Monday, December 17, 2012
A few months ago, I picked up a cracked drinking glass that was sitting in our kitchen sink. Thinking I was looking at a meandering stain, and wanting to get rid of it, I ran my finger over the crack. I know. Bad idea. Not only was my finger instantly severed, but several slivers of glass embedded themselves inside. I didn't even realize they were there (well, maybe I suspected it) until the wound closed and and yet my finger remained swollen. Too, I felt pain if I grabbed anything with my left hand. Like a door handle. Or a briefcase. Or a Sharpie. I took to wearing a band aid on the supposedly healed finger until I realized this foolishness had to end. It required two different trips, and two different doctors, and twice having my finger cut into with a scalpel, to get out all the pieces. For a while, on the second trip, it looked a little dicey. The doctor said I had "really good blood flow" to my fingers, but he worried that this would make it hard for him to find the stubborn, remaining sliver. (From the x-ray he knew it was there.) Blood flow or not, after making the incision he reached in with tweezers and in a matter of seconds pulled out that piece of glass. I could not believe how big it was. "I'm surprised my finger healed over with that thing inside," I said. He assured me this was perfectly normal. The body is really good at closing itself off, he said. I'd be shocked, he said, at what can remain inside a body after it heals.
Something about the doctor's statement stayed with me, kept tumbling through my mind. Being a writer, I naturally began thinking of it as a metaphor. The old adage is that time heals all wounds. I think many of us can attest to the fact that this is not at all true, at least in terms of emotional pain, which is exactly the kind of pain the adage speaks to. What happens is that the body heals over and the wound (or, for the sake of my metaphor, the piece of glass) remains inside. With the cut no longer open and the body no longer at risk for infection, it's almost possible to pretend the glass isn't there; it's almost possible to stop feeling it; it's perfectly possible that no one you know will have any inkling of its existence. But it does exist; it's only disguised. And because it does exist, the glass can jab at just the right, bad moment, under just the right kind of pressure, when certain memories rise up as fresh and humiliating or stabbing as if the events happened only the day before. "Whoa," you think, "where did that come from?" The answer is easy: It came from inside you, where the glass has been this whole time, pressing constantly if subtly against a nerve. I think it's not an exaggeration to say that every single person on the planet carries these slivers of glass inside the fingers of their souls. Some slivers are just bigger than others. Some slivers cause more pain. And, unfortunately, some people choose to take their pain out on others, thus inserting new pieces of glasses into other impressionable souls. Most of us, I imagine, see the slivers of glass as strictly our own problem; we would rather not burden any one else with them. In fact, we would rather just pretend our fingers never got cut in the first place, because, after all, most of the time that's how it feels.
After tricking out this metaphor in my mind, I naturally thought of Van Gogh, that infamously combustible bundle of nerves, determination, and passion. There were several slivers of glasses that inserted themselves into his metaphorical fingers and of which he never got free. It's easy to think of the various women with whom he became tragically obsessed: a pretty young Englishwoman in London named Ursula Loyer; his cousin Kee--a widow and single mother when Vincent fell hard for her; most of all Sien, the former prostitute with whom he lived for a year and a half in The Hague (and the model for his drawing "Sorrow"). The first two woman quickly rejected him, while his relationship with Sien turned, over the course of many months, from near perfect domestic bliss to a tense standoff between two clearly mismatched souls. Eventually, Van Gogh gave up all hope of marrying, and in fact never did, a regret he never got over. But as bad as all that might sound, I don't think his relationship with any of these women ever became the defining sliver of glass in his finger. Neither did his relationship with his brother Theo, the person to whom he sent so many of his letters: some angry, some pleading, some optimistic, some merely informative, some soaked with resentment. No, in the end, Vincent was quite at peace with his brother.
The biggest piece of glass--and perhaps the only true one--was his father, the Reverend Theodorus Van Gogh. That his father could never appreciate or perhaps really accept Vincent's artistic ambitions is an understatement; but on the other hand, Vincent never quite realized--or admitted to--the extent to which he tried his father's patience and the extent to which his father finally did about as much as he possibly could and bent about as far as he was temperamentally able. To Vincent, Theodorus forever remained the man who threw him out of his house on Christmas Day, 1881--an action that in practical terms made Vincent's life much harder--and the man who always seemed to regard his son as someone vaguely disreputable and more or less a complete failure. The thing is, this is exactly how most people--especially people who were not artists--saw Vincent as well. But it matters more, I suppose, when such a condescending viewpoint is one's own father's. And I think the root cause of Vincent's disappointment--what made his father's view so very painful for him--was his abiding and innate love for the man. After all, for several years of his younger life--and I don't mind his childhood; I mean his twenties--Vincent admired his father over anyone else. His father's life as minister of the gospel was precisely what Vincent aspired to. And thus the pain doubled when he was faced with his father's disapproval. It became actually biting. Vincent's admiration soured to resentment of, and even loathing for, the man. It's been said by many commentators that Van Gogh's life after Theodorus died in 1885 was merely a matter of searching for a replacement father figure. I have previously discussed that idea in this blog, so I won't rehash it here. What I will say is that it's easy to transcribe this emotional set of facts with my bloody new metaphor. Theodorus--both the idea of the man and the factual memory of him--became for Vincent the single largest sliver of glass inside his body, jabbing ruthlessly on an inner nerve, creating a pain that propelled him into several other encounters, encounters that each in their own way failed and perhaps had to. Because the true source of the pain could never be relieved. There wasn't a doctor alive capable of removing a piece of glass that large.
Afterword: Although it's being put up today, I composed this post prior to the events that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday, December 14, 2012. It's sad for me to realize that we've just witnessed a horrific example of a clearly disturbed person taking out his pain on others. I'm afraid that for those directly affected, immeasurbly large pieces of glass have been inserted into their souls. Let's do more than keep them in our thoughts; let them motivate us to contstructive action. I'm heartened by the fact that in the last two days, constructive dialogue about what that action might be has already begun.