From the Stone House: Reading Stevie Smith in Milan
Beauty is overrated. Beauty is underrated.
Three months ago, shortly after moving to Italy for the year, I was walking along via Montenapoleone in Milan, gazing at lovely summer togs and shoes in the shops (beauty is overrated?), when I nearly stumbled into a bearded man wearing dirty shorts and old sneakers. He sat spread-legged on the sidewalk, an empty, leaning-Tower-of-Pisa paper cup between his knees. Not the right street for such begging, I found myself thinking—too upscale, everyone carrying credit cards rather than change. Nobody wanting to be bothered, what with the insufferable humidity and all the gorgeous distractions in the shop-windows.
With the man sat a dog panting fiercely, its thick silky coat the color of dark honey (beauty is underrated?). I wanted to give the dog some water. The man, too, but first the dog, since it couldn’t ask. Then I felt guilty for privileging one silent furred creature over the other. Then for resorting to the word “creature.” Then for arguing with myself rather than seeking a café where I could buy a bottle of water, bum a plastic cup from the barista, and return thus armed to man and dog, to whom I could relinquish these reinforcements.
I want to commit to beauty—to believe it’s not just a “nice-to-have” but an existential necessity; not just the icing on the cake but a nutrient as essential to our living as water is. Yet there is always suffering, so belief in the necessity of beauty comes hard and sometimes feels immoral. Why? Because we must close our eyes to suffering in order to see beauty? Or is the deeper problem that we don’t just see beauty, we consume it?
There are the giddy-making shops in via Montenapoleone, and there is a swirling vortex of trash in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s at least a quarter of a million square miles in size, growing by the hour. Countless beautiful products end up in the so-called Pacific Garbage Patch, along with a truly obscene number of plastic bags (flimsy and fancy alike) from retailers around the globe—including, no doubt, those in via Montenapoleone. What to conclude? It seems we’re incapable of simply admiring what’s beautiful from a respectful distance, without aiming to appropriate it, use it, then discard it when we’re done. “Look but don’t touch”: only in museums do we obey that rule.
Going back in time doesn’t improve the picture. Who built Pharoah Khufu’s vast pyramid at El Giza, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, upon whose beauty tourists gaze raptly? Tens of thousands of poor Egyptian men, organized into efficient work-gangs that were rotated on and off the site for at least a decade. These laborers lived in tents and worked barefoot, lugging tons of limestone and granite to the necropolis-in-progress. But they weren’t slaves, assert some contemporary archeologists; no, the workers contributed willingly to the making of an unrivalled tribute to their ruler, Khufu, whom they considered a chosen deputy and friend of the gods. They wanted to be there in El Giza, to participate in this bold venture that would lead to an astonishing—a beautiful—result.
So let’s see… Their back-breaking labor was an act of reverence, inspired not by the need to eat but by a belief. And Khufu didn’t require those thousands of workers to suffer on his behalf; he wasn’t exploiting their labor—wasn’t consuming, for his own political purposes, their reverence, in itself beautiful—but rather urging them to celebrate with him the gods’ presence in all their lives. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Still absorbing the storefronts’ luxe offerings, still observing the thin women briskly carting their large shopping bags, I kept walking, hoping not to be plagued by recollections of that thirsty man and dog.
The dog was its own lovely self, but the man bore, I now realized, a more-than-passing resemblance to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin—of all people… To distract myself (for I was now quite thirsty and sweaty myself, but too embarrassed to seek refuge in Prada’s or Gucci’s air-conditioning), I imagined Lenin trying to formulate his famous question, shto delets (“what is to be done?”), while squatting on the sidewalk of via Montenapoleone—his gaze unfocused, lost in daydreams of home: scents of pine, the brisk breezes of Russian summers… A comic image: could there be anyone more out of place than Lenin on this street, the fanciest shopping venue in Milan? But I persisted in picturing him hunkered on the pavement with his tin cup. Despite the humidity, he’d be pondering how to best create and sustain a radical vanguard for the revolution. And hoping some dumb rich people would fail to recognize him and throw him a few euros, thus helping fund his fight against them.
