Mona Lisa's Smile Solved?
by Julie Carpenter
Do you ever have some odd, random thought pop into your head…and instead of simply thinking the thought you start thinking about thinking about the thought? Yeah. Me too.
This morning, while I was brushing my teeth it suddenly occurred to me to wonder about Mona Lisa’s smile. Yes…I know a million other people have had this question. My main concern is not with the cliched and random idea that suddenly popped into my head, it’s more about where the thought came from, the snap conclusion I came to, and why the whole train of thought landed in my station in the first place.
Here’s how it started: I was standing at the sink, with my foamy, rabid smile reflecting back at me from the mirror, and for some odd reason Mona Lisa and her demure and puzzling expression popped into my head. What a weird little grin, I thought. Why? In a flash, I reasoned that the motive for smiling with her lips closed was probably because she had bad teeth. She was probably only looking enigmatic and crushingly self-intent because she was embarrassed about her teeth. And I felt sorry for her across the centuries. First because I empathized with the embarrassment I had projected onto her.
After a little more thought, I felt sorry for her because I had made up my mind I knew what she was thinking. Had I solved the mystery of the Mona Lisa, that air of preternatural coyness that artists and thinkers have been puzzling about for five hundred years? Undoubtedly not.
So, I felt sorry for her as the object of conjecture, so many other people’s feelings thrust upon her, the weight of so many stories (including my own) crushing her flat back into the painting that both was a small piece of her and wasn’t her at all. I realized that my explanation, like all the others that have come before, is the sort of conclusion that tells you more about the person forming it than the object upon which it’s formed.
But this random thought did lead to something. It led me down a strange path into my mind, to the strange unseen workings of my own brain, itself a puzzling mystery. How does any given thought form itself; where does it come from? Obviously, the data, hardware, and software with which we think is more complicated than a few moments of exploration can resolve. But I thought I would try to spend a few minutes figuring out if I could determine any reason that I had suddenly thought of the Mona Lisa’s smile and come to the instant conclusion that she was hiding bad teeth.
The thread of this one thought led me in several different directions. My brain has a history. Of course, like all members of western society, I have seen images of the painting since I was a youngster. Besides that, I’ve seen the painting of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The experience I had there was unique to me. The experience of seeing the painting was quite disappointing because the hall in which she was displayed was so crowded that I only saw her in passing, swept through in a moment by the push of the crowd. She was also smaller than I would have thought. Seeing that small painting hovering above crowds of people on an otherwise blank wall (or so I remember it) left me feeling a little sorrowful for the painting as an object (I’m terrible about personifying things, but that’s a subject for another day) and the woman who’s self was flattened into one moment, an odd bit of flotsam floating on the waves of history.
Now, in looking back on the moment, I also have to acknowledge that my mood at the time was almost certainly influenced by my physical needs, i.e. I was terribly hungry, desperate for lunch, and starting to realize how very difficult it is to do justice to the Louvre in a day. Being hangry and sad almost certainly contributed to the memory I made of the Mona Lisa and the feelings my brain associates with her.
Still, that was an experience from some time ago. I realized that something more recent must have triggered me. There’s a podcast I’m listening to, You Must Remember This (Make Me Over); it’s about the intersection of Hollywood and the beauty industry, looking at how race, weight, and other ideas affected stars and starlets and compacted their whole persons into objects. So, the idea of objectification is bouncing around in my mind.
I also suspect strongly that I must have heard the phrase Mona Lisa, maybe in a song. Maybe I saw her ubiquitous image somewhere. I figure there was something that drew her up into the daylight of my mind. And then I was brushing my teeth. Thinking about smiles. Thinking about teeth. I’ve had dental surgery this year so the idea of having trouble with teeth is recent and floats around more than it ever has.
I would, of course, like to emphasize that this was a random thought. While it is a curious conundrum, at the end of the day it really doesn’t make that much difference to me why Mona Lisa was smiling. I enjoy puzzling over it as much as the next guy, but that’s as far as it goes.
Still, such random thoughts are odd to think about, in the way that dreams are. They remind us that we have perhaps less control over what our brains are doing than we would like to think. I’m sometimes startled by the way that so much of what I think about, the conclusions that I draw…how all these things begin underground, even in relation to the smallest of thoughts. And here’s the conclusion that those few moments of thinking left me with: It’s good to suspect that your conclusions and your reasons, your schemes and social scaffolding may all depend on some very personal thought patterns and feelings.
I think if nothing else we’ve recently realized that the ideal of pure human rationality promised by the Age of Enlightenment is, if not pure bunk, not uncontaminated by feelings, deeply stored memories, old brain data. How many times does fear, or hunger, or even contentment, or happiness, or privilege form the basis for what we might easily assume are rational or well-thought out decisions? Maybe thinking about thinking isn’t such a bad pastime.
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website and author of Things Get Weird in Whistlestop, a collection of linked short stories. She is dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and will be included The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel.