I took a photo of the crown before I knew what it meant. It looked like a flimsy grade-school art project, something my younger cousin crafted out of old Amazon boxes on a restless snow day. I could imagine her using safety-guarded scissors to transform the ordinary into something regal, like watching a frog become a prince or Sleeping Beauty awaken.
I was in Manhattan for the weekend with my friend Julia, who thought that both of us enrolling in visual art classes warranted a trip to the Museum of Arts and Design. “How do you think this cardboard crown wound up in a glass display case?” I wondered out loud. Julia laughed, accustomed to my lack of attention to detail, and pointed to the plaque below. The crown, it turned out, was not constructed out of cardboard at all. It was made entirely of gold, down to the staples carelessly piecing it together.
Meaning collects in an object as a result of materiality and intention, the plaque reminded me. Disguising gold as cardboard had eclipsed its value—its meaning—entirely. A solid-gold crown is worn by monarchs, deities. A cardboard crown is worn by my Kool-Aid-stained cousin. A crown is not a hat, not a halo. Meaning ascribed.
Economists have been grappling with this so-called “Paradox of Value” for ages now. Originally presented by philosopher Adam Smith in the late 18th century, the contradiction asks why gold, a commodity without intrinsic value, is more expensive than water, an element essential to life. According to economists, water is in such high supply around the world that the value of an additional unit of water for any given person is low, whereas the opposite is true for gold. According to the plaque, gold influences all opinions, blinding us to content and form. But I think it is because beauty is necessary to our survival, as well.
Throughout my life, this belief has manifested itself in a variety of ways. Last year I took one of those “Strengthsfinder” tests to figure out what meaning I had, or perhaps to reassure myself I had any at all. I rated a series of statements on a scale from “Very Much Like Me” to “Very Much Unlike Me,” and an algorithm spat out my “Strengths Profile,” which listed 34 of my top strengths. My primary strength was not one I was expecting; as my friends’ results read “Courage” or “Love,” mine was “Appreciation of Beauty.” Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience. I felt cheated, almost embarrassed to tell my friends, as I feared being perceived as shallow or materialistic. I tried to reflect upon the moments that had played to this strength, and slowly began to realize they were nearly all spent alone. Perhaps it wasn’t that I was attached to beauty in a trivial sense, but rather, ascribing beauty in moments of solitude allowed me to find meaning when no one else was there to provide it.
At first, being alone is “good,”—necessary, even. I’m told it’s especially good for women. Not only is it important for us to be independent, we need to prove that we are, constantly. When I was young, any glimmer of newly ripe independence was remarkable. It felt like licking ice cream cones on the porch of the shop on Michigan Avenue, driving a few friends across town, making bad decisions I felt proud were finally my own. Later, it felt like downloading maps on my phone before taking a bus deep into the Panamanian jungle, successfully navigating my course, once again proving my self-sufficiency. But as I grew older, the novelty dried up, blurring the line between independence and loneliness. Now, it often feels more rotten than ripe—like doing taxes, or the week-old bag of spinach decomposing in my fridge, slowly melting into a smelly slime.
This loneliness is a muscle of mine, surely underutilized. I decided to flex it by moving to Sweden for a semester. (A young woman moving across the world in a desperate attempt to recreate herself? How original!) A week before my flight, I ordered a few items from Glossier, an online makeup shop that boasts products for enhancing your natural features and being OKAY with yourself, TODAY! Maybe I could get that ripe independence back, nicely packaged in a bottle for only $16.99! I fantasized about visiting art galleries while wearing pale gold eyeliner, how chic I would appear in coffee shops with a full, glossy lip. I am well aware this is the exact type of vanity Glossier has capitalized on: milky white oils and pink, gelatinous formulas substituting for new beginnings. As I landed in unfamiliar territory, I thought about how this sudden urge to enhance my natural features implies that there’s something to be enhanced in the first place. That, perhaps, beauty is best interrupted.
When I first arrived in Sweden, I decided to limit the number of photographs I took. I did not want to spend time capturing my life through a lens when I could spend it being present, intentional, taking in all the beauty for myself.
This decision was absolutely grounded in a desire to escape the stereotype of my generation: we spend too much time living through screens and seeking validation through likes. This critique is neither novel nor unjust. In her essay collection On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that “needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” Interpreting her words as a cautionary tale—a challenge, even—I proclaimed myself present. I will confirm my own reality, thank you very much.
At the Moderna Museet, I imagined that each painting I passed was crafted from pure gold, just like the crown I saw in New York. At first, it was thrilling to believe I was the sole beholder of such scarce beauty, the kind a photograph could compromise. I worried that a photograph would take the solid gold I saw before me and morph it into flimsy cardboard, making my sacred experience something all too readily shared. As Sontag notes, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” I did not want to spread this moment thinly amongst my Instagram followers, or anyone who could have shared in this beauty, evaporating its value altogether. But this strange strand of greed did not serve me for long.
In my Scandinavian art and architecture class, I learned about Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition induced when individuals have been exposed to excessive amounts of beauty. Characterized by a rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion, and hallucinations, this peculiar affliction was named after French author Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pen name, Stendhal. After visiting Florence, he was flooded with such profound emotion that he found himself “in a sort of ecstasy.” In his journal, he described the experience as an “absorption in the contemplation of sublime beauty,” which eventually became so powerful it consumed every part of his being. Solemnly, he wrote, “Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.” It was all too much.
