I'm walking through the national gallery, at age 17, with my high school class. Boring roccoco paintings, mostly. Then I see a bust of Voltaire in the corner, and I am lost to the world for several minutes.

He has that smirk on his face -- the one that looks like he knows a secret, a secret so obvious he need not keep it, only smile and wait. A secret so obvious he could never describe it to anyone.

I stand there with my mouth open, almost waiting for him to flinch, to speak. There is no arrogance in that smirk, no pride, nothing. But I want to know why he is smiling like that, more than anything. The class moves on to the next room, to look at portraits of French Kings. My friend has to come back and pull me away.

In the years since, I have found the smirk on many other people. William S. Burroughs. Herman Hesse. Buddha. It was even mentioned in the John Fowles novel The Magus.

I'm even starting to develop my own version of the smirk.


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