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subliminal

The best journey to make

is inward. It is the interior

that calls. Eliot heard it.

Wordsworth turned from the great hills

of the north to the precipice

of his own mind, and let himself

down for the poetry stranded

on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

Given the unfolding story of my Parliament of Selves, republishing this sequence on consecutive days seemed a no-brainer.

In the previous post I briefly described the circumstances that led me to risk an encounter weekend run under the auspices of People Not Psychiatry in the mid-70s. The experience illustrates my life-changing encounter with some of the powerful unconscious undercurrents of my mind – proof, if any were needed, that consciousness has a filter to screen out unwanted experiences from below and it can sometimes take extraordinary circumstances to create a leak in the filter.

A standard definition of such a group as I experienced goes something like this:

Encounter Groups were nontraditional attempts at psychotherapy that offered short-term treatment for members without serious psychiatric problems. These groups were also known as sensitivity (or sensory) awareness groups and training groups (or T-groups). Encounter groups were an outgrowth of studies conducted in 1946 at the National Training Laboratories in Connecticut by Kurt Lewin. The use of continual feedback, participation, and observation by the group encouraged the analysis and interpretation of their problems. Other methods for the group dynamics included Gestalt therapy (working with one person at a time with a primary goal of increasing awareness of oneself in the moment, also known as holistic therapy) and meditation. (Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/encounter-group#ixzz2TCE6yY76)

In the case of the group I went to, delete ‘Gestalt therapy’ and insert ‘a hybrid of Reichian Breathwork and Primal (Scream) Therapy.’ A reasonable definition of Reichian Breathwork can be found at the GoodTherapy website. They write:

Reichian Breathwork helps clients achieve a sense of peace and calm by guiding them to focus only on their breath. They release their worry and rather than thinking about planning and doing, they are instructed to go inside their own body and simply be. This is an arduous task at first, but with practice clients learn to control their breathing and still the inner and outer voices. Complete calm and stillness must be achieved in order to direct all of one’s attention on one’s breath. This practice is performed in groups, in class and studio settings, or can be performed individually. There are a number of various tools available to help people learn the art of Reichian Breathwork.

The basic idea behind Primal Therapy is explained in wikipedia as:

Janov states that neurosis is the result of suppressed pain, which is the result of trauma, usually trauma of childhood origin. According to Janov, the only way to reverse neurosis is for the neurotic to confront their trauma in a therapeutic setting. Janov contends that by confronting their trauma, the neurotic can relive the original traumatic incident and can express the emotions that occurred at that time, thereby resolving the trauma. . . . . Janov believes that there is only one source of mental illness (besides genetic defects)—imprinted pain. He argues that this unitary source of neurosis implies that there can be only one effective cure—re-experiencing.

The encounter weekend’s method fused both these two forms of therapy into one. The aim was to reconnect you with primal pain by focused breathing.

Urban Breath NYC Deal

I climbed the steep and uncarpeted stairs to the therapy room on that first Friday evening with a degree of trepidation, my footsteps echoing off the walls. I walked through the door into a converted bedroom with a spongy covering over the entire floor. Spread around the room were countless pillows. There were about fifteen of us who would spend the entire weekend till Sunday afternoon breathing hard and pounding pillows with very little sleep until a small minority of us plunged through the floor to the basement of our minds to confront whatever demons had been locked away there.

Those with anger as the dominant emotion were the ones to pound the pillows most, often shouting out their rage to the person they’d been paired with for the purpose. Others, like me, who tried pounding the pillows hunting for anger but failed to connect, and who were completely unable to put any kind of label on the emotional quarry we were pursuing, spent a lot of time lying on our backs focusing on our breathing. Friday night was a disappointment. The rabbits of our primal pain were still deep in their burrows, silent and invisible.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

This process went on for what seemed hours. The theory was that the more deeply you went into the experience, the more likely your were to connect with its cause. Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings (see link). That didn’t happen this first time, nor was I ever able to connect this pool of tears with any specific event or determine its meaning. When I discovered it, I realised it had always been there. Decades later it seems that it always will be, as long as I live in this body at least.

I can invent reasons for its existence (there’s a lot of material to choose from – see for example the poems about my family, my searching (which in a way still continues) and my operation: these experiences all predated my breakthrough into my mind’s basement) but I cannot safely conclude that any of them apply as none of them ever popped to the surface to be identified as the culprit during breathwork. It seems to be just as Virgil wrote ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’ (‘There are tears for [or “of”] things and mortal things touch the mind.” So, no explanation at all really.

However, the main point of this extract from my life experience is to illustrate why I know for an absolute fact that there is a whole world of unacknowledged experiences seething beneath the surface of our minds. As Gerald Manley Hopkins put it:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

Most people interested in such things will now readily accept that there is more going on underneath our awareness than we will probably ever know. I’m not sure that in the west we would give the same degree of credence to the probability that there is even more going on above it.

But a consideration of my experiences in that direction will have to wait for next time.

thresholds

Given the unfolding story of my Parliament of Selves, republishing this sequence on consecutive days seemed a no-brainer.

Regular readers of this blog will have seen this diagram before. No need to worry, though. This post is not a repeat of a previous one though it does return to an earlier theme.

I was at a meeting the other day where a conversation with a friend clarified that I am not the only one to find the idea of consciousness having thresholds an extremely useful one that resonates strongly with personal experience. It was only a snatched exchange of ideas as the meeting moved from one part of the agenda to another but it was enough for us to pass shared fragments of agreed reality to and fro.

