Picture the scene

6 Apr

It is a wet Tuesday afternoon in March. You are on a long weekend trip to Paris, which you thought would be beautiful and empty at this time of year but is actually quite grey and busy with Easter visitors. Your feet ache slightly from the shoes that you thought would be ‘sensible’ but are in fact rather uncomfortable, due to being quite a lot heavier than what you’d normally wear. You cunningly brought an umbrella with you. It is far more ornamental than useful, but since it has owls on you are unwilling to part with it in favour of a utilitarian yet undoubtedly boring model. However, now that you are indoors and it is damp from the light precipitation outside, you are less than keen to put it back in your bag, so it bangs limply at your knee as you meander along. Your jeans have soaked up most of the rain that almost caressingly came into contact with you, as has your scarf, but a few of the pearlescent drops still rest lightly on the hood of your coat and catch your eye with their reflections whenever you look behind you. You have a camera in your bag but you can’t quite bring yourself to get it out for fear of looking too much like a tourist. You pass some full-on tourists, with their long shorts and pulled-up socks, hiking boots and bumbags, SLRs and baseball caps and you think – maybe, maybe in comparison to them I don’t seem so bad, but you still can’t quite do it. I’ll get it out when I get there, you think.

You have arrived at what you came to see. Everyone else seems to have come to see it, too, and you are jostled from all directions by a multitude of languages, faces and cultural attitudes to strangers. You are not in a hurry, though. You know what it looks like. The image is, as with everyone else present, burned indelibly on your brain. It is seminal; one of a kind; endlessly mysterious. It is one of the most-discussed and most iconic enigmas in the world. It endlessly reveals meaning, shedding it in layers like fine snake skin – but like fine snake skin this meaning turns to dust with every new revelation, nor does it seem to leave the original any smaller for its loss.

You wait. You marvel at the hall of the Louvre. It is a beautiful building. How many must pass it by, desperate to witness this one painting – to take a picture of it on their camera phones, not even experiencing it directly via their screen-glazed retinas, their eyes perpetually basted with the wash of technology? You are patient. You loosen your scarf and undo the toggles on your duffel coat and watch.

There – there! The crowd parts, just for a moment, and you have a direct eyeline. There, behind the bullet-proof glass, swarming with devotees – people who look but don’t see; who see but don’t experience; who observe but make no effort to engage – the Mona Lisa. It is there. You have affirmed to yourself it exists; you have witnessed it and you feel a little part of your being flower under the gleaming ray of what this image stands for. By confirming its reality to yourself, a part of the world that only existed previously in a theoretical space has come to light. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? If there is a painting in a room and no one ever sees it, does it exist? Well, now it does. You have been a part of that reification.

Outside the Louvre, you sit on the rim of one of the fountains and bask in the pale sun.

My friend Laura, having a Parisian chic moment.

My friend Laura, having a Parisian chic moment.

Hope is a bit like the Mona Lisa. You can’t touch it. You don’t know what it’s made of. You know what it looks like – or at least, you know you would recognise it anywhere. It is mysterious in its appearance and in its essence. It is beautiful, although you can’t say exactly why; possibly it’s because everyone says it is, says it must be, and you believe them. You can go a long, long way without getting a glimpse of it, but all it takes is for you to start out on that journey and to wait until that moment when the line of sight is clear. And the image, the heart-stopping, stomach-twitching sight that makes you feel like there’s a jellyfish in your tummy whose alarm has just gone off on the morning of its wedding – will stay with you long after you drift away.

I’ve actually never seen the Mona Lisa. But I have caught a glimpse of hope. This is what it looked like, from where I was standing.


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