Vincent Van Gogh, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Translated by Arnold Pomerans. London: Penguin, 1997.
It isn’t really clear what was wrong with Vincent Van Gogh, but he was certainly a troubled man. Experts have suggested various theories, including bipolar disorder, thujone poisoning, lead poisoning, hypergraphia, and sunstroke. And then there is the possibility of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Thinking specifically about Van Gogh, Erwin van Meekeren writes that “a person with BPD may experience intense bouts of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last only hours, or at most a day. These may be associated with episodes of impulsive aggression, self-injury, and drug and alcohol abuse. Distortions in cognition and sense of self can lead to frequent changes in long-term goals, career plans, jobs, friendships, gender identity, and values.” That’s not quite a clinical diagnosis, but all of these symptoms are reflected in Vincent’s letters to his brother, Theo. Vincent pours his heart out in these letters and shows us what it looks like when someone tries to live out their faith as authentically as possible while not being able to trust their own feelings and actions.
Van Gogh wanted to be a minister before he decided to devote himself to art, and had a deep love for the poor and the unfortunate. “I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things,” he wrote. “But one must love with a lofty and serious intimate sympathy, with strength, with intelligence, and one must always try to know deeper, better and more. That leads to God, that leads to unwavering faith.” His passion for God and his passion for beauty were two sides of the same coin. “A feeling, even a keen one for the beauties of Nature is not the same as a religious feeling,” he wrote, “though I think these two stand in close relation to one another.” Van Gogh’s faith changed radically as he got older, and he abandoned “religious diaries and whitewashed church walls” to give his love to Sien Hoornik, a prostitute who was pregnant at the time. He said that when he looked at the girls who sold themselves for money, “I felt as if those poor girls were my sisters, in circumstances and experience.” Much to his family’s horror, he took Sien and her daughter in and treated her as his wife. “What is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly,” he asked, “to forsake a woman or to take on a forsaken one?” Despite his fine words, Van Gogh also bought women’s bodies for sex whenever he had a little money in his pocket.
Van Gogh was the first to admit that he was not perfect. He knew that he was prone to irrational bouts of anger and was hard to get on with. His friend and teacher, Anton Mauve, eventually told him: “you have a vicious character,” and refused to have any more to do with him. His brother, Theo, found living with him “almost unbearable.” After a fight with Paul Gauguin triggered a psychotic episode during which Van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to his friend, he reflected that “we are all mortal and subject to all the ailments there are, and if the latter aren’t exactly of an agreeable kind, what can one do about it? The best thing is to try and get rid of them.” It is often those closest to the sick person – parents, siblings, spouses – who find mental illness the most difficult to deal with because they have to put up with its ravages every day. Van Gogh was particularly ashamed that was a disappointment to his parents. They couldn’t stand living with him and had to constantly pay his bills. He prayed: “Keep me from being a son who makes ashamed, give me Thy blessing, not because I deserve it but for my mother’s sake. Thou art love, cover all things. Without Thy continued blessings we succeed in nothing.”
He understood that “there is much evil in the world and in ourselves, terrible things, and one does not need to be far advanced in life, to be in fear of much and to feel the need of a firm faith in life hereafter, and to know that without faith in God one cannot live, one cannot bear it.” Van Gogh refused to see himself as a victim, and told his brother that suffering was an opportunity for victory, not evidence of failure. “Whoever lives sincerely and encounters much trouble and disappointment,” he wrote, “but is not bowed down by them, is worth more than one who has always sailed before the wind and has only known relative prosperity.” Painting for him was a way of expressing what was wrong in the world. When he painted “The Night Cafe,” he said that “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of organ and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue.”
The problem with mental illness is that it skews how you see everything else in life. He told Theo, “you know what an error in one’s point of view represents in painting, viz. something far different and far worse than a faulty drawing of such or such a detail. A single point decides the greater or lesser gradient: the development more to the right or left of the sideplanes of the objects throughout the whole composition. Well, in life there is something like this.” Van Gogh was aware of his own imperfections, but he constantly compared himself to other people, whose lives seemed perfect compared to his own. It made him “dreadfully melancholy” and “terribly discouraged” when he thought of what other painters had achieved. He struggled against poverty as well as against his own “lack of talent,” and it required superhuman strength for him to keep going. In his last letter to Theo, he wrote that “well, my own work, I am risking my life for it.” He shot himself a few days later.
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