‘Please, friends,’ shouted the facilitator. ‘We need to sit down. . . . ‘

‘I really like this idea of the brain as a filter,’ my friend whispered.

‘. . .  we really have to make a start. . . . . ‘

‘I know,’ I replied out of the corner of my mouth.’ It fits with the other analogy of the brain as a receiver.’

‘. . . we’ve got a lot to do still. . . . ‘

‘Yes,’ she hissed. ‘It tunes to a wavelength and only catches a tiny part of the spectrum.’

‘Right,’ came the shout from the front. ‘We need to watch the presentation on the make up of this neighbourhood.’

We had to sit back down again, keep quiet and tune into the broadcast of the meeting.

It was enough to trigger another spate of ideas on this subject. This is partly because, as I think I have said before, this blog all too often simply relays other people’s ideas and doesn’t share why they resonate so strongly with me at a personal level. Perhaps it would be useful to do bit more sharing at that level. It feels a bit scary though so I’ll start with a few generalisations.

Filtering – a mixed blessing

It is efficient for consciousness to be protected by filters. It would be hard to focus on what to do next if we were flooded with all the possible incoming data, most of which is not relevant to our present purposes. When the filter breaks down problems of distraction or destruction creep in such as with so-called ‘psychosis’. I read a paper by Hemsley on this many years ago, 1975 in fact, in which he examined ‘attention deficits in schizophrenia.’  “Inefficiencies in . . .  the ‘filtering’ . . . .  mechanism” is referred to as one of the factors behind this problem with focused attention. Attention is grabbed by passing distractions and their grip was thought to be too strong sometimes to resist. Much water has passed under this bridge since, particularly in terms of radically questioning the whole construct of schizophrenia, but the idea that we need a filter to keep out unwanted distractions if we are to function efficiently still seems plausible.

But efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. This protection comes at a price. We are blind and deaf to much that would enrich our lives. When consciousness is controllably permeable there is an opportunity for creativity and/or mysticism. This is an area that Myers was very much concerned with and I will eventually return to that topic in this blog. (‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ Well. at least another 400 pages by my reckoning. I got bogged down for a long time in the rather swampy prose of the chapter on memory in Irreducible Mind.)

gorilla

Anyway, to get back to the main point. What makes me feel that what I am conscious of is protected by filters that create a threshold that certain kinds of experience cannot or at least do not usually cross? I am not going to go into any detail about the way the brain works to control attention. One example of its reality should be enough to convince that a filtering process of stunning power exists. An experiment was run where people were asked to count the passes of the ball in a basket ball game. During the game a man in a gorilla suit walks across the court in full view. Half those watching the video and counting passes did not see him! The significance of this is discussed at the following link. A key comment for our present purposes is this:

Question: What does this experiment demonstrate to us about selective attention?

Christopher Chabris: What this experiment shows is that when we’re paying attention to something, basically doing a task that demands our attention such as counting the passes of the basketball in this case, or really any other kind of really attention-demanding task that we do, we can seriously overestimate our ability to do other tasks at the same time and especially to notice and handle unexpected or surprising things.  We think that we’re going to notice unexpected things that come into our field of view and we think we’re going to pay attention to the things we should pay attention to, but in fact, when we’re focused on one task, we’re noticing and paying attention to a lot less than we really think.

Coming up from below

Of course, I am not talking only of this kind of filtering, which most of us would readily accept as part of our makeup. I am talking about something more radical.

The idea that consciousness has material pressing upwards upon it from below has a long history, and Freud is probably its most famous proponent. While I do not accept that his description of my mental architecture is accurate nor that his account of the complexes is completely credible, I do agree that underneath my awareness there are strong currents of unacknowledged experiences flowing. This was brought home to me in 1974 in the most compelling fashion imaginable.

Shortly before this stunning experience, I had been standing in a pub in Hampstead, staring out of its leaded window panes onto the mishapen street outside as I waited for a friend to join me. An unexpected thought just flashed through my mind concerning my work as a teacher: ‘If I have to carry on with this another thirty years I’d rather shoot myself.’ I was shocked. Thoughts like that were not just rare occurrences in my consciousness – they had been non-existent until that moment at the age of 31.

I decided it was time for a little self-exploration. Not realising the risks I might have been taking and because of my antiestablishment stance at the time which bordered on the anarchic, it never occurred to me to try any conventional approach to self-understanding –  I had to go for the totally alternative. I got to hear of a group which called itself ‘People Not Psychiatry.’ I discovered that one of their followers ran encounter groups in a squat not far from where I was living at the time. I booked in for an ‘encounter group’ weekend.

The full story will have to wait till next time.

The Freezer

The Freezer

This is the poem referred to in the previous post.

EaswaranMorning meditation is very important to me for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. I do struggle with remaining focused on what I have decided to practice, whether that be following the breath Buddhist-style, mindfulness after the fashion of Williams and Penman, or a kind of Bahá’í mantram which involves mindfully repeating Alláh-u-Abhá 95 times. Although beads are not recommended by Easwaran for such an exercise, I have found using them works far better for me than any other method of keeping track of the numbers.

The first few repetitions have gone well up till now, and then they start up again, the voluble quartet inside my head.

‘At least he hasn’t started expanding his meditation time yet, Williams and Penmanwhich is a relief.’ Christopher Humfreeze is eating his breakfast in the dining room. The bags under his eyes are darker than usual, but his kaftan is bright and shining. The other three have joined him, which is unusual. I haven’t known them all eat together in this way before.

‘We agreed that we would all meet up for breakfast today to discuss what we’re going to do about his reflection plan. Are you all happy to carry on? No one has changed their mind?’

