Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Van Gogh the Lefty?

For several decades now, the fact that the different hemispheres of the brain control different functions and influence different abilities has been popularized in western media. Especially commented upon is the fact that human "handedness" is influenced by which brain hemisphere is dominant in an individual, and with an inverse relationship, i.e., left-handed people are right brain dominant and right-handed people are left-brain dominant. The left brain, we are told, controls functions such as language--both spoken and written--computational ability, and reasoning. The 4 Rs, if you will. (Schools, it is often noted, are designed to teach and promote left brain activities.) The right side of the brain controls one's intuitions and emotions, one's musical ability, one's visual and spatial abilities, and one's creative and inventive potential. Ever since these ideas were popularized, there has been book after book celebrating the unique qualities of the presumably right brain dominant left-handers among us. And since I'm one of them, I've been given several such books over the years: from my parents, from my friends, and from my wife. The latest, called A Left-Handed History of the World, might be the most ambitious in its argument. After a short introductory chapter in which it lays out general tendencies of left-handed people, Left-Handed History goes on to profile 25 different and very prominent individuals, all left-handed, implicitly and explicitly arguing that it's left handers who have repeatedly made and remade the world. (Some of those profiled: Ramses the Great, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Napolean, Isaac Newton, Queen Victoria, Ghandi, Marie Curie, and Paul McCartney.) Given that only 7-10 percent of the population is left-handed, the profound influence of left-handers on history, the book asserts, is all the more startling. (Btw, if one counts Ronald Reagan, who naturally wrote with his left-hand but was made to switch to his right at any early age--typical of that time--4 of the last 5 presidents have been lefties.)

Brain scientists will tell you that it's not merely a matter of Lefty=This and Righty=That. We all use both brain hemispheres. It's a matter of when and how much. We can get into those sticky issues on another post or another blog. On this blog, and for this post, I want to talk about Van Gogh. Early in my composing of Yellow, I decided to show him as a left-hander. Partly the choice was intuitive, partly projection, and partly because I had in some remote corner of my brain a faux-memory of seeing him listed among history's famous left-handers. Don't get me wrong. It's not like this is a major theme in the novel or anything that I'm pushing in every scene. But I do point out in a few scenes that Van Gogh is drawing or painting or writing with his left-hand. In one scene I even reference the "left-handed scratch" that is his handwriting. The latter reference is admittedly a matter of me identifying with my protagonist--or vice-versa--because unless I am terribly careful my handwriting instantly descends into "left-handed scratch." (This is especially true, and especially problematic, during the white-hot rush of a first draft, which I still insist on doing by pen in a notebook.)

But my choice of making Van Gogh a left-hander wasn't and isn't simply a matter of trying to insert myself into my novel. It also made real sense to me, based on what I knew about him, and about the theories of handedness. It also wasn't a choice that I deliberated about ahead of time. The idea just occurred to me one day as I was composing a scene and so I went with it. It seemed to work. And if it allowed me to better identify and empathize with my protagonist, to see him from the inside, that's all to the good. Besides, whether Van Gogh was or wasn't left-handed, he certainly showed--and shows in my novel--a number of the characteristic traits. Visual acuity, first of all, demonstrated not only in his numerous paintings and drawings but his copious letters, filled with exacting descriptions of pictures and landscapes. His stubborness and his well-chronicled tendency to emotional spasms, whether that meant anger or romantic infatuation, also fits. Also related is the fact that Van Gogh never put his best foot forward verbally as he did through other means. By most accounts, he was a clumsy and naturally awkward speaker. He had a great deal of fire as a human being and as an artist--he made and kept (and lost) some close friends, along with his brilliant paintings--but smooth and orderly did not by any means characterize his speaking style. Left-Handed History goes out of its way to point out that left-handers are fundamentally distrustful of the world's organization and its institutions--perhaps because it was not designed by them or for them--and they can react in two different ways: They become agitators, openly working to overthrow the status quo, or they retreat deep inside themselves, intellectually and philosophically removing themselves from what they regard as a deeply flawed structure. It's safe to say that Van Gogh did both. Perhaps more than any other neo-impressionist, he was determined to evolve modern art, not just sell paintings. He worked doggedly to that end. But he also was a strikingly interior person, tending to withdraw for long stretches from the society around him, in order to go his own way, to follow his own drummer. I'll repeat: He made friends, even close friends, everywhere he lived. Like everyone, he needed human contact, human conversation. But funadmentally the man was a loner.

Last but not least is what Left-Handed History calls Lateral Thinking, the "ability to make unorthodox connections." Apparently, this explains why some left-handers become ingenious and original military strategists (e.g. Alexander), and why others became brilliant, quirky political maneuverers (e.g., Bill Clinton). A talent for strategy-making certainly defined Van Gogh's life. This, more than anything, struck me as I read about him and wrote about him. He almost always had a plan, sometimes quickly evolving and radically changing plans, for how to accomplish his desired ends. This was true when he wanted to become a lay preacher, and it was certainly true when he decided to become an artist. He knew where he wanted to go and was always confident that he knew exactly how to get there. Demonstrating the daring to act on a strategy was never a problem for him. Convincing others that he was right, however, always was.


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