In his famous 1902 pamphlet “What Is To Be Done,” Lenin argued for the creation of a small group of “tried and talented leaders…professionally trained, schooled by long experience, and working in perfect harmony”—a band of radical intellectuals, in other words, without whom no struggle against the suffering caused by capitalism could be waged. Of course those “tried and talented leaders,” secretive and cruel, went on to inflict great harm on others. And as they did so, they were hardly “in perfect harmony”; indeed, before long they began turning one another in—the whole grand experiment degenerating into a grotesquely violent farce. Nonetheless, Lenin was inspired at least initially by a vision of a particular kind of beauty: that of a just society whose oppressed classes would no longer have to suffer. And of a well-disciplined political party capable of managing this new dispensation.
All very nice, save for the fact that the party ended up savaging its own ideals. Once again, what was beautiful got consumed—not by those who’d overlooked or spurned it but those who actually saw it, desired it, would do anything to have it. And were willing, as they pursued it, to bring about or ignore unspeakable suffering.
A few blocks up via Montenapoleone I came upon another beggar, this one a female Roma. She sat with her back against a wall, her hairy legs fully extended so pedestrians had to skirt her upturned feet. She spoke into a cellphone in a tone of urgent anger. Put that thing away, I wanted to tell her, no one will give you a cent; they’ll think if you can pay for that phone, how can you ask us for a handout?
The woman looked at no one as she talked. She was living, for the moment, within the confines of a conversation so agitating to her that no one else on the street existed. Just as she herself rarely existed for the bag-toting shoppers… I wouldn’t for a moment have called her beautiful—but surely someone else would, indeed already had. Somebody not currently on via Montenapoleone. Such as, perhaps, the husband or kid with whom she was now speaking so passionately on the phone, in a language I couldn’t comprehend; the husband or kid who was now failing to hear or understand what she meant, wanted, needed…
Sometimes we see one another, sometimes we don’t. The possible consequences—celebration of beauty, consumption of beauty, discarding of beauty, causation of suffering—are unpredictable either way.
I wonder why I can create a mental picture of the politician Vladimir Lenin on via Montenapoleone many decades after his death, but have a harder time summoning an image of the poet Stevie Smith. Lenin was convinced he knew the way out of his moral conundrums; Stevie, the furthest thing from a politician, never kidded herself about hers: they were private (if not wholly singular) and irresolvable. She’d never have trotted them out over a megaphone in Picadilly Circus, never have worked them up into a political philosophy. Yet they were worthy nonetheless of attention, which is to say, of being fashioned into poems.
Ideals and metaphysics amused and baffled Stevie. Questioned about her religious beliefs, she told an interviewer: “I’m a backslider as a non-believer.” Stevie lived her whole life in doubt; within religious and political fervor she found only hypocrisy, never comfort. Animals, especially cats, pleased and reassured her: they were honest, unadorned. In her view, the simplest-minded cat could understand what most humans don’t: we’d better accept the truth of ourselves. If we try to deny or disguise our own particular yowls and purrs, we’re lost. This is indeed who I am ought always to be each person’s banner, though few know how to wave it.
I long ago ceased believing in any sort of god. There’s never been a divinity capable of tossing a rope bridge over the abyss that separates suffering from beauty, though endless gods and their foolhardy followers have urged us to shut our eyes and leap, or pick up our guns or wallets and sally forth to save the world. But I do believe in poems that end (as does Stevie’s “When One”) like this—in celebration of a god who, though he surely causes suffering, can also just as surely relieve it:
Why do I think of Death
As a friend?
It is because he is a scatterer,
He scatters the human frame
The nerviness and the great pain,
Throws it on the fresh fresh air
And now it is nowhere.
Only sweet Death does this,
Sweet Death, kind Death,
Of all the gods you are the best.
Martha Cooley's monthly essays are in conversation, directly or slant-wise, with editor Jennifer Acker's "From the 17th Floor" series. Together the two writers reflect on their recent physical and mental travels, on displacement and (re)settling, on explorations and discoveries that excite or discomfit, and, naturally, on literature and other arts.
Martha Cooley is the author of The Archivist, a national bestseller published in eleven foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons.
Photos from Flickr Creative Commons.