Emma Pancake, William Wordless and Frederick Mires all nod, but not enthusiastically.

‘You look a bit tired, Chris,’ Pancake observes sympathetically.

‘I haven’t slept well for the last few nights to tell you the truth. I just can’t see how we are going to make a plan that will work. And it’s not just that he’s going to resist it as far as he can if he doesn’t like it. In fact, it’s more to do with the differences between us.’

‘How do mean, Chris?’ asks Wordless, through a mouthful of porridge, a few specks of which fly onto Humfreeze’s new kaftan, much to his disgust.

That was not a good start, given that the two of them are usually at odds anyway under the best of circumstances.

‘Well, I hope I don’t offend anyone but there are two of us here, at the far end of the Entish spectrum. We are bent on taking our time in our own way on our different projects. The other two of us, the Hurry Up brigade, like to get as many things done as fast as possible. If this table were a car and we the passenger-drivers, both you, Emmie, and you, Fred, would have your feet on the accelerator, pushing it down for all you were worth, practically standing on it in fact. Admittedly you’d be wrenching the steering wheel in different directions but that’s just another hurdle for us to get over. Bill and I, on the other hand, would be heaving on the handbrake and pressing the brake pedal at the same time as hard as we possibly could. We are each one another’s Opposition. How are we ever going to agree on what to do in such a serious situation as this is becoming?’

‘I see where you are coming from, Chris,’ says Mires slowly and thoughtfully, ‘but I think that’s only a small part of the problem. I think we might have another even more difficult problem on our hands. Think about this. We know about each other because he knows about all of us. But what if there are others inside his head that none of us know about including him.’

‘What on earth are you talking about, Fred? That sounds like your usual improbable psychobabble’ Pancake cuts in.

The Conscious Universe IRM‘Well, I don’t want to get bogged down in too much detail, but you know I have studied the human mind for more than thirty years now. . . ’

All heads tilt back and all eyes rise heavenwards except mine, as I’m not sure what might happen to them if I did the same.

‘. . . and I’ve read in many places that a person can contain coherent motivated structures within the mind with an agenda of their own that the owner of the mind doesn’t even know about.’

A puzzled expression slowly takes shape on Pancake’s face.

‘Now if there are such entities in here with us that he doesn’t know about, we may not know about them either, though I admit that sometimes the people in a person’s head can know about each other even if the mind that contains them hasn’t a clue.’

Pancake is plainly baffled. Wordless looks sceptical: poets know their own mind, surely.

‘But if there were any others in here that mattered we should have had some idea they were there, even if we couldn’t sense them, because things would happen that we couldn’t explain otherwise and I’ve never felt that way,’ offers Humfreeze, predictably at odds with Mires.

At this point the completely unexpected happens.

‘Do you mind if I join in this conversation?’ I ask.

There is a long and stunned silence.

‘Hello,’ I repeat. ‘Is there anybody there anymore? Have I frightened you all off?’

‘Er, we’re all . .’ began Mires.

‘. . . . here,’ stuttered Wordless.

‘This is amazing,’ shrieks Pancake. ‘Maybe we’re really not all there in a different sense.’

Humfreeze has gone quite pale, in fact almost green, as though he is seasick.

‘I have been longing for this day,’ he finally manages to say, ‘but I thought that it would never happen. I thought we were all too far apart. This is a huge shock to me, so much of a shock that, even though I am delighted, I feel thunderstruck.’

Pancake, probably for the first time ever, gets up from her place at table and moves closer to Humfreeze and puts her arm around his shoulders.

‘Doesn’t this say something wonderful about us? Doesn’t it say we have done something almost unique? We have grown so close we can communicate clearly across the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious.’

She sounds exultant, almost intoxicated with the thought.

‘I believe you are right,’ I confirm, almost equally delighted, and also strangely moved, as though I were meeting someone I dearly loved after a long separation. There are tears in my eyes, in fact. ‘Perhaps this is meant to happen now because it needs to happen. Perhaps Fred is right. Perhaps there are forces at work below our consciousness, which we can only tackle together. Even the four of you are not enough, and I certainly couldn’t do it alone. Perhaps we’ll become another Famous Five.’

I’ve always had a tendency to get ahead of myself.

‘But what kind of forces could these possibly be?’ asks Wordless.

Snowman‘Well, I’ve had one experience before where something previously hidden burst into consciousness, initially in a dream. You remember? I’ve blogged about it, calling it the Iceman. I even tried to catch some of the feeling about it in a poem called The Freezer.

They all nod. ‘We remember,’ they chime.

‘So, do you agree with me, then, that there is probably something or someone there we need to deal with?’ asks Fred.

‘I definitely think it’s possible, yes,’ is my reply.

‘Scary,’ says Pancake, ‘but fascinating. What do we need to do to find out?’

‘Keep watch and compare notes,’ I reckon,’ is the best that I can suggest.’

‘Is that a deal everyone?’ asks Fred. They all nod enthusiastically if somewhat anxiously.

My phone chimes that my 30 minutes meditation period is up. The four figures at their breakfast fade into the intruding daylight as I open my eyes. I put my beads away in the right hand drawer of my desk wondering where on earth this is going to lead.

Faintest Trace of Blue

For the source of the image see link

Text Pete Hulme © September 2012

Glass table with book & VG

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

The recent revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear (about 20 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), as well as the recent Guardian long-read article by  on the latest exhibition of his work in Amsterdam, made it inevitable I would decide to republish my blog sequence of last year, which attempted to capture my complex and powerful responses to his work. This is the last of five posts which came out each day of the past week.

