Mona Lisa and the Wheelbarrow

Mona Lisa and the Wheelbarrow
by Floyd Dell

Written in 1914. First published in The Masses, a socialist magazine published in New York City, in 1914.

     The two great riddles of the world today are machinery and woman. They are two unsolved questions which must be solved: and the answers may be, for all we know, tragic. Meanwhile, we bend our intelligences to the task of discovering what they can mean—what they should mean—to the world. In them lie hidden the possibilities of failure or happiness for the human race. What the future will be, depends on these two things—machinery and women.

     Of these riddles, a famous painting and a familiar tool may serve us for the moment as symbols. The appropriateness of the first is obvious enough. It is no accident that the Mona Lisa is the most talked-about painting in the world. Walter Pater was not the first, nor the mad Italian who ravished her away the last, to see a mystery in her smile. Nor has the world been fooled into seeing a mystery where the painter only put a mouth. The period out of which the Mona Lisa came was interested in meanings no less than in mouths. The Renaissance was a period of desperate imaginative inquiry. Men painted what they thought as well as what they saw. And Leonardo da Vinci, the most desperate imaginative inquirer of all the Renaissance, may well be supposed to have put into his four years’ work on that painting what four centuries have found there. Mona Lisa is not a woman: she is Woman. And that eternal baffling smile is the same which confronts us to-day when we turn to her in hope and fear.

     But though the Mona Lisa may easily be assumed to symbolize for us the whole problem for which in the last few years we have invented the term "feminism," the other symbol may seem obscure. A plough might as well have suggested that power which man has unloosed upon the world and upon himself—that power which, having left the hands of man, goes on as of itself, an endlessly evolving force, a thing half angel and half fiend. A plough would have been as appropriate—but I do not know who invented the plough, and I do know who made the first wheelbarrow. It was the same man that painted the Mona Lisa.

    This was perhaps no accidental coincidence. You may regard a wheelbarrow as a simple device that anyone would have thought of. But the Pyramids were raised without its aid. The captive Hebrews carted their bricks-without-straw and never dreamed of such a thing to ease their labours. Rome was built without wheelbarrows. If you stop to think of it, a wheelbarrow is a curious and perverse piece of mechanism, a cross between a cart and a catapult, changing suddenly by the mighty magic of the lever from the one to the other. The world had got along for thousands of years without it. Then one imagines a state of siege in an Italian town, a necessity for building up battered walls faster than they had ever been built up before, a few moments’ desperate concentration of mind, a hasty sketch on the back of a love-letter, and lo!—the wheelbarrow. But it wouldn’t have happened—at least not just then—if the chief engineer had not been Leonardo da Vinci.

     It took a curious and perverse mind to make that machine. I have looked through the notebooks of Leonardo—looked, and not read, for the four languages in which they are printed, in the magnificent and many-volumed edition I have seen, do not include my own—looked in something like awe at the drawings of wings of birds and of tentative birdlike machinery which illustrate his attempt to discover the secret of flying. And while I looked I heard through the open window the throb of motors in the sky.

     Before me were the facsimile sketches, torn and thumb-marked by dead hands, of Leonardo’s uncompleted dreams—a great mind’s guesses at the mystery of mechanism; and outside, while thousands waited and watched to see him die, Beachey was breaking a record.

     He knew that curious Florentine—he knew that the genius inherent in machinery would yet lift men above the clouds. He did not know that the invention of a spinning-jenny would change the whole world, sweeping away all but the ruins of his own age and erecting above them a hideous factory civilization, turning skilled artisans into machine hands and superseding the prince by the capitalist. He did not dream how men would come to look on machinery with fear, and then at last with a dawning hope, seeing in its relentless evolution a destructive and transforming power which would destroy and transform this new civilization even as the last.

     Nor did his curious mind penetrate to our latter-day anxiety in the face of the feminine enigma. He did not dream that we should front that baffling face with an old question that has a new meaning: "Will you?"

     We know well enough that Woman has behind her a long tradition of servitude. And we look at her and wonder if she will have the stamina to be free. We know that she does not yet particularly desire to think. And we look at her and wonder if she will wish to learn. We know that she has a jealous and narrow individualism. And we look at her and wonder if she will subject herself unreluctantly to those larger social processes which alone can make of her a real individual. We know that she submits to being the victim of Life even as the Moslem submits to being the victim of Death. And we look at her and wonder if she will achieve conscious and purposeful control over her terrible biological potencies. We know that the tissues of her soul are ravaged by the poisonous bacteria of Romance. And we look at her and wonder if she will ever gain a practical immunity from that disease. We see in her tremendous and fine things, and we are humble before them. We know that she has begun to dream greatly. And we face the delicate scorn of her smile and ask again: "Will you?"

     In the face of the old painting there is nothing of this.... Nothing? Perhaps we do Leonardo an injustice. Perhaps he too wondered what we are wondering to-day. Perhaps he was as well acquainted as we with that dynamic feminine discontent which one as yet dare not quite trust. And perhaps he guessed, too, the future of the distaff as he guessed the future of the flying-machine. We may yet come across an old notebook, torn and thumb-marked by dead hands, that will set the enigma of the wheelbarrow side by side with the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa—and we shall read in something like awe Leonardo da Vinci’s guesses at the two great riddles of the world.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1969, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.