by Jan Johnson
Bored, I let another barely read book slide from my bed to the floor as I watched the stack of books on my night stand grow smaller. One by one I had discarded best-selling books after reading only a few chapters. Even though I was a book lover and writer, none of the books in the stack touched the emptiness inside me. They all seemed too facile, too airy, too cheerful.
I picked up the last one, rolling my eyes in dread. But within the pages of Lust for Life (Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Vincent van Gogh), I found a companion who would walk with me through my dark night of the soul and sit there as long as I needed him. I read with awe and curiosity how Vincent van Gogh had created bold, passionate paintings out of a life of chaos, disappointment and rejection. I could sink the teeth of my anger into this man’s pain.
After reading Lust for Life, I bought and pondered a book of reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings. The bright colors (he didn’t speak of seeing fields, trees, houses or mountains . . . but yellows, blues, reds, greens, and the drama of their interplay) had a strange effect on me. They unearthed in me a passion for living but also satisfied that passion in such a way that I felt at peace with the anguish of life. I became more curious about this man who others saw as a failure in his career (only two of his paintings sold during his lifetime) and relationships (none of his four love interests returned his love). Even though he seemed to walk the path of defeat, he somehow salvaged from it the gift to see life in a vivid, poetic way.
Vincent became for me what many book lovers treasure — a friend from another era. We had little in common — he, male and I, female; he, Belgian and I, American; he, living in the 1880s and I, in the 1980s — but his groans against the status quo echoed beyond those barriers and soothed the humiliation written on my heart. He wrestled with the melancholy I battled and on the days that he painted, he seemed to beat it.
Both of us began as idealistic God-seekers. Vincent wrote to his best friend and younger brother, Theo: “I must become a good clergyman, who has something to say that is right and may be of use in the world. . . . ” Beginning in the winter of 1878, he served as a missionary among poor coal miners in Belgium but was released because he was supposedly disgracing the church and had no sense of decency or decorum. In what way? He gave his bed to a sick child and he argued for the safety of the miners exposed to poisoned air and gas explosions. He spent his energies caring for the mining families instead of pleasing the ecclesiastical leaders. Even though he continued to speak of God for the rest of his life, he walked away from the church.
I understood his disillusionment. I had worked beside my pastor husband for twelve years in inner city churches, trying to help older white congregations integrate. We ached to make a difference in these communities of faith, but because we loathed ecclesiastical politics and languished in personal self-doubt, the heat we generated waned. We, too, disgraced the church by bringing in noisy kids and low-income families. Like Vincent, we did not have the resources to wage these political battles and we left the ministry. No blazes of glory — just dark, seething coals of burn out.
I found hope that even though Vincent was deemed a failure and often depressed, he was still able to fashion his passion into works of art that stir the soul and make it wish to come alive again. He revealed that passion in a letter to Theo: “I want to make drawings that touch some people. . . . I want to reach so far that people will say of my work: he feels deeply, he feels tenderly — notwithstanding my so-called roughness, perhaps even because of this.” Because of his roughness? Because of his melancholy? Was there some worth in these unmarketable qualities that no one I knew seemed to value? He described himself as a caged bird, “maddened by anguish,” saying, “Till at last I began to feel quite depressed, and I said to myself: you are not going to become melancholy again, are you?” Like him, I longed to be a light-hearted, go-with-the-flow person, but found that I could be no one but myself.
Vincent listened to his passion in a way I was afraid to do. He continued painting with little money, little affection, little encouragement. His paintings are much more than the likeness of sunflowers, cafes and night skies, but their essence. Just as he squeezed paint directly from the tube onto the canvas, he seemed to massage the pulse from his veins and knead it into his pictures. He spent that passion with joy: “whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, . . . one must never let the fire go out in one’s soul, but keep it burning.” Vincent’s life reassured me that even though passion may not be acceptable in a suave, air-brushed, let’s-do-lunch world, I should attempt to spend my passion anyway.
The first sign that I had turned up the intensity in my writing was a peculiar one. Vincent’s fire for his work made him single-focused to the point that he did not eat for days, and his appearance became wretched at times. As I slipped deeper into writing, I, the fastidious woman who would not leave her room in the morning without her eyeliner perfectly shaded, became so anxious to start working that I slapped on sweat clothes and forgot to wash my hair.