Art and Illness

I have blogged at length elsewhere in these pages about the possible links between art and mental health so I relished the opportunity, at the end of this sequence of posts, to see if what van Gogh wrote from his own experience sheds any further light on the matter, over and above what I have touched on in the earlier ones.

I think I need to take this in three steps.

First I need to look at what the letters say about the actual experiences. From there I can move to looking at any conclusions he and his brother may have drawn about the nature of van Gogh’s problem and the relation it has to his art. Lastly, I will add some further information tentatively into the mix to try and make my own sense of the matter. To do so I will draw, amongst other things, on a very interesting account of the possible epilepsy of van Gogh’s American near contemporary Emily Dickinson.

  1. His Experience

It is in the later letters, after his rift with Gauguin, that we get the clearest account of what the breakdowns feel like from the inside. The first thing he mentions (page 444) when speaking ‘of my own condition – I am so grateful for yet another thing. I’ve noticed that others, too, hear sounds and strange voices during their attacks, as I did, and that things seem to change before their very eyes.’ The reason he has been given for these hallucinations follows shortly after (page 445): his problem was in both sight and hearing at the same time ‘which is usual at the outset of epilepsy.’

In Arles, after an attack in July 1889, he describes what happened (page 449): ‘I apparently pick up dirt from the ground and eat it.’ De Leeuw expands on this: ‘A swollen throat made taking food difficult. Because he had also put paint in his mouth and had drunk turpentine, he was ordered not to do any painting until further notice…’ There were mentions of the parallels with Dostoyevsky. Referring to Delacroix (page 452), he wonders whether he will be the same ‘in the sense that my sad illness makes me work in pent-up fury – very slowly – but without leaving off from morning till night – and – that is probably the secret – to work long and slowly.’ Interestingly, he dates the beginning of his problems to Paris (page 454) ‘when all this was coming on.’

He worries (page 459) whether ‘a more violent attack could destroy my ability to paint for good.’ Grimly he next observes ‘I am trying to recover, like someone who has meant to commit suicide, but then makes for the bank because he finds the water too cold.’ He refers also (page 460) to the attacks taking ‘a religious turn.’ In late 1889 he had another violent attack in which (page 475) ‘he had again tried to poison himself by swallowing paint,’ as a result his doctor ‘decided once more that until further notice he must confine himself to drawing.’

Dr Gachet

Dr Gachet

On his move to Auvers-sur-Oise, he made a sardonic observation about Dr Gachet, the homeopath and psychiatrist who will play such a key role in his last few months of life (page 489):

Gachet, however, was not only an eccentric but seemed to be at least as neurotic as the afflicted artist, which caused van Gogh to observe, “Now when one blind man leads another blind man, don’t they both end up in the ditch?”

During this most vexed period, the art he produced was receiving high praise and greater recognition, including from Gauguin who wrote (page 494):

Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

His brother’s sudden problems, mainly about his work, money issues and his child’s health, came as a stressful shock to van Gogh, not least because his brother was turning to him for advice and perhaps even eventual financial support, not things that Vincent felt well-equipped to provide.

  1. His Perspective

He is very explicit that art at least in part depends upon a high degree of control, something not associated in his mind with neurosis or mental disturbance (page 206):

What is drawing? How does one come to it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How is one to get through that wall – since pounding at it is of no use? In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it steadily and patiently. . . . . As it is with art so it is with other things. And great things are not something accidental, they must be distinctly willed.

He is of the same view as Myers was, that inspiration needs to be controlled if it is to be effective (page 209):

He . . . mentioned the fact that as soon as the landscape painter and Martinus Boks was admitted to a lunatic asylum, his colleagues’ appreciation of his work began to increase. Van Gogh observed this phenomenon with not a little irony. That his own work would be linked to his mental illness by later generations renders these comments particularly poignant. In general, however, his reactions to his colleagues’ afflictions were very down-to-earth. Thus he had nothing positive to say about the effects of [another artist’s] condition on his work.

A related point comes when, in powerful terms, he compares his own situation to his brother’s (page 380-81):

Consider . . . . the new painters still isolated, poor, treated as madmen, and because of this treatment actually going insane, at least as far as their social life is concerned – then remember that you are doing exactly the same job as these primitive painters, since you provide them with money and sell their canvases, which enables them to produce others.

If a painter ruins himself emotionally by working hard at his painting, and renders himself unfit for so much else, family life, &c., &c., if, consequently, he paints not only with colour but with self-sacrifice and self-denial and a broken heart, then your own work is not only no better paid, but costs you, in exactly the same way as a painter, this half-deliberate, half-accidental eclipse of your personality.

In his period of incarceration there is a revealing exchange of letters between the brothers (page 447): Theo praises van Gogh for the intensity of the colour in his recent pictures and for having conveyed ‘the quintessence of your thoughts about nature and living beings,’ while expressing anxiety about how much ‘that brain of yours must have laboured, and how you have risked everything in venturing to the very brink, where vertigo is inevitable.’

Vincent does seem to feel at one point, after the break with Gauguin, that (page 428) ‘I must start afresh, but I shall never again be able to reach the heights to which the illness to some extent led me.’ The caveat – ‘to some extent’ – is probably significant.

