The 8.30am is the commuter train crossing the border into Italy, and it is filled with people standing, wearing work clothes. They are not the same people I saw in Nice along the Promenade des Anglais, or perhaps they are, but these people are more beautiful in their everyday clothes than their holiday outfits, and their beauty is something to do with having somewhere to go. Someone told me to look back at Nice, which looks most lovely as you leave it – Round the curve, way around the big corner, where the land rises up away from the water – but, though I’ve chosen a backward-facing seat, the train goes into a tunnel and I miss the view.
Nowhere is so beautiful as when it’s left; the beauty is part of the leaving. Leavers miss what they’ve left but there are always new vistas, making leaving a joy in itself. You were the one who left. You took that privilege. No one is so beautiful as when they are leaving, no one so ready to be left as the one who stays. If only I could always be leaving, I’d never miss anyone.
I’m taking the train to Rome along a stretch of coast that’s one of the most beautiful in Europe. I know this because it said so on the website where I bought my ticket. From the seaward window, between the rails and the water, billboards interrupt the view in a rhythm of sun and shadow. Drawing into a station, ads for a cheap store I shopped at in my teens: women in bikinis with moulded cups, round and hard as half-footballs. They’re on a beach, each woman alone on her particular billboard bent in some half-posture, ready to start into the waves or out towards the land, and the waves in the photos don’t move but the real waves between the billboards do, and sometimes I’m looking at the waves and sometimes at the photos of the waves, close-up and still, with women in bikinis sticking up out of them. At their age I wanted to look like them, but I didn’t know quite what for. Unanchored, I knew what it was to be attractive long before I knew what I wanted to attract.
At Ventimiglia, a rush to exchange French coupons for Italian tickets, to find the right platform in a new language. I’ve been told to take the line running along the beautiful Genoan coast. Instead I am on the fast train to Milan. I worry that the landscape through which I am passing is not beautiful enough. Then the railway line ploughs into a cut. Its sides sprout cacti, and I have to look up to see the sky.
Why did I take the fast train? What kind of hurry am I in?
I flip through the magazine I bought in Nice. The images are still, and I’m moving. On each page the model is a woman alone in a place, and the places are different except that they are all under blue skies. Often they are the same woman, shown across several pages, looking like different women in different clothes, and sometimes they are also the same women as on the billboards, or women who look like them, but they don’t look like they’re meant to be the same women because the clothes and places are different. The women are not doing things, or are doing half-things like jumping into pools that spray up into the camera to show movement, or playing ball on a beach, but with no partner, and all of the women have an expression of intense, private experience, sexual or otherwise. Is this what beauty is?
Another station. People come and come through the door until the carriage is almost full. A German couple in their fifties (sixties?) board and fuss about who is sitting where, something no one else has done, although we are all sitting in the wrong seats. They show us their tickets, each with a number: a girl with a backpacker’s backpack has to leave. We all look down and away; the compartment enforces camaraderie of one kind or another. A railway official passes in the corridor with a coffee cart. He stops and tings a bell for attention – so cheerful, so musical. In England the coffee cart runners must call out or ask each passenger, whether he, or she, would like coffee, or tea, but this bell is so neat, so playfully efficient, affixed to the side of the cart which is stacked so precisely, each packet of whatever top-or-tailing another: polished bricks of chocolate parquet.
Oh things, things are beautiful!
Despair was a state that arrived while I was looking out of the other window. It was a state in which I was unable to meet beautiful things. It’s not that I couldn’t see that things could be beautiful, it’s just that I no longer cared for beauty, and I didn’t care for things at all. I wrecked my favourite jacket not caring, brushing up against wet paintwork. Now there’s a broad white stripe across its back and, though I scrub it, paint particles are knit with the weave. I was careless when I was in love. I cared for nothing. I destroyed some things I cannot mend. Love does not care for objects. Love is un-materialistic, revolutionary, anarchic – but merciless. A step away from love, from grief, are secondary pleasures: first a cup of coffee, then a lipstick, then a dress. The trick is to untangle objects from memory.
Our first argument was about Dior lipstick.
I bought a tube of Dior lipstick.
You emailed: How’s that going to help the revolution?
I emailed: Dior lipstick really is more beautiful than the other kinds. It costs more, but not a lot more, and the thought that goes into the colours makes it so much more beautiful.
I meant we could have a revolution in Dior lipstick, you meant we couldn’t.
At the time, I was working for the revolution in a tented city in the rain, wearing Dior lipstick, and you were at home, or abroad, not working for the revolution, not directly at least, but not wearing Dior lipstick, which may or may not have been a revolutionary gesture.
The people I know who make beautiful things, I said, don’t do it for the money. They just do it because they want to make beautiful things.
What’s the point of making beautiful things? I thought you meant, ’Why ever spend time thinking about lipstick when you could go round niggling at the bad bits of life?’ Beauty is easy to see, so it must be easy to make, so easy it’s untrue like those magazine ladies working overtime to look like leisure. Did you think the truth was ugly?
