Posts Tagged ‘Vincent van Gogh’

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

Having inched my way to this point through art to illustrate what I was talking about, Woolf’s depression and possible transliminality, and whether she intended to convey our inscape or not, I can finally come to the crunch question.

Did Woolf succeed in capturing consciousness?

At this stage I can only base a carefully considered answer to that question on a complete reading of To the Lighthouse. I’m only halfway through The Waves.

This is where my own diary entries might come in useful, at least to explain the initial impact of To the Lighthouse.

Within the first 30 pages I was writing ‘there are already intriguing hints about Virginia Woolf‘s experience of consciousness, eg (page 28) ‘to follow her thought was like following your voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil… all of this danced up and down like a company of gnats… in Lilly’s mind.’

When I was halfway through, though I felt it was uneven, there were ‘many places where she achieves the almost impossible. She transitions from inscape to inscape.’ I think I need a fairly long example to illustrate this. Pages 97-98 provide a good one.

We begin in Mrs Ramsay‘s head, pitying Mr William Bankes:

. . . she concluded, addressing herself by bending silently in his direction to William Bankes—poor man! who had no wife, and no children and dined alone in lodgings except for tonight; and in pity for him, life being now strong enough to bear her on again, she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again and thinks how, had the ship sunk, he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea.

“Did you find your letters? I told them to put them in the hall for you,” she said to William Bankes.

And suddenly we are in Lilly Briscoe’s mind which has a very different take on things:

Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.

How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again, and Lily thought with some amusement because she was relieved, Why does she pity him? For that was the impression she gave, when she told him that his letters were in the hall. Poor William Bankes, she seemed to be saying, as if her own weariness had been partly pitying people, and the life in her, her resolve to live again, had been stirred by pity. And it was not true, Lily thought; it was one of those misjudgments of hers that seemed to be instinctive and to arise from some need of her own rather than of other people’s. He is not in the least pitiable. He has his work, Lily said to herself.

This leads Lily to recall her own true focus: painting.

She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the tablecloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

I found that last moment an astute observation on Woolf’s part.

It seems to me that Woolf picks up skilfully on how one character sees another in a different way from that in which the person sees themselves. Where the truth lies is for the reader to decide.

I was getting completely carried away by this stage and wrote: ‘She is so astonishingly good at creating a convincing simulation of consciousness in To the Lighthouse. It’s as though I can experience some of her characters more clearly and completely then I experience aspects of myself.’

Conveying Consciousness

Reading Woolf was making me realise that having my primary focus on the nature of consciousness and the means to enhance it does not entail my turning my back, as I have over the last few years, on the novel. It simply provides me with the criterion by which to judge whether a novel really interests me. If it sheds no light on consciousness and is only concerned with plot and personality, then it is of no interest to me. Character and consciousness are key for me.

It raised a wider question. Is what I am after in a novel, poem or any written art form, the conveying of a state of mind? My reaction to Woolf suggests it is. At first I had thought that I shifted from studying literature to studying psychology because I was more interested in people in general than I was in the words that describe them. And that was true up to a point. Now I realise that I am not just interested in understanding people in ‘objective’ terms: I am also interested as much, if not more than anything else, in inner experience – something that psychological science and brain imaging cannot directly access, even if they can shed some light on how brain activity relates to inner experience and external action.

This goes beyond simply capturing routine streams of consciousness. I also believe there are aspects of reality that lie along a spectrum beyond our usual sensory settings. These can break through from the brain and its workings below ordinary consciousness, or break through from beyond the brain, from what I term a transcendent reality, whose exact nature tends to be defined in primarily metaphorical terms.

This raises a further question. Should the novel, drama and poetry be concerned with those, and to what extent? It even includes the question ‘Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, a sense of our global interconnectedness at some level beyond the purely material?

How far does Woolf take it?

For now I will examine just how far Woolf goes with this in To the Lighthouse and to a lesser extent in The Waves.

At various points in the novel Woolf offers glimpses into how a character experiences their mind. I think it’s worth sharing some of these to indicate how broad her understanding is of these patterns.

Even the same character at different points has different experiences. Take Lilly, for example. At one time (page 168) ‘… a question like Nancy’s— opened doors in one’s mind that went banging and swinging to and fro and made one keep asking, in a stupefied gape, What does one send? What does one do?’

