus, as Campbell writes, “release” is possible for an artist following their bliss. 

“I don’t know why it is that people talking about the flight of the artist always refer to Icarus and not to Daedalus. Icarus flew too high, the wax on his wings melted, and he fell into the ocean. The sentiment on most people’s part seems to be that artists can’t make it. Well, Daedalus did. Joyce was an optimist with respect to the capacity of a competent artist to achieve release” (Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, p. 9).

In truth, it is possible for anyone to free themselves from the spiritual bondage of the status quo. It is always possible to break out of the cave of submission to the ruling ideologies of the time, although the hero may need to pay a hefty price. 

The sacrifice of Icarus is itself part of the transcendent act. Daedelus grieved bitterly after his dear son plummeted into the depths. As we read in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Metamorphoses of Ovid:

And Daedelus cursed his own artistry,

Then built a tomb to house his dear son’s body.

There, where the boy was buried, now his name remains: that

island is Icaria.

(Book 8, p. 256)

Now in the case of Joyce, this notion of the sacrificial child is not just a metaphor. Sadly, it was in real life played out by the sacrifice of his own daughter’s mental life.

James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia Joyce, in the early 1930s consulted Carl Jung as a last resort in dealing with her psychic ailments. Jung did not hesitate to interpret her mental condition as a kind of symptom, the product of being imbued into the titanic spiritual currents with which her father was contending. The presumption is that her father’s creative genius exposed her to the strongest waves of the archetypal psyche from a very young age. Jung described Lucia being “far more lively” than her father:

“She was very attractive, charming—a good mind. And her writing, what she did for me, had in it the same elements as her father’s. She was the same spirit, oh they cared for each other very much. Yet unfortunately, it was too late to help her” (C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, p. 241).

In 1934 Jung diagnosed Lucia with schizophrenia and had her committed to the Burghölzi Psychiatric hospital in Zurich. Jung understood both father and daughter to be “like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving” (Richard Ellmann interview, 1953).

Evoking this image of the river recalls the first line of Finnegans Wake: “riverrun, …”

So did Lucia fall into the abyss as a kind of Icaria, another child who flew too near Father Sun, too close to the source of all life and being. They were both undone at the peak of their flight, falling into the irresistible abyss of the collective unconscious. 

Would not James Joyce have reason enough to curse his own artistry as Daedalus did? 

The wonderful Wings of Art are bought at the highest price imaginable, a level of self-sacrifice not stopping short of the “accidental” sacrifice of others, especially those closest to you.  

So beware of the envy of the great artists and other personages of history. You never know how steep a price they paid for their “success” or genius.

In the same vein, we may look at another great artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti, who doesn’t leave things to chance. He does not blame the Wheel of Fortune nor the Stars, any more than Divine Beauty or Fate for the sacrifice that must be made in the name of art. The price to be paid, however, seems to lie in the embrace of the key opposites of Love and Death. As we can read in Michelangelo’s sonnet “The Artist”:

The ill I flee, the good that I believe,

In thee, fair lady, lofty and divine,

Thus hidden lie; and so that death be mine,

Art, of desired success, doth me bereave. 

In this bereavement of life Michelangelo makes death his own. In the most passionate investments of our lives, we burn our lives away as a candle from both sides. 

The fall of all Icaria, all “eternal children,” is a question of fate. No doubt they were all served a bad turn on the Wheel of Fortune. Were these pueri aeternitatis? Eternal youths only guilty of being there in the wrong place and at the wrong time? Or is the artist’s ambition a self-fulfilling prophecy of dismemberment and death? Michelangelo doesn’t seem to think so:

Love is not guilty, then, nor thy fair face,

        Nor fortune, cruelty, nor great disdain,

        Of my disgrace, nor chance nor destiny,

        If in thy heart both death and love find place

        At the same time, and if my humble brain,

        Burning, can nothing draw but death from thee.

Michelangelo dispenses here with the panoply of excuse-making that makes mortals want a scapegoat for their sorrows and disappointments. This level of ethical responsibility does not come about by chance. Despite Fortuna’s supreme status as Imperatrix Mundi, “Empress of the World,” in every act of transcendence the hand of human freedom interweaves the subjective thread of our lives into the fixed strings of the warp of Necessity. Using the needle of Chance, the soul traces its path through the  given conditions of objective existence. The interblending of both love and death is, therefore, nobody’s fault. It’s not even a matter we need to lament, as the lamentations of Michelangelo very nicely presage a key psychoanalytic insight into the nature of psychic energy: the intrinsic unity of Eros and Death-Drive are the fundamental poles of its dynamic and structures.




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