Once when we were walking through the city streets together, we found a shop, cheap and unisex. You tried on a shirt: ‘Should I buy it?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Do you need it?’ For a moment, through a gap in the changing-room curtains I saw, in a gap between your shirt and jeans, what I desired. But it was only for an instant. I don’t know if you expected me to be more enthusiastic about the shirt because I wore Dior lipstick, or if you wanted to be told how beautiful it was, or you were, or how nice it was to buy things, but you were somehow as disappointed with me as with the shirt so we walked out of the shop and, when we came back later to buy it, it was gone.
I think you believed in beauty – that it had something to do with love – that you believed that the magazine women were beautiful, and maybe you desired them, though they were glossy as their pages and I could never see a way through. You thought the beauty was theirs, not the photograph’s or the bikini’s or anything else. I’m not sure you believed that beauty could be made, or that it could be made more by adding things, like lipstick. You did believe in art, and that art could be made, and that it could be beautiful, but you didn’t like lipstick on a woman, though you did like oil paintings of them. This was something I found confusing.
Genoa station pulls the train in from the coast and lets in a cloud of cigarette smoke. The Germans fuss and fuss about something. The woman holds the travel documents, as so frequently amongst couples. She digs into her bag, brings up a bottle and rattles out pills. Then she goes into the corridor where she has a coughing fit.
The German couple leaves the carriage to queue by the exit door exactly eleven minutes before the train pulls into Milan station.
The Arrivals hall at Milano station is so big and so beautiful that I am unable to leave. Porta Nuova (The New Door) that exits to the city is a gate without a view, a gate to a tangle of technology they don’t know how to hide: car park on one side, rails on the other. Outside, the station is shored up with scaffolding draped with plastic, and there’s no clear way from this marble monument to any other, to the Milan I had intended to see between trains.
Why build a crystal palace for leaving a city? Why build it – so beautifully – in glass that’s got to get dirty? This one took generations, and each twenty years piled on a thousand years of style: Egyptian, Roman, Classical, Baroque. I’m here for only a few hours. Perhaps all I need to know of Milan is its station. With its unfixed population, all arrivals and departures, with all the amenities of any city, from shops to restaurants to police station to public gardens, but no bedrooms, it’s a city on fast-forward, a city that doesn’t sleep.
I travel down escalators that render the shallow marble stairs, wide and grand enough for a Hollywood coach and horses, redundant. Machines to speed us up, with a speed we are not expected to provide ourselves, make us, instead, stately. On escalators, travelators, we pose like models in magazines, except the models’ movement has been snapped and stilled, but – immobile – we’re still moving, a snapshot on a real-time background, though we don’t look much like models, or like marble.
As I climb the steps, lines of light sink down into them and I am skating on a surface. I walked with the constant fear of falling, like Stendhal in Florence, as though reality might drop away from me, or as though I might sink past it. What is this I am feeling? Is this Stendhal Syndrome – hyperkulturemia? I’ve heard of it. People faint sometimes, in Italy especially, when they experience great beauty. Faint? An appropriate reaction to beauty is an attempt to escape it – or to escape what you become in its presence – at any rate, an attempt to go into nothingness, to get some distance from the beautiful thing.
Does anyone suffer from Stendhal Syndrome any more, now we’re used to beauty everywhere: paintings, billboards, magazines? No one had Stendhal syndrome before Stendhal, and no one who lives in Florence ever has it. Getting it is something to do with distance. I was in the Uffizi Gallery once, in Florence, where Venus emerged from the waves undecided as a model on a billboard. The Botticellis stared at me, dingy and tiny, from dark walls. Unlit, to hold them just as they are, they were smaller and greyer than I’d thought they possibly could have been. But that was years ago and I was with the man I’d just married. There was no Google then but there were postcards, books and posters, and all the long week we were in Florence, we looked at things we’d seen before, but at a distance. Not knowing what else we should have done, we looked and looked at pictures in churches, and monasteries, and galleries and, because what we saw changed, but what we were doing did not, it was as though we stayed still and the walls were moving, or that we were in one dark continuous room with slides, the blinds occasionally drawn up to blind us with temporary accesses of sun. I don’t know what he felt – we were so young it was as difficult to ask as to answer – but I knew the pictures did not move me, except in their curious difference from what I’d thought they might have been.
I find my platform and board the train that will travel towards Rome through central Italy. The landscape is flat and industrial and, as it is not beautiful, there are no more ads showing beautiful women, and that’s OK with me. I have no more room for beauty. Something about beauty is dead. The model photographed is already over, her intensity part of the past, like the beautiful paintings that go on just the same, whatever happens to you. Looking at the billboards on the beautiful train line outside Nice was like looking at Matisse’s paintings of Nice, where the woman sitting with the book is just as beautiful as the goldfish in its bowl, or the tablecloth, which is exactly as still and decorative as the room, which looks precisely as flat and as bright as the landscape, which is shown – its flowers lush as wallpaper – framed, like a second painting, though it’s a window. Woman, room, landscape; all three observed with no more, no less, attention. If you stand up close you can hardly tell one from another.
