In my more itinerant years, when I worked at a variety of book stores (and other places), I would pass a slow moment reading into different arcane subjects. There was rarely free time enough to read deeply into any volume or into any actually valuable literature, so I tended to skim through lighter fare. I hesitate to admit, but will anyway, that astrology books were part of the mix. I found them entertaining despite the fact that descriptions of those born under my own "sun sign" were, well, let's say condescending, to put it nicely. Incriminating is more like it. More importantly, not at all relevant to the person I knew walking around inside my body. Something was fundamentally "off." And I guess this isn't so surprising. Categorizing millions of people according to a twelve category system is really no different, and about as accurate, as racial profiling, ethnic stereotyping, or reiterating regional cliches. The seeming certainty of a stereotype always dissolves when it comes up against the complexity of the individual person. Always. Which, coincidentally, is why I and so many other writing teachers, constantly advise my students to run from personality cliches as fast their typing fingers can move them. (By the way, I know enough to know that a committed astrology-believer would tell me that not only the sun sign but one's entire astrological "chart" is what defines one, but that's a level of arcana I simply refuse to descend to for this post.) Despite feeling that western astrology missed the mark in my case, I would continue now and again for entertainment's sake to look into New Age subjects, albeit having been raised Roman Catholic it was impossible for me to take any of them very seriously. At some point, I don't remember when, I found out that the Chinese had their own astrological system, a far older and more entrenched structure than even western astrology. I found out that the year I was born, according to the Chinese calendar, was a year of the Ox. Reading into the traits of my fellow Oxen, I found these characteristics: deliberate, patient, serious, methodical, introverted, goal-oriented, having a distant air but affectionate with friends and family, protective, demonstrating great stamina, deriving special pleasure in work well done. Well, I thought, now that's someone I recognize. Maybe the Chinese were on to something!
I've long known Van Gogh's birthdate: March 30, 1853. Thus I've also long known that he's an Aries according to western astrology. Arians are the Rams of the western zodiac. To be honest, many of the stereotypical Arian traits do fit Van Gogh. He certainly was courageous. He was also headstrong, a battler, someone who liked to lead and not follow. He had an extraordinary amount of energy, along with a quick temper, and never backed down from a good argument. If it's true, as I've read, that Arians refuse to submit to directions the point of which they do not see, then, yes, Van Gogh can admittedly act as a poster child for western astrology, if anyone cares to use him in that way. As true as those traits are--and certainly they are the ones that most people probably think of when they think of the famously independent, passionate Van Gogh--I'm not sure those are the traits of the man that most intrigue me or to which I found myself connecting while I composed my Van Gogh novel. There was a lot more to him than just a passionate, daring, argumentative fellow. Plenty of passionate, daring, argumentative people get exactly nowhere in life. They misdirect their passions; they fritter away their energy and their talents in debating rather than doing. They don't get started on or stick with what they need to start on and stick with. Something, and it may simply be a new project, always distracts them. That was not Van Gogh. When I think of the man, what I think of first isn't so much his passion as his awesome capacity for hard work. I mean hours and hours and hours of unrelenting work under physically difficult conditions. I also think of a man who seemed to intuitively know, from the first second he decided to be an artist, exactly how much labor, how much training, how much simple drudgery would be required of him to get from point A (i.e., enthusiastic amateur) to point B (accomplished professional). I've written about this before on this blog. As soon as Van Gogh knew he wanted to be artist--really wanted it; and not just to draw (which he'd done in an idle way for most of his life) but to be able to produce work that was actually masterful--he signed the dotted line, if you will; he committed himself to the necessary drudgery. He put his shoulder to the wheel and for the next ten years never really lifted it despite a series of upheavals in his personal life. Whatever he suffered through as a person, the work never stopped. Never. And as erratic and even unlikeable as he may seemed to some who knew him, he was remarkably deliberate in his approach to his art. After all, he did nothing but draw for many years before he allowed himself to paint with oils. Part of this was financial--paint was rather dear--but mostly it was because he believed, as a matter of principal, that artists needed to train their hand before their brush could be successful.
It came as no surprise when a couple of weeks ago--in a idle moment during end-of-the-semester grading--I checked to see where Van Gogh's birthday fit in the Chinese astrological calendar and discovered that he too was an Ox. Ah, I thought, now I understand why I understand you. You're not just a hardheaded Ram; you're a broad-shouldered ox. I aslo knew why all of the mad genius-emotional-painter stereotypes of Van Gogh--ruthlessly exploited in the 1954 movie Lust for Life--strike me, and have always struck me, as being false. Or at least incomplete. Incriminating, let's say. And unless someone is a criminal, describing them in ways that are incriminating can never be fair--or true.
Lagniappe 1: In a post from a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I'd been interviewed by a former student. One of her questions I didn't bring up in my post, but I think I should have. The question was simple enough: Which writers inspire you? I answered rather jauntily, if also honestly, that at this point in my writing life I get all the inspiration I need from an alarm clock and a mug of coffee. But, I went on to say, if the question really is "Do I ever learn anything from other writers, or see certain structures in their work that I'd like to steal?"then the answer of course is yes. Then something else occurred to me. I did find genuinely inspring--if also disturbing--a nonfiction book that my brother lent me over Thanksgiving. So I recommended it to my former student, and I'm officially recommending it to all of you now. It's called Escape from Camp 14, and it details the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person to ever escape from a camp for political prisoners in North Korea. Shin was actually born in the camp, and what he suffered through growing up in that place was truly harrowing, not the least which was to see his mother hanged and his brother shot. (Perhaps the most harrowing fact of all is that the camp, and many others like it, still exists inside North Korea.) Today Shin Dong-hyuk splits his time between the U.S. and Seoul. If I'm ever in need of inspiration to keep going--whether that be in writing or anything else--despite painful obstacles, I need look no further than his story.
Lagniappe 2: Merry Christmas!