Overall he does not see a close positive relationship between art and mental breakdown. He does see some kind of relationship though. This is not conforming to the conventional 19th Century myth of believing that being mad is an essential prerequisite of genius, but rather in terms of how the pressures society places on the artist can precipitate a breakdown. When you take into account his acknowledgement, in another letter already quoted, that their shared heredity may be making a contribution to their instability he is not undermining this main point. Van Gogh had speculated (page 349) whether his ‘neurosis’ had a dual origin, first and foremost his ‘rather too artistic way of life’ but also possibly in part his ‘inescapable heritage,’ which he shared with his brother.

  1. My Perspective
FWH Myers

FWH Myers

The ideas that the Kellys explore in depth in their comprehensive survey Irreducible Mind is of great relevance here. I will shortly be republishing them. For present purposes I’ll simply use one quotation from that sequence. Myers had little patience with those in the 19th Century who conflated genius and madness and subscribed to a ‘degeneracy’ theory. However, he did manage to sift some flecks of truth from its silt (page 471):

… [G]enius and madness share, as an essential common feature, an unusual openness to the subliminal. . . . . [However] genius masters its subliminal uprushes. [Those who succumb to them lose their mental balance.] Genius is not degenerate but “progenerative,” reflecting increased strength and concentration of inward unifying control and increased utilisation of subliminal forms of mentation in service of supraliminal purpose. Indeed, in its highest developments genius represents the truest standard of excellence, and a more appropriate criterion of “normality” than conformity to a statistical average.

On the issue of epilepsy, which is the diagnosis favoured by the authors of Van Gogh: The Life though not by Wilfred Niels Arnold who backs the porphyria hypothesis (see below), I was reminded of the possibility, explored by Lyndall Gordon in her book Lives Like Loaded Guns, that Emily Dickinson might well have suffered from epilepsy. Regardless of whether this theory should prove true, her treatment of the problem in a 19th Century context gives us a sense of what van Gogh might have also experienced within himself, during his treatment and from his friends and family.

Gordon quotes from Dickinson, suggesting she was covertly conveying what the experience of a fit was like – covertly because of the social stigma attached to the illness (page 116):

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit –

After the fit, Gordon explains (page 118), the brain sinks into a ‘Fog’ – something that Dickinson describes as ‘the Hour of Lead.’

The reaction of society was harsh, fuelled by the strong stigma which Gordon feels is the explanation for Dickinson’s lifelong seclusion, imposed on by her family for her protection and willingly accepted by Emily as it fostered her creativity (page 119):

In the 19th century, epileptics were sometimes incarcerated in asylums, and the more advanced asylums segregated them: too disturbing for the mentally ill.… Families therefore colluded to keep the conditions a lifelong secret.

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

Even Dickinson’s need for medication was kept secret. The reason has never been clear. Gordon feels that (page 122) ‘[t]he undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time with “hysteria,” masturbation, syphilis and impairment of the intellect leading to “epileptic insanity.”’

Gordon plays with interesting possible associations between Dickinson’s epilepsy and her creativity. She quotes Dickinson as saying (page 124):

‘I like a look of Agony,’ she said, because Agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for the poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ of her early thirties had lain their Missiles by –,’ though the Thunder that once brought ‘the bolt’ did rumble still.

I am not really competent at this point, not having explored in any detail the nature of epileptic experience, to conclude either that Gordon is correct about Dickinson’s epilepsy, let alone whether such a perspective could lend any support to the idea that something about Vincent’s experience of epilepsy enriched his art. I am also aware that he undoubtedly experienced depression and intense anxiety at times, and that various other factors have been adduced to explain this combination of difficulties. Amongst these are: porphyria [1], which has been strongly argued for but not widely accepted; bipolar disorder, which many feel explains ‘Van Gogh’s extreme enthusiasm and dedication to first religion and then art’ as well as his subsequent exhaustion and depression; absinthe, whose toxic component, thujone, is claimed to have worked against Van Gogh, aggravating his epilepsy, suspected porphyria or possible manic depression, as well as, in high doses causing him to see objects in yellow; and lead poisoning, one of whose symptoms is swelling of the retinas, which can cause one to see light in circles like halos around objects, as in paintings like The Starry Night [2]. Blumer summarised what seems to be the general consensus when he wrote in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002 [3]:

Henri Gastaut, in a study of the artist’s life and medical history published in 1956, identified van Gogh’s major illness during the last two years of his life as temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion. In essence, Gastaut confirmed the diagnosis originally made by the French physicians who had treated van Gogh. However, van Gogh had earlier suffered two distinct episodes of reactive depression, and there are clearly bipolar aspects to his history.

The best I can say, as a diagnostic sceptic who distrusts simplistic one-dimensional explanations of phenomena as multi-faceted as a human being, is that when I stood in front of Cypresses and Two Women, I felt it might be recording some kind of altered state of consciousness, or possibly a strong perceptual distortion of uncertain cause. I am aware that van Gogh cultivated the expression of intensity in his art, not just in terms of ‘an intensity of colour . . . not achieved before’ as Theo pointed out (page 447) but also involving what his brother termed ‘a frenzy’ which made them seem ‘a little further removed from nature.’ Whether this was a quality of perception borrowed from his memory of his ‘attacks,’ perceptual distortions caused by toxins, or whether it was simply part of his search for that (page 448) ‘momentary revelation of superhuman infinitude,’ which he found both in Rembrandt and in Shakespeare, is impossible for me to determine at this point. Whatever the influences upon them, partly material and possibly also sublime, these paintings are works of inspired creativity, which will inevitably have a powerful impact on any careful observer.

A particularly telling perspective, which suggests that something rather uncanny was going which can’t reduce his depiction of a starry night simply to lead poisoning, is explained in the TED talk at the bottom of this post. A friend kindly alerted me to this after I had started posting about van Gogh.