No, paintings are not always moving. If you want them to move you, you must move towards them until you are exactly the right distance away. And people are not always beautiful, not like in paintings. I wouldn’t want to confuse the picture with the real thing. Even Matisse’s women are lumpy, disjointed. But maybe he liked them that way, and, if he did, that’s nice: who can second-guess, after all, any particular man’s desire? Though his paintings are beautiful, I don’t want to look like Matisse’s women, but, looking at the billboard models, their beauty so generally recognized, it’s impossible for me not to want to look like them. Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder: once beheld, it can be held onto in, say, a painting, a photograph. If I were a painter, a photographer of women, and not – also – a woman myself, perhaps I could just recognize it but if I held down beauty in art, not feeling myself also beheld, I would be nothing but a taste mortician, arranging other women on a slab. When I paint myself – dye my hair, put on lipstick – I begin to lack something of beauty which does not behold itself but, if I were innocently, unknowingly beautiful, what good would it ever do me?
I don’t want to be beautiful, not beauty seen. I tried to explain that to you once: I want to look a certain way, but I don’t want to be looked at a certain way. We were in an art gallery, a modern gallery showing films of performance art first intended to move only its live audience. Most of the art looked like it was meant to be shocking, and I don’t know whether that was also some kind of attempt at beauty.
Some people complain that art doesn’t look beautiful anymore, like it used to when it was a painting of a vase of flowers, or a woman, reading in front of a window with a view of Nice. Or maybe that’s only what they used to say. Beauty struggles with what beauty was. We’re always changing our minds and the artists, whatever they try, don’t seem to be able to help making beautiful things. Now even the sort of people you think might complain, like all kinds of art, even a picture of violence like Picasso’s Guernica, which is a beautiful painting because it’s attractive – if it hadn’t been, it would have been forgotten. There is no disjunct between beauty and horror.
But what I felt in Milan wasn’t that kind of beauty: it was a physical euphoria, an overflowing benevolence, or happy receptivity, something connective – at any rate, a boundlessness. I’m not sure whether it was directed inwards or outwards, was to do with recognizing beauty or feeling that I might be beautiful. It seemed to be both at once. I look for my magazine to check whether, after having a beautiful experience, I can recognize myself in what I see. Have I left it in the station, an unexploded grenade for someone else to find? Wait – here it is and, looking twice, the models don’t even look beautiful any more other than as a code to what beauty might be. They’ve lost their power to shock me into connectivity. It doesn’t seem possible to experience this kind of beauty except at the shock of first sight. If it doesn’t blow you away, you’re left with anxiety: look at the page, look away, look back. Is it still beautiful? André Breton ends his memoir, Nadja, by saying something about beauty, just when I’d thought he was going to say something about love. He said beauty is ‘convulsive’, not like the models who look like they’re moving but aren’t, but, ‘beauty is like a train that ceaselessly roars out of the Gare de Lyon, and which I know will never leave, which has not left.’ And that’s what I wanted to be, isn’t it, always leaving but never, not ever moving fast enough to arrive? Because no one is ever so beautiful as when she is leaving.
No, wait a minute, I was wrong: Breton said ‘will be’ – ‘beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all.’ It’s a prediction, not an evaluation.
Through the window, I’m looking for the pattern that will produce the convulsion, like the rhythm of the sun and shadow between the billboards along the track – bright – dark – gap – bright – gap – gap. Is beauty the is or the isn’t, or is it the rhythm of the two? Is it the pattern, or its disruption, or is beauty recognizing the pattern then disrupting it, or trying to? Sometimes I think I can see a pattern but then I’m not sure it means anything. Love is constant revolution, pure disruption, it can never be stilled. I’m not sure love can be beautiful.
Outside, the rhythm of the landscape has changed: more buildings, fewer gaps. We’re rattling through the suburbs of Rome. A woman sitting opposite gets up to pull her case down from the rack. She’s in her early 60s perhaps, well-dressed, wearing no make-up. I can see age spots and tiny wrinkles. Bare skin is daring; in age, even more so. Because she doesn’t look like she’s trying, she is beautiful. She takes a small bag from her case, and from it a tiny mirrored compact. She opens it and begins to apply foundation until her skin is uniform in texture and unnaturally peachy in colour. I know that if I got close to her it would no longer smell or feel like skin – it would smell like talcum and feel like Ultrasuede – and that if I kissed her, I wouldn’t be kissing her, and that particles of colour would stay on my lips when I pulled away. She takes out a concealer pencil. As we pull into Rome Termini, she slowly erases the last traces of herself.
‘Ventimiglia’ is an extract from Joanna Walsh’s book-in-progress, Break.up.
Photograph © Nic Redhead