Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vincent's religion, Part One

I thought it fitting on a Sunday to write about an aspect of Van Gogh's life that is little remarked on, except by those who have studied his biography closely: his religious nature. Anyone writing about Van Gogh, either to fictionalize him, like I am, or to do a straight biography, can't get around the influence of religion in his life. Not only were both his father and grandfather ministers, but for several years he was intent, even fanatic, about finding work as a missionary. During a crucial if crushing period, he was convinced that such was his calling. Of course, things didn't work out that way, and he later wrote with some regret and bewilderment about the religious "mania" that governed his younger self. For me, the writer of historical fiction, the challenge is what to do with that religious mania in my novel. I don't feel I can or should rightly ignore it. In fact, it's not hard to argue that Van Gogh simply transferred his mania for religion into a manic for art, which he always spoke of in sacred, even moralistic, terms. He did not compose religious paintings, at least as we normally think of them, but the impulse to create was a holy one for him, the vocation of painter something like a monastic calling. ("The Studio of the South" that he once hoped to build in Arles would have had a monastic structure, in fact, with Gauguin serving as its "abbot.") And he certainly did believe that art should and could be redemptive. While in later years he no longer attended church or studied the bible, religious language dominates his discussion of individual paintings and of the profession generally. So in writing about Van Gogh, even fictionalizing him, I feel the need to treat his religious impulses with respect rather than patronize them. I need to integrate them into the whole picture of him as a character.

But this does cause me to worry (just a tad). After all, treating religious subjects in fiction is dicey these days. The challenge is an aesthetic one of course but also--maybe even fundamentally--a political one. Earlier in the history of imaginative literature it was not hard to generate profound drama involving religious crises, decisions, even triumphs. The problem in our current age, at least in America, is that religion--or at least Christianity--has been co-opted by the far right. "To be religious" and to think religiously in contemporary America comes with a whole series of automatic political positions, positions that many, including me, find reprehensible, hypocritical, and un-Christian. It's true that plenty of practicing Christians are not right-wingers, but it's also true that many more of them are. The loudest of them are. The most influential of them are. In Arkansas, where I live now, to be religious and at the same time leftward-leaning politically is to be regarded as a servant of the devil. (All right, that's an exaggeration--but not a huge one.) Leftward leaning churches exist here but are few and far between.

So the problem for the writer of fiction is that to treat religion seriously is to run the risk that the literary reader recoils with fright and nausea, suffers flashbacks from the George Bush era. Unfortunately, the right in America has conditioned too many Americans to reject religious subjects automatically. And this is a shame. The religious impulse--be it for Christianity or some other faith--is a human impulse like any other. It is not some mutation in our DNA. It's not going anywhere. And with a figure like Van Gogh, for whom it was truly central in his life, I cannot ignore it. The difference in how I handle it, and how I hope it will work in my book, is that any religious discussions, meditations, activities etc. will be directed to developing a picture of Van Gogh's unique character not trying to sell religion to the non-believer. Sometimes books of fiction do try to act them way: sermons thinly disguised. But I'm not arguing for any religious position, just trying to show a certain committed idealism that fed and sustained him through his difficult years of artistic apprenticeship.

(Next post: more specifics.)


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