I began to understand what Vincent meant when he said, “I find myself in surroundings which so entirely engross me, . . . that I am quite wrapped up in them.” As I sat at my computer, lost to the world and insulated from the noises around me, I felt as if I were taking off in an airplane so small that no one in her right mind would attempt to pilot it. I became enchanted by what was in front of me, manipulating the controls so as to create new worlds before my eyes. The back and forth centeredness within me launched my drowsy flight into space like a comet as I tested Vincent’s experiment that those of us who are steeped in failure and self-doubt can push through.
But passion has its shadow side and I wanted to learn from Vincent how to manage that passion. Instead, Vincent’s letters are full of falling outs with people. His cousin and fellow painter, Anton Mauve, said he was a vicious person. Vincent often felt estranged from his own father. The same passion that led him to reproduce on canvas the “fairy-tale aspects of nature, the enormous and magnificent joy, the miraculous feast of life” also propelled him into self-destruction: “He dreamed of the impossible. In wild fits of fury he raged against his hand, which was unable to execute on the canvas all the perfection and genius that his brain conceived.”
I, too, had to stifle my passion to keep from scolding myself and alienating others. I felt such empathy for the underdog that in friendly discussions I would champion the issues of poverty or racial reconciliation with such energy that my husband would give me the cut-off sign from across the room. Even in my relationship with this kind, gentle spouse, I reflected the raging craziness I learned early in life. This caused my passion to leak out in impatience and criticism of my family and this frightened me.
I was afraid that my relationships would meet the doom Vincent’s did. His words in his letter to Theo were my words of despair to God: “I am a man of passions, capable of and subject to doing more or less foolish things, of which I happen to repent, more or less, afterwards. . . . Must I consider myself a dangerous man, incapable of anything? I do not think so. But the question is to try by all possible means to put those selfsame passions to good use.”
Could I do what Vincent did not do — maintain my high passion for my work and find serenity in my personal life? I saw that the only way I could learn to treat those I loved with carefulness, humility and tenderness would be to find a source of love to absorb my neediness. As failed God-seekers often do, I reached for God in an unorthodox way: taking long walks and crying out the bitter, raging words I found in Psalms. In time I sensed that I was heard and my neediness nourished. I saw also that Vincent’s companionship was God’s gift to me, but his tendency to alienate those he loved and to eventually destroy himself in suicide did not have to be my path. I wished I could find a way to tell this to my melancholy friend.
If passion and serenity are to co-exist in me, Vincent, it will be because my writing is becoming for me, as your painting was for you, a container large enough to wield the passion we hold for life. As your painting was for you, my writing is a balm and consolation against the pain of bungled love. You wrote of your cousin who did not return your love: “But while she clings and holds to the old things, I must work and keep my mind clear for painting and drawing and business” Fashioning my passion into well-thought phrases for six hours everyday helped me set aside my hurt and anger; I found renewal in accepting challenges to try harder, to think deeper, to take more risks. The collection of small reproductions of your paintings on my office wall seemed to circle me, prod me and suggest to me: be bold; write about things that break your heart; put courage and energy into everything you write just as I forged it into the sunflowers. The sound of the front door slamming and my children returning home from school was my signal to come back to reality. My writing gave me the patience to wait for years for my family relationships to heal. I could never have been so patient without it.
I am stunned that the magic of your story and the pictures you left behind have spoken to my charred determination and wounded heart. How is it that your struggle could teach me to respect and harness my own passion? How is it that your tormented letters could speak to the melancholy in my own life? How is it that the tragedies of your life could urge me to rebuild my relationships with others? How is it that I could learn from you, a historical figure, that even those of us whose lives offer little to brag about might find a way to express how we see world in a way that makes sense to others?
I confess, Vincent, that you have been such a friend to me that I get upset when people make jokes about your cutting your ear. I have to back off and tell myself that not every moment is the ideal one to explain that your madness is your great legacy. Painting, like every kind of art, is a balance of method and madness. Your potato eaters, your sunflowers, your night skies give me permission to weave my own madness into the methodical paragraphs I create. I must never let go of my friendship with you, Vincent, because it is helping me mold and massage my passion in such a way that people might catch it from me as I have caught it from you.
This article originally appeared in Inklings, Winter, 1995.
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