Saturday, October 24, 2009

Twisting History

During a session at the recent APA conference I attended (see an earlier post), an audience member asked me and the other presenters if we felt guilty for "twisting history" to our own ends. (The other two readers were also presenting fictionalized versions of real people.) I suspect that the question came in part as a response to my depicting Eugene Boch and Dodge MacKnight--real painters who lived together in Fontvielle when Van Gogh lived in Arles--as a homosexual couple. Very little is known about the two men; in fact, almost all we do know about them are the impressions Van Gogh records in his letters. The question actually surprised me, because in writing those scenes I felt completely committed to my conception of the two men. I felt that, based on the available evidence, they could have been exactly as I depicted them. They seemed so real to me I almost forgot I was rendering an interpretation.

And maybe that's the heart of the issue. An intepretation is decidedly different from a "twisting." "Twisting" implies self-conscious deception, a deliberate, cynical manipulation of known facts. Indeed, a subversion of them. But there are so few facts known about Boch and MacKnight that I not only felt free to imagine them, but I had to do so if I wanted to include them in the book. What is clear from Van Gogh's letters is that he did not like MacKnight and did not respect him as an artist, while he adored Boch. When MacKnight left the area, apparently for good, Vincent was clearly gratified. He reports in one letter that Boch visited him at his studio and, with MacKnight not around, they could talk at length. He eventually painted a now famous portrait of Boch (that's it above) and described the picture in rather overheated terms to Theo, emphasizing that the painting expressed "my love for this man." Shortly after the missive to Theo, Boch and MacKnight disappear from the letters.

It does not seem any great leap of fantasy to see a real if muted drama of jealousy going on between the three men. In my rendering, Vincent isn't aware of the nature of his emotions toward Boch, but he certainly does feel them. And he sends a rather clumsy note to Boch pleading with him to come to Arles to see the finished painting. It's a similar move to his clumsy actions toward the women with whom he was obsessed; the only difference is that the emotions this time are directed to a man. Boch, who realizes Vincent implicit feelings and the potential disaster they pose to his relationship with MacKnight, discards the note, effectively ending his friendship with Vincent (and explaining, in my mind, his elimination as a subjecct from Vincent's letters). As I indicated in an earlier post, one must be careful not to immediately interpret 19th century male-to-male expressions of affection as proof of homosexuality. Such expressions were more conventional then than now. But, even so, this does not mean that one can't make such an interpretation if--based on the evidence--it seems reasonable, or at least possible. After all, in the murky world of historical fiction, capturing what is possible is really the best you can hope for. Who knows, from a distance of a 100 or 1000 or 2000 years, what's actual. And given the main duty of any writer--i.e., to make the reader believe--intepretations are crucial to engender concreteness to your drama. That's not "twisting" history but creating an alternative history. And just as in current theoretical physics it's possible to posit numerous, simultaneously existing universes, each as real as any other, any of these alternative histories can be--in fact, must be--as real to the writer as biographical truth, which is often too shadowy to comprehend.


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