At another (page 184):

Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

And shortly after is something about as close as she comes to the mystical most of the time (page 186):

And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularise itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come.

And there is one moment captured that must reflect Woolf’s own struggles as a writer (page 206):

Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind.

James, Mr Ramsay’s son, has another kind of experience (page 195):

He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain…

And his combing of memory continues (page 214):

Turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one’s eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape.

Whether one of Lilly’s later thoughts is meant to capture a more final view is hard to say (page 224):

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.

Maybe, maybe not, but there is something heroic about Woolf’s battle with herself and her material.

In any case, the clear balance in To the Lighthouse is tilted heavily in favour of the inner life as against external events, of which latter there are very few.

Even though I have still some way to go with The Waves, I can share one impression that is beginning to take shape in my mind.

This novel seems to be exploring in part at least the nature of the self. Whether there even is a self perhaps: Rhoda clearly doesn’t think so (page 47). ‘Identity failed me. We are nothing,’ she declares. Bernard is at something of an opposite extreme (pages 49-50): ‘I do not believe in separation. We are not single. . . . . we are one.’ He even sees his own self as multiple (page 56): ‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many.’ Neville feels connected but doesn’t like it (page 61): ‘How useful an office one’s friends perform when they recall us. Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another.’

Bernard, of course, sees it differently (page 66): ‘For I am more selves than Neville thinks, We are not simple as our friends would have us to meet their needs. Yet love is simple.’

Louis is more of an outsider but people still bug him (page 69): ‘ People go on passing; they go on passing against the spires of the church and the plates of ham sandwiches. The streamers of my consciousness waver out and are perpetually torn and distressed by their disorder.’ Susan on the other hand can feel more connected with nature (page 73): ‘I think sometimes . . . I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn.’ Jinny, which incidentally was Woolf’s pet name, has a different take again. After dancing at a party her fancy takes off (pages 78): ‘I fill my glass again. I drink. The veils drop between us. I am admitted to the warmth and privacy of another soul. We are together on some high Alpine pass . . . There! That is my moment of ecstasy. Now it is over.’

I’m not sure yet where all this is going to lead in The Waves. What I see so far is an exploration of the poles of interconnectedness, an almost mystical concept, and isolation. This is a key aspect of consciousness for me and I am intrigued to see where she will take this theme. What I am still delighted by is her fusion of the poetic with the person, how she lifts language to a level where it almost becomes capable of doing justice to inner experience in a stable and consistent way. She can’t quite sustain it though and not all passages are equally convincing. Even so it is a rare and fine achievement.[1]

Where now?

There is another set of questions that I plan to explore next time: is success in the capturing of consciousness a valid standard by which to evaluate a work of art? Would it even be possible in such a diverse and global village as we live in now for a novelist to bring all shades and styles of consciousness together between the pages of one book? And when they failed how could that be seen as a defect? We are clearly only able to capture a small part of the spectrum. How much would we have to capture to be seen as a success?

I think there are ways of resolving the possibly specious problem raised by those questions.

More of that next time.


[1] I have now almost finished The Waves. Sadly I have to say that I do not find it as satisfying as To the Lighthouse. The forward to the Penguin Modern Classics edition expresses the problem with it clearly (page xxxiii): ‘Of all Woolf’s novels, The Waves is the one which most readily lays itself open to the charge of esoteric remoteness from the ordinary world.’ Even so it is a brave attempt to dramatise (page xi) ‘how identities themselves do not stand, ultimately, clear and distinct, but flow and merge into each other.’ Though her theme of ‘interconnectedness’ (page xii) strongly appeals to me I have to admit she does not satisfactorily achieve her aim in conveying it here for reasons which I hope to address in more detail in the last post of this sequence.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (the link for source of image no longer works)


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. . . 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 next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.

