Saturday, January 16, 2010

Et tu, Adam?

Last time I began responding to Adam Gopnik's well-written and provocative, but I think problematic, essay in the New Yorker titled "Van Gogh's Ear." A number of
speculations--regarding the reasons why Vincent moved to Arles, regarding the "Christmas Crisis" between he and Gauguin, regarding how the esteemed place Van Gogh occupies in art history was essentially determined by this crisis--are presented as facts. I responded to some of these in my last post. But none of the above represents the most serious weakness in Gopnik's essay. The worst fallacy in the essay is Gopnik's acceptance, indeed his propagation, of the notion that Van Gogh turned "mad" during the Christmas crisis and remained so the rest of his life. In point of fact, Van Gogh's "madness" was never that. Like the manic-depressives and epileptics of today, he suffered from a physical ailment that had psychological consequences. His "attacks" came on only semi-regularly, every few months or so; in between them he was more than lucid. In between attacks he was not, and did not act, crazy in any recognizable way. The letters he wrote at Saint-Remy testify to the essential soundness of his mind. While generally more despondent than his earlier letters, they are in no way irrational, manic, or delusional. In fact, because of his steadiness, relative to other patients, he was granted significant and unusual privileges--such as the right to paint at all, and a separate room to use as a studio, and the freedom to walk the outside grounds in search of subjects, even to travel unaccompanied to Arles! If one did not know of his earlier attacks one would have wondered what in the world this man was doing at a mental hospital. (Btw, Gopnik misrepresents St. Paul's when he calls it "an insane asylum," which suggests raving lunatics locked up for life. While the hospital was often proved ineffectual in doing so, the point of anyone being admitted to St. Paul's was to be treated, cured, and released. Its raison d'etre, if you will, was therapeutic not punitive or merely restrictive.) Theo Van Gogh's wife Joanna was surprised to see how healthy Vincent looked when he visited in May, 1890, after withdrawing himself from St. Paul's. Vincent, she thought, looked healthier and stronger than Theo did! (Click here to read a memoir of Joanna by her son.)

But here's the thing that really chews me up about the Mad Artist myth. Van Gogh never saw his illness as anything but debilitating, because that's what it was. During an attack he was completely taken outside of himself. He had no control. He had to be restrained. It was not as if he was enjoying a beautiful, ecstatic experience that he then transferred to canvas. In fact, when the attacks finally passed he couldn't remember what he did or felt or thought or witnessed during them. And the attacks left him completely enervated, useless to do anything. For weeks on end he could do nothing but rest and recover; certainly, he could not paint. And when he finally found himself feeling reasonable normal again and able to start working anew, he did not set down on canvas any brilliant insights or perspectives from his "madness," he merely went back to work painting the world around him, as he had his whole life. The few truly immortal pictures he did create in Saint-Remy were managed in spite of not because.

Van Gogh was so soul-sickened by this illness that he began to resent ever having gone to the south in the first place, because he suspected that there might be something in the southern air that led certain individuals astray. (In an era when the treatment of mental patients was a pitifully no-nothing enterprise, baseless theories like this one circulated frequently.) As productive as his years in Provence were, he almost wished they had never happened. Not the kind of talk you'd expect if his illness had finally allowed him to be the great painter he always wanted to be. No. Because he'd already become that: in Arles, in the spring, summer, and fall of 1888. (See my previous post.) After the Christmas crisis, Van Gogh was only so much treading water: hoping just to get better, hoping to simply be able to work, less concerned about making masterpieces than returning to the same level of life energy he'd enjoyed before the onset of his attacks. Sadly, this last hope was never to be realized.


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