Spirituality

Which brings us on to the matter of spirituality, which is never far away where van Gogh is concerned. How does his spirituality relate to his art?

First and foremost, it must be remembered that he shifted in vocation from preacher to painter.

He later, in 1881, expressed regret for his earlier intense sense of mission (page 123):

If there is anything I regret then it is that period when I allowed mystical and theological profundities to mislead me into withdrawing too much into myself. I have gradually come to change my mind.

Later he looks back and describes that period as (page 216) ‘a few years which I can scarcely comprehend myself, when I was confused by religious ideas, by some kind of mysticism.’

His shift is initially related to his emotional attachment, at this point, to his cousin, Kee Vos. In the 1881 letter he explains to Theo (page 124):

It is my belief that the Jesuitisms of clergyman and devout ladies often make a greater impression on her then on me, Jesuitisms which, precisely because I have acquired some dessous de cartes [inside information], no longer have any hold on me now. But she is devoted to them and would be unable to bear it if the system of resignation and sin and God and I know not one else, proved to be vain.

Later still, in the light of his relationship in 1882 with Sien Hoornik, a pregnant prostitute, he is even more emphatic (page 279):

Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its founder was sublime – I have seen through present-day Christianity only too well. That icy coldness mesmerised even me in my youth – but I have taken my revenge since then . . . . by worshipping the love which they, the theologians, call sin, by respecting a whore, etc.

He still retained a belief in some form of transcendence though (page 124-25):

You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead as a door nail. But does that make me an atheist?… [I]f we are alive there is something wondrous about it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God.

Whatever he did believe seems to have some implications for an afterlife (page 153):

The world of takes no account at all of what happens beyond the grave. That is why the world goes no further than its feet will take it.

Tolstoy (for source of image see link)

Tolstoy (for source of image see link)

There is a key letter on religion written in September 1888. This is particularly intriguing for me as a Bahá’í because of the terms in which he describes what he believes, and because he is linking that to his reading of Tolstoy at the time, though it was of course much later that Tolstoy was interested enough to find out more about the Bábí and Bahá’í Faiths [4] (pages 406-09):

. . . it appears that Tolstoy is enormously interested in the religion of his people.… I believe there is a book on religion by Tolstoy… In it he goes in search, or so I gather from the article, of what remains eternally true in the Christian religion and what all religions have in common.

He admits to not having read the book yet himself but adds (ibid.):

I don’t imagine that his religion is a cruel one which increases our suffering, but must be, on the contrary, a very comforting one, inspiring one with peace of mind and energy, and the courage to live…

He goes onto write:

Tolstoy implies that whatever happens in a violent revolution, there will also be an inner revolution in the people, after which a new religion will be born, or rather, something completely new which will be nameless, but which will have the same effect of consoling, of making life possible, as the Christian religion used to.

This all relates to his idea of what art should be about (page 362):

I am still enchanted by snatches of the past, have a hankering after the eternal, of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols. But when shall I ever get around to doing the starry sky, that picture which is always in my mind?

Rembrandt was often his inspiration and model (page 377-78):

Anything complete and perfect renders infinity tangible . . . . . This is how Rembrandt painted angels. He does a self-portrait, old, toothless, wrinkled, wearing a cotton cap, a picture from life, in a mirror. . . . . . So Rembrandt paints a supernatural angel with a da Vinci smile behind that old man who resembles himself.

So?

In the end his calling as a painter, with all its hardships and its blessings, both hurt and healed him and left him doubtful about or feeling severed from God (page 394):

Ah, my dear brother, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can well do without God in both my life and also my painting, but, suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life – the power to create.

Patrick Brontë around 1860 (for source of image see link)

Patrick Brontë around 1860 (for source of image see link)

At the end of this prolonged encounter with Vincent van Gogh I was reminded of another family who had been similarly torn to pieces by a sequence of tragedies: the Brontës.

Six months after Vincent died, Theo was dead. Lies, his sister, had borne a child in secret, which she abandoned to a peasant family. His brother, Cor, shot himself in 1900, during a bout of fever in the Transvaal. Two years later, his sister Wil was committed to an asylum where she died forty years later. His mother saw most of this unfold until her death in 1907 (details from Van Gogh: The Life – page 867). Patrick Brontë, parish priest, had seen, by the age of 78, his wife, his son and all his five daughters die tragically young: three of those daughters are now famous novelists.

What is exceptional of course about these families is the genius of at least one member. Their tragedies, sadly, were more or less the norm for those days. That death was common meant that the need to decide what to do with your short life was vividly present. Only a favoured few had much choice in the matter.

In our prosperous Western civilisation, we all in the end have to make a decision about what our lives are for, and where the power to accomplish that comes from, and fortunately many more of us now than then have the power to enact that choice.

That’s why van Gogh’s life resonates so strongly still, both through his paintings and his letters. His struggle is our struggle, his defeats and triumphs ours as well. His inspiration, in spite of all his flaws and weaknesses, can hopefully raise us all to follow our calling and enhance our world in whatever way we can.

I hope this sequence of posts has done some kind of justice to the genius and compassion of this flawed but brilliant man and that I really was right not to confine the intensity of my thoughts to my diary, but rather tap away on my internet machine in the sunlight in celebration of his supremely creative life.

The Unexpected Maths behind van Gogh’s Starry Night

Footnotes:

[1] A brief account of this view can be found in an article by Natalie Angier, published in the 12 December 1991 edition of the NY Times. There is also a detailed article by Wilfred Niels Arnold in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 2004, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 22–43 which can be downloaded in full from the website.

