Content advisory 18+ I used to believe that the world of “surfaces” which we usually navigate is a false world -- a superficial icing on a cake of deep and interwoven ingredients. I used to think that, in order to maximize my experience of life, I had to somehow “get to the bottom of it” -- as my old English teachers would have us plumb the depths of this or that poem in order to diagnose its real “meaning”. We were taught -- as I have come to express it -- ‘vertically.’
But more and more, it seems, we live in (or ‘on’, as it were) a world of little depth but endless and RAPIDLY shifting surfaces. We, therefore, encounter life “horizontally.” The biggest problem people have appears to be how to sift through all the waves of information that come their way -- and how to do it by the fastest means possible. People multi-task not only at work but in every other situation as well: on the beach or in a park, at the fitness center, in a restaurant, even inside a cinema. It wouldn’t surprise me if some do it while they are having sex. People dwell on the surface of things and multi-task their lives away.
And they always want to make sure that they have the right number of EXPERIENCES. What they actually hope to get out of these experiences -- well, you would have to ask THEM -- but it appears to me that they just wish to tabulate them -- beaucoup experiences! -- and make sure that these 150 haagen daz flavors are duly noted and reported to other seekers of same via the social media.
Is their way better than mine used to be? I don’t know. Maybe I should adjust to the modern way of thinking?
A? young student of mine was telling me about a recent rainy weekend in Paris spent with her husband. Among other things, they visited The Louvre. That sure sounds romantic to me: Walking in the rain along The Seine to see the venerable work of The Masters. And to top it off, to be in the prime, the green 'salad days' of one's life, as my friend and her husband are.
Another student told about her visit (on the same weekend) to the new park near the Kremlin in Moscow, known as Зарядье... The weather was a searing (for the last days of April) 27 C., so there was nothing to do but enjoy the moment: flowers, grass, bridges, and trees. And cool off in the shade. What could be better?
Unfortunately, both experiences fell short of the mark. Why was that?
Well, first, the park. Apparently, everybody had the same idea and so the park was overcrowded. The bridge I referred to, where one can partake of a lovely view of the Moscow panorama, was more packed than a metro during rush hour. People were scowling and muttering vicious words at each other, elbows ripping their way towards a bit of space amid the steaming multitude. This, according to my student-friend, who is completely trustworthy, an optimist through and through, and certainly not a chronic complainer.
At Зарядье, people were, by my friend's account, not only trampling the grass but also stealing the rare and carefully planted flowers to transplant them to their own dachas. Well, nothing like visiting your friendly municipal florist. I am certain, based on my student's account, that everybody went home ready to kick the dog, abuse бабушка, and play computer games which depict a lot of slaughter...
It reminds me of some years ago when I had the bright idea of celebrating International Women's Day by taking my wife to the Moscow Zoo. Well, it was a zoo all right. A zoo of people. The animals were incidental, and when I realized that the bastards wanted to charge us extra to see the reptiles (I was in the mood for a poisonous snake or two by that point), I said to my baby, "Let's get out of here."
So we went to the French restaurant where I had meticulously booked a table a week in advance, only to find someone sitting in our seats. "We are tired. It's been a long day," said the staff. "Would you mind sitting at the counter until these other people finish?" So we sat. We never did get the table that I had lovingly booked (buried in an intimate, lamp-lit corner of the restaurant). Then, following a long stint at the barren lunch counter (think of a bus station), when the food arrived (after a great interval between appetizer and main course) the Succulent Cuisine consisted of the usual French fare of an enormous white bowl with a very tiny chunk of snot (the food) in the bottom of it. Fine Dining.
Now on to The Louvre. Spacious as the place is (I was there in 1970 and they must have added a few wings since then), it seems that the only thing anybody wanted to see was the Mona Lisa. At least that's what my friend told me (she too is placid and pretty as a bowl of fresh fruit, and NOT A CHRONIC COMPLAINER). I guess going to find the Mona Lisa is as similar in its necessity to tourists as the Sistine Chapel is if you are in Rome. All the other stuff at the Vatican (centuries of glorious treasure) is OK, but Michelangelo's ceiling is the Real Deal. If you miss that, you are the equivalent of a touristic wanker.
