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Disappointment in the Face of Beauty

Res Publica

August 2012

by Jake Ewing

Of all the rooms in the museum, this is certainly the busiest. People are pulled to the far side of the room almost involuntarily, taking the last few steps at a half-jog to optimize their position in line. I say “line,” but that’s not really accurate. It’s more of a huddle or a cluster – hundreds of strangers stuffed shoulder to shoulder, always pushing forward, craning their necks to see a little better, constantly fighting to keep in front of the person next to them, elbows digging into ribcages, each step strategically placed. They’ve been jostling like this for a while now, just to catch a glimpse of arguably the most famous piece of art ever created. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has that effect on people.

I am a willing participant in this mob. I can feel the hot breath of everyone around me, all these people that I don’t know and will never see again. I don’t care if I offend one of them. This is the Mona Lisa we’re talking about. This painting transcends chivalry, manners, or niceties. I don’t have time to worry about respecting others. I need only to defeat them, or at least keep them behind me as we all compete for the best vantage point. This quintessential image of human beauty brings out the ugliness in all of us.

We fight for position in front of her because we know that this image – just laying our eyes on it – is going to change our lives. It means that much. I’ll be able to tell all my friends that I’ve seen it. I’ll sound more cultured when I bring it up while hitting on girls back in the States. This painting and my witnessing of it separates me from nearly everyone in my small Midwestern town. Most of them will never cross the Atlantic to see the masterpiece for themselves. In fact, they’ll barely see any of the world outside of Ohio, and probably Florida, and maybe a trashy beach or two in South Carolina, and Niagara Falls (once as a kid and another time with their own kids), and maybe the Sandals Resort in Jamaica on their honeymoon, if they’re lucky. If they’re lucky.

The whole idea of this small town boy traveling through Europe on his own is just impressive as hell compared to these people, and unfortunately, it’s at least part of the reason I went. Seeing the Mona Lisa, dissatisfying as it might have been, makes me think I’m better than all of them. It means I have a story that they don’t have, a story they probably never will. It means that I’m cultured, a “world-traveler,” someone who cares about the finer things in life. It means that pretty girls will find me more interesting, and that’s worth the price of the whole trip. She will make me who I want to be.

And after all of that fighting, and jostling, and disregard for the personal space of so many other human beings, I’m there at the front, with nothing standing between me and the painting save a velvet rope. She is beautiful, just as beautiful as she was the countless other times I’ve seen her in other media – on television, in a textbook, on a computer screen. And maybe she is more beautiful here in person, but she is not as beautiful as I want her to be. She does not make me cry, the way that I want to cry so that everyone around me can see me crying, see me physically moved by artistic perfection. She is beautiful, but she is small. She doesn’t justify the elbows of the man behind me digging into my back. She doesn’t change my life. She disappoints me.

She is not supposed to disappoint me. She is supposed to justify me, to make this entire endeavor worthwhile. Instead of revering this epitome of culture and high-society, my disappointment forces me to consider all those people I left behind in Ohio – the insurance salesman and the construction laborer and the factory worker and the farmer. I think of them in their routine lives, waking up every day and living the same day they lived yesterday, glad to have their feet planted firmly in a plot of fertile Midwestern soil, their lives as satisfactory as they are stable.

It is exactly these types of contented, routine lives that made me believe I was better than these people for coming to Paris and fighting through a crowd to see the Mona Lisa. This was supposed to be my escape from Midwestern monotony. And yet, standing in front of the painting, this disappointing depiction of an average looking woman, I do not feel better – more cultured or experienced or intelligent. I wonder what I’m really doing here.

I think of my father. I imagine him sitting comfortably at home, not thinking of the Mona Lisa, or the Louvre, or the way the streetlights hit the Seine River on a clear Parisian night. He is sitting on the couch when his grandchildren, my niece and nephew, come through the door, and they hug him and he kisses the tops of their heads, and he kisses my mother, and he smiles because he is satisfied there in northeast Ohio with his nice family and his median income and his average house. He has no desire to leave this place – to set out into the world and grab onto all of the opportunities it holds. I imagine how content he is, sitting there, while I feel another elbow in my ribs, another heavy foot on top of mine. I look back at her, at Mona Lisa, and for the first time since I came to Europe, I want to be home.

Jake Ewing is a junior from Wooster, Ohio, majoring in English, Creative Writing, and
Spanish.

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