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Rita and Hubert 1954 by Alice Neel (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272)

Just to set the record straight, in the last post I may have left readers with the impression that Neel just dealt in sour portraits of people she was miffed with. That is very far from the truth. I thought I’d include here one of her portraits of the disadvantaged people who do not normally find likenesses of their face hanging in galleries or selling for huge sums. Her dedication to portraying the oppressed delayed her due recognition till very late in life. Her motive was not gain but compassion. The portraits are still in part maps of her awareness of and responses to the subject as a person, a fellow human being, not just plain reproductions of their outer appearance. The courageous portrait above, at a time when the current of racism ran stronger than now in American society, testifies to that, I think.

Virginia Woolf at last!

Virginia Woolf takes her art as an exploration of her mind to another level.

When I read of how much ground she covered while at the same time reflecting really deeply on so much of her experience, I am lost in admiration, I’m green with envy.

I struggle to resolve the conflict between roaming widely and digging deeply. All too often I get the balance wrong. When I roam I become shallow, and am all too often haunted by FOMO (the fear of missing out, for the uninitiated). When I dig deep it feels too narrow. Somehow Woolf seems to have a breadth of understanding not compromised by shallowness. Few people manage to go deeper or wider at the same time.

However, I need to remind myself that this is not going to be my main focus right now before I get completely derailed again. I want to look at her ability to capture consciousness in words.

Before we look in detail at the core issue I need to deal briefly with the problem of Woolf’s mental state and the impact of that on her creativity, both detrimental in terms of undermining her capacity to write, or even to continue living normally, at times of acute distress, and potentially positive in terms of her openness to inner experience because of a more permeable filter between her conscious and her unconscious mental process.

Woolf’s mental state – psychosis, transliminality or mysticism?

My first port of call in seeking to understand Woolf’s state of mind is Julia Briggs. She flags up what typically happened when a novel was finished (page 41):

Virginia frequently experienced depression and sometimes despair on completing a major novel, whether because she feared hostile criticism, or because she couldn’t bear to let it go, or because the sheer effort of finishing it to her satisfaction had exhausted her – or perhaps a combination of all three.

To my relief, Briggs does not descend into simplistic diagnostics, but looks at Woolf as a person first and foremost. She comments that a diagnosis like that of neurasthenia (page 46):

implies an innate disorder, rather than explaining her attacks in terms of the shocks she had undergone, although the series of sudden deaths in her family, sexual abuse and, later, her difficulties within their marriage and the seven-year task of completing The Voyage Out might be considered sufficiently traumatic in themselves to account for her suicide attempt and the long collapse that followed.

It was a major and serious breakdown in March 1915.

Later in her book Briggs explains an aspect of the sexual abuse she refers to. The person involved was her half-brother (page 352):

A darker aspect of sexuality threatened when Gerald Duckworth lifted the small Virginia onto a marble slab in the hall and ‘began to explore my body. I can remember the feeling of his hand going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower… His hands explored my private parts.’

Hermione Lee devotes a whole chapter of her biography to ‘Abuses.’ Partly these related to Virginia’s father’s domineering and attention-seeking patterns after the death of his wife, but even more importantly to the sexually abusive and bullying behavior of Duckworth. Her conclusion was (pages 158-59):

Virginia Woolf thought that what had been done to her was very damaging. . . . She used George as an explanation for her terrifyingly volatile and vulnerable mental state, for her inability to feel properly, for her sexual inhibition. And yet she also violently resisted simplistic Freudian explanations of a life through childhood traumas, and would have been horrified by interpretations of her work which reduced it to a coded expression of neurotic symptoms.

Briggs is certainly not tempted to explain her work in terms of the trauma she experienced (page 47):

. . . in exploring “all the horrors of the dark cupboard of illness”, in dismantling the tidy filing cabinets of the comfortable and familiar to confront chaos, Woolf suffered from madness, as conventionally defined, yet there was also something of poetic frenzy in it, and her art drew on what she found there.

Her episodes of physical illness also had a positive side (page 220): ‘illness, she recognised, could function as a form of “lying in”, a process that brought the work to birth…’

What else can we glean of Woolf’s own angle on this from her diaries?

Her never having had children seems in the end to be at least as much a product of her own desires as it is a result of her husband Leonard’s possibly protective preferences (page 119):

… oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness and feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man in a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own.

All of which makes her metaphor of ‘lying in’ during illness doubly intriguing.

She clearly explains To the Lighthouse as at least in part a way of exorcising the ghosts of her parents (page 138):

I