The problem was therefore that the room the Mona Lisa is in was as crowded as Зарядье Park. Now if I say it was mostly Asians, then that marks me down as a racist, doesn't it? But...it was mostly Asians, and one cannot help but observe that they DO take a lot of photographs. But, for now we will pretend they were Irish, just to avoid conflict. Ok, all of these Asian (I mean Irish) people with names like Patrick and Bernadette, all with clicking cameras (of course) were the ones creating most of the mayhem. It seems that many of them were jockeying for position to be able to take a Selfie (Yes, a Selfie) of themselves standing in some kind of proximity to Mona herself. What a prize to carry back to the homeland: So -- Patrick from Tokyo and Bernadette from Kyoto and the Mona Lisa together ! Lights out !!!
But only for three minutes. Then it was time for museum attendants to shove them along so that other Irish people from Beijing could take THEIR turn and make THEIR Selfie.
The only flaw in the slaw is that, not only is the Mona Lisa a very small painting (those who haven't seen it will probably imagine it occupies an entire wall) and -- by all accounts -- it is under the strictest surveillance. Which means you can't really get close to it. The whole arrangement sounds to me more like a kind of checkpoint at the border of two hostile nations than a spirit-enhancing chance to view a fabled piece of artwork in a storied museum. Does it sound like a lot of fun?
It certainly wasn't that way back in 1970. Back then, even at a place like The Louvre, you just paid your money and started wandering around. It's been a long time ago, and I have lost a few clips from the not-always-reliable film that is my memory, but I recall being able to stand in front of it at my leisure. And what I most certainly DO remember is that, after one of the quickest and most wonderfully lost hours I have ever spent, I was still rooted to the spot there looking at her.
Sometimes, it helps to be crazy in the way that I am. Totally aware that a few conspiracy theory buffs believe the painting to be Leonardo's drag-queen self-portrait, I choose to believe that the woman's name was Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo and that she was the wife of a rich Florentine merchant. I have tried to invent a life for her -- a life that would revolve in my own Florentine imagination of a Florentine past of a Florentine Eric Le Roy. It is the stuff of dreams.
What was she really like? That look that plays on her face in the painting...does it disclose some profound truth about her...or was it only play-acting, like we know today about the cinema and the concert hall. In other words, we understand -- or we should if we have any sense -- that the image and the reality often have little in common.
So was Mona Lisa really "La Gioconda" in the sense that her elusive smile indicates an evocation of a mysteriously beautiful soul -- or was it just a high society woman who was sitting there watching Leonardo paint and thinking, "I wish to hell this fool would hurry up. I have to shit." And was Leonardo thinking, "How can I make this arrogant twat seem wonderful?"
I will never know. But I do believe that there was a man -- Leonardo -- and a woman -- Lisa whoever -- who sat in a room long ago, and from their collaboration came the painting we see. Or...given that the one in The Louvre may, in fact, be a forgery (the real painting was stolen but supposedly recovered) -- they created something that resides somewhere. Somewhere. Or maybe has been destroyed and doesn't exist anymore ANYWHERE -- but to which I choose to give the name: Authenticity.
I choose to believe that the painting was sealed in oils on the canvas THAT day (or during THOSE days) by THAT man painting THAT woman. And if it really went down that way, then it was an authentic experience for them and for us. For all of us.
So I don't need to go back to The Louvre and sweat amid some camera-waving horde of people seeking God-knows what experience. And I definitely do not need a Selfie.
On this earth, I will never be able to shake Leonardo da Vinci's hand. I will never walk down the street, much less lie in bed, with Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. Rather, I IMAGINE it all.
That for me, stuck in this time and place, shackled to my limitations, and beset with mortality weaving spider webs in my bones, is the liberating secret. IMAGINATION.
It sits enchanted like a Buddha with glittering eyes atop the empty bubble we call 'reality'. It rejoices as it drinks the air and doesn't care about was really was and was not, what is or what must be.
Finally, as today (the day of this writing) is Friday, 4 May, 2018, I experience passionately what is around me. I have no wish to deny it. My wife, my dogs, my cat, my friends and students on Skype. The village. But Leonardo and Lisa are here too. Because I want them to be.
No Selfies, please.
===Eric Richard Leroy===