Monday, November 2, 2009

Vincent's religion, Part Two

Today, I'd like to mention a few of the important connections within my own book that I've been able to develop and explore by dramatizing the near obsessive religious devotion Van Gogh demonstrated as a young man. (After he gave up on art dealing and before he decided to become a painter.) These connections make ignoring Van Gogh's religious inclinations not just cowardly but disabling to the dramatic power of the story. Many connections come to mind, but two in particular.

1) His love/hate relationship with his father. In his letters to Theo, Vincent probably complains about his father more than anyone else, and yet earlier in life he had hoped to follow in his father's footsteps; in fact, he wanted the exact kind of job his father did: ministering to a small town flock. This duality cannot be a coincidence. What most influences you can also be what you most resist and resent. And by drawing so fiery close to his father's faith as a young man, he surely felt even more bitterness, more disillusionment when that faith rejected him as a candidate for ministry. True, Theodorus Van Gogh was never convinced of his son's ambitions as a painter. He supported but did not exactly approve of or understand these ambitions; and he certainly did not approve of Vincent's deportment, his dress, or some of the relationships into which he entered. He even threw Vincent out of the house on Christmas day, 1881. But by dramatizing Vincent's religious faith, I show in the novel that the later break with his father came from a more profound place than "Dad doesn't like me" or "Dad was mean to me." The division between father and son is more painful, more resent-full, more chasmal than that.

2) Peak moments. I'm trying to create an echo effect between Vincent's first sermon--delivered in a London church in October, 1876--and the final scene of my novel in which he paints The Sower (1888). The sermon was clearly a psychologically "peak moment" for Van Gogh, as we can tell from his bragging letter to Theo. He must have felt, after years of struggling to find a new path once he gave up art dealing, that he had finally arrived. If, in only a little way, he was sharing in his father's glory, his father's position. I present the sermon as not just a nervous experience but an ecstatic one, with blooming white light puncturing him. There is a distinct echo of this transcendent moment when in the last scene he works on what I consider the finest painting of his finest period (i.e., Arles). The scene is bathed in yellow, not white, light (if you've seen the painting, you understand) but the ecstatic emotions are similar. My point is to emphasize that the high emotions of sermonizing and the high emotions of painting come from the same psychological place in him. It's just that the former was a rather forced--that is, wrong-- choice of vocation (apparently, no one was particularly turned on by the sermon), selected for doubtful reasons that seem to involve a desire to identify more strongly with, and win the love of, his father; whereas the latter was the truer ecstasy, borne of the truer life choice: to become a painter. As I hope my book will demonstrate, there really was no other choice for him--it just took him a while to make it.

(Pictured above: The Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio)


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