[2] This information is drawn from the Van Gogh gallery website.

[3] The link accesses the abstract only.

[4] See the link for more detail in the article from which the following quote is taken. ‘Tolstoi had encountered the Bábí movement as early as 1894 and maintained sporadic contact with Bahá’ís from 1901 until his death in 1910. Ghadirian has recounted Tolstoi’s vision of ideal religion, and his encounters with Bahá’ís, beginning with Isabel Grinevskaya and later ‘Aziz’ulláh Jazzah Khorasani, who was apparently despatched from `Akká by `Abdu’l-Bahá to speak to Tolstoi during a period of house arrest that followed his excommunication from the Orthodox church. Collins and Jasion, having recently reviewed 80 published sources on Tolstoi and the Bábí and Bahá’í religions, have cautioned that the novelist’s attitude to both religions was ambivalent, moving between the sympathies he expressed to Isabel Grinevskaya, and even to “Caucasian Mohammedans”, and others more negative. They suggest it is more appropriate to view the positive statements Tolstoi made on the Bahá’í Faith as testimony to some moments of perspicacity about the future of a religion which was at that time only beginning to make inroads in the West and undeveloped countries. `Abdu’l-Bahá notes that Tolstoi was a well-wisher of humanity but that he was still caught up in politics and opinion.’

VG R composite

Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

Gauguin to van Gogh in 1890, quoted in the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 494

The recent revelations about the rediscovered gun, which the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam thinks has an 80% chance of being the one with which he allegedly killed himself, and about van Gogh’s ear (about 20 days to go for this BBC iPlayer programme), as well as the recent Guardian long-read article by  on the latest exhibition of his work in Amsterdam, made it inevitable I would decide to republish my blog sequence of last year, which attempted to capture my complex and powerful responses to his work. This is the fourth of five posts scheduled to come out each day this week.

Last time I attempted to do some kind of justice to my encounter with van Gogh’s paintings in the museum in Amsterdam. Now comes my attempt to see whether I was wide of the mark or close to home.

Making Sense of It All

Now that I am home again and have read almost to the end the Penguin Letters, I have picked up some helpful insights from what van Gogh wrote to his brother from Arles. They have moved my understanding forward from where it was when I stood before the pictures I have just described.

These insights can be divided into four groups: those to do with the purpose and nature of art, those relating to use of colour, those dealing with the impact of physical and mental health problems, and a thread underpinning all these to some degree is his feeling about religion. He had after all in 1879 (Letters – page 75) ‘turned his back on preaching . . . to make his living as an artist.’ The first two elements I’ll try and deal with today: the other two next Monday.

The Developing Artist

First though it makes sense to consider the light the letters shed on his process of maturation as an artist. In 1880 he wrote to his brother, Theo, that he was extremely (page 80) ‘happy’ to ‘have taken up drawing again.’ He seemed to feel there is though a connection between art and sorrow (page 81):

Meryon puts into his etchings something of the human soul, moved by I know not what inner sorrow.

He does not know at this point quite what his own path will be (page 82):

Though I cannot predict what I shall be able to do, I hope to make a few sketches with perhaps something human in them…

Just over a year later, in December 1881, we can begin to see the direction he is heading when he speaks about writers saying that he only reads them (page 116) ‘because they look at things more broadly and generously and with more love than I do and are acquainted better with reality, and because I can learn from them.’ He said later of Victor Hugo (page 217) that he helped him to ‘keep some feelings and moods alive. Especially love of mankind and belief in, and awareness of something higher . . .’ Speaking, in 1882, of his artist cousin, Mauve, he takes issue with his cousin’s idea of an artist saying (page 150): ‘As far as I am concerned, the word means, “I am looking, I am hunting for it, I am deeply involved.”’

IMG_2305As we know from his later description of himself as a ‘cab horse,’ a career as an artist is not an easy option. Even as early as this he was well aware of that (page 178):

Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation. By dogged, I mean in the first place incessant labour, but also not abandoning one’s views upon the say-so of this person or that.

In the same letter he throws in almost casually a key pointer to the future when he says, ‘It isn’t the language of painters so much as the language of nature that one should heed.’ The editor quotes, further to this (page 183):

Sooner or later, feeling and love for nature always finds a response in people interested in art. The painter’s duty is to immerse himself wholly in nature and to use his intelligence for putting his feelings into his work, so that it becomes intelligible to others.

When he describes his working methods we can feel exactly what he means (page 195):

I just sit down with a white board in front of the spot that appeals to me, I look at what is in front of my eyes, and I say to myself: that white board has got to turn into something – I come back, dissatisfied, . . . . because I have that splendid scenery too much in mind to be satisfied. Yet I can see in my work an echo of what appealed to me, I can see that the scenery has told me something, has spoken to me and that I have taken it down in shorthand.

As his practice of his art strengthened his understanding of what he was about, his confidence in the rightness of it grew in proportion. At the time he was working on his first great piece The Potato Eaters in 1885 (page 292) he asserted forcefully, against what he felt was the demand for ‘conventional polish,’ that ‘a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.’ His position was clear (page 299): ‘The portrayal of working people was to his mind one of the most important thematic innovations of contemporary art, the “essential modern” aspect.’

Not that he was claiming that this was easy or that he was skilled at it (page 304-06):

Nothing seems simpler than painting peasants or rag pickers and other workers, but – there are no subjects in painting as difficult as those everyday figures! . . . . Tell Serret that I should be in despair of my figures were good, tell him that I don’t want them to be academically correct, tell him that what I’m trying to say is that if one were to photograph the digger, he would certainly not be digging then.