While Stendhal noted that his condition allowed everything to “speak so vividly” to his soul, I felt as though everything was escaping mine. I thought my loneliness was sharp enough to define my voice, but instead it had evaporated it. The craving for shared presence—for someone to tell me what it all meant—had become so ferocious, so human, that it deafened, the same way gold blinds.
One fall morning, I gaze out at the Baltic Sea, sucking all of the crystalized sugar at the bottom of my iced coffee through a bright pink straw. The water is high, and the sunshine has just begun to fossilize on its surface—at first furiously dappling, and then, all at once, fixing itself in place. I realize I’m afraid of this beauty. I’m afraid I don’t have the capacity to absorb it all myself, to understand its value, to understand what it all means. Does beauty necessitate evidence or witness?
Overwhelmed, I fail Sontag, and snap a photo of the sea. Photography provides me with near-instant relief: if I can’t hold or make sense of it all on my own, at least I have a photograph to share with someone later. Someone whose presence may magically excavate its meaning and do it all justice.
I become a compulsive photographer, snapping shots of everything that comes along—a ladybug with broken wings, a far-too-expensive latte, a poster floating down a stream for a concert I missed last night. It’s like I’m on a mission to collect evidence of my own consciousness, anxiously awaiting an affidavit, an occasion to prove all I am living through.
I traveled to Paris and walked to the Eiffel Tower alone. Experiencing possibly the most romanticized destination in the Western canon by myself was like watching my favorite movie for the thousandth time and realizing that someone had changed the words. Or listening to the album I always listened to on days like that one, except that day someone had put it on shuffle, destroying the integrity of the story, the beauty. Or, actually, it was like peeling a ripe sumo orange, and just the first whiff of the overwhelming juice, just the grit of the peel under my fingernails, was enough to make my taste buds taste what they’d expected would come. But then I dropped it on the ground. And then, my mouth was wet for no reason.
What I’m trying to say is that when experienced alone, it is just a tower.
Daunting, yet upheld solely by prestige and tourism; colossal, yet only relatively. Acutely aware this was just another meaning I had ascribed to the tower, I reminded myself I was not the protagonist. In fact, Paris Syndrome was first identified in 1986 by Professor Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist living in France. Ota had noticed a number of tourists, especially “young women on their first international trip,” fade into a state of extreme shock upon discovering Paris was different from their expectations. This syndrome, characterized by sharp delusional states, hallucinations, depersonalization, and other unpleasant symptoms, is so widespread that there have been hotlines set up by various embassies to counsel their citizens through the unraveling of their own reality. I wondered what these phone calls sounded like. I wish I had called. I would have told them my number one strength is Appreciation of Beauty. I would have asked why I didn’t have the capacity to understand. I would have asked them to come and meet me, and tell me what it means. And then, maybe they would have asked, “Are you alone?”
That night, I slept in a cheap hostel room with six men. When I left to change in the bathroom, one man let me know that I don’t have to leave the room to undress, you know. As I laid in my bunk bed, I thought about how beauty could be construed as dangerous, too. Staring at the ceiling, I suddenly felt the urge to frantically search for my keys, and wriggle them to a safe-keeping spot underneath my pillow. Feeling their sharp edges provided me a semblance of safety, but something else too: the sour tinge of pride, pride that my beauty was tangible enough to fear. Like my own beauty was work, work to make them feel good all the time—yet somehow this work was pride, and there was a loneliness to it. And it was this loneliness that began to paint the exact boundaries of my body, showing me where my skin ended and that of another began.
I lay awake the majority of the night, wondering if these men saw me as a cardboard body painted gold or a golden body appearing as cardboard. Wondering what the difference was. Wondering what value I had, either way.
This moment forced me to consider not only the value others placed on me and my body, but how I conceptualized myself, as well. Until this point, I had assumed all of the answers to my questions would materialize externally—that I could trust the voices of Sontag or Stendhal, but could never be certain of my own. But this newfound confidence in my solitude allowed me to realize I was capable of excavating meaning myself. And even if this task occasionally felt insurmountable, I was reassured my life was a meaningful one, just to have bathed myself in such beauty. To have discovered myself among it.
I wander into a small bar draped with ivy and rusted pipes. I sip on a glass of acidic wine in the corner, where the waiter periodically visits me, asking if someone will be joining me this fine evening. I wave him off and think of everyone who told me I would enjoy the wine in France. What they failed to mention is that a three dollar glass of wine is most likely going to taste like piss regardless of your geographical coordinates. I begin to wish I had someone to share this silent moment with, as a woman enters the front door. She wears an elegant, deep purple, floor-length trench coat and tinted sunglasses. She sits down, close enough for me to overhear her order a hot chocolate and french fries, at a bar, at 10:56 PM on a Friday. Like the waiter, I keep an eye on the door, waiting for someone to join her. No one ever does. She cleans off half of the golden french fries, wipes the excess grease on the napkin in her lap, and cautiously sips the hot chocolate, which is still cooling. She leaves enough money on the table to cover the bill, and I watch her vanish into the same beautiful city we both appeared from.
MARIE LACHANCE B’20 has 35,573 photos on her camera roll.