The underlining as always indicates his strength of feeling on the matter.

Where we see how his art relates to his feelings about religion is in such comments as (page 312):

Still, I would sooner paint people’s eyes than cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is lacking in the cathedral – however solemn and impressive it may be. To my mind a man’s soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting.

A letter from 1888 makes clear that van Gogh would have regarded my having omitted to consider his portraits, in the last post that looked directly at my response to his art, as a bit of an insult, as well as meaning that I was rather missing the whole point of a key aspect of his work (page 389):

Taking it all in all, that is the only thing in painting that moves me to the depths, and it makes me feel closer to infinity than anything else.

All I can say is, ‘I’ll try and make amends when I look at Rembrandt.’ (I didn’t have the stamina to do this at the time and now the intensity of my impressions of Rembrandt have faded too much.)

It would not be possible for me in this brief space to do justice to the influence of Japanese art, religion and philosophy on van Gogh’s work. However, a short quote will indicate how nature, spirituality and art are seen by him to be fused and integrated in Japanese paintings (page 410):

So come, isn’t what we are taught by the simple Japanese, who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion?

He explains more exactly what this means in the same letter (page 408):

. . . .in order to do a picture which is really of the south, a little skill is not enough. It is observing things for a long time that gives you greater maturity and a deeper understanding. . . . .

My feeling is that I must work at a leisurely pace. Indeed, what about practising the old saying, One should study for ten years or so, and then produce a few figures?

This is the same letter, interestingly, which expands at some length on his ideas about religion in general derived from reading an article about a book by Tolstoy. I’ll be coming back to that later in the next post.

Van Gogh in Tulips at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

Van Gogh in Tulips at the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

Colour

This consideration of his art in general leads naturally into the examination of what his letters have to say about one of the distinguishing characteristics of his art: his use of colour.

It’s a truism to point out that his later paintings under the influence of Impressionism are brighter than his earlier homages to Millet. His colouring and brushwork become dramatically different. What can we learn from his letters about his use of colour?

A good place to start is with a quote I used in the second part of this sequence. Ronald de Leeuw, the editor of the Letters, to compensate for the absence of letters in the period when the brothers were together in Paris, summarises aspects of van Gogh’s radical new departure in style (pages 326):

Van Gogh’s highly original interpretation of Seurat’s pointillism, the use of separate dots of mixed colour, gradually paved the way for a strikingly individual and expressive method of applying colour in streaks and dashes, which would henceforth typify van Gogh’s brushstroke no less than his drawing style.

Van Gogh was also carried away by what he saw around him in his first encounters with the South (page 387):

I find it tremendously beautiful here in the summer, the green is very deep and rich, the air thin and amazingly clear. . . . . I particularly enjoy the colourful clothes, the women and girls dress in cheap, simple material, green, red, pink, yellow, havana brown, purple, blue, polka-dots, stripes. White scarves, red, green and yellow parasols. A strong sulphurous sun which shines down on it all, the great blue sky – it is all as tremendously cheerful as Holland is gloomy.

A key letter concerning colour was written in the August of 1888. He begins to define where he plans to move from the simply realistic (page 390):

. . . instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of colour to express myself more forcefully.

He goes on to give an example, speaking of a portrait he would like to do if possible (page 391):

Behind the head – instead of painting the ordinary wall of the shabby apartment, I shall paint infinity, I shall do a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination, the shining fair head against this rich blue background, I shall obtain a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep blue sky.

VG Boch 1888

Boch 1888 (scanned from the Taschen Edition)

The portrait that finally resulted might be that Eugène Boch (September 1888 – Taschen page 421).

The next letter in the Penguin Letters explains more (page 394):

. . . in my pictures I want to say something consoling, as music does. I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal, whose symbol was once the Halo, which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our colouring.

He also wants to convey relationships between people by the use of colour (page 395):

[Concerning] the study of colour. I keep hoping that I’ll come up with something. To express the love of two lovers by the marriage of two complementary colours, their blending and their contrast, the mysterious vibrations of related tones. To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light tone against a dark background.

Happily, he gives us a run down of his intentions in painting one of his most famous scenes – the Night Café. He writes (page 399):

I have tried, by contrasting soft pink with blood-red and wine-red, soft Louis XV-green and Veronese green with yellow-greens and harsh blue-greens, all this in an atmosphere of an infernal furnace in pale sulphur, to express the powers of darkness in a common tavern. And yet under an outward show of Japanese gaiety and Tartarin’s good nature.

He also describes his intentions in the painting of his bedroom (page 416):

. . . . here everything depends on the colour, and by simplifying it I am lending it more style, creating an overall impression of rest or sleep. In fact, a look at the picture ought to rest the mind, or rather the imagination.

It’s helpful to see the phrase he coins for this kind of attempt to use colour to convey meaning (page 404) – ‘suggestive colour.’

It isn’t just colour he uses but shape to suggest his meaning. Still speaking of the bedroom he writes (page 418) that ‘the sturdy lines of the furniture should also express undisturbed rest.’ It is easy to see how the vibrant whorls and swirls of the cypresses we discussed last time convey anything but restful ease and this is clearly intentional.

Reading his own words here gives me the feeling that, although what I read into the four paintings I was looking at last time was very much my own interpretation, what I was attempting was very much what van Gogh would have wanted me to do.

Next and last, tomorrow I will try to integrate some kind of understanding of van Gogh’s spiritual perspective alongside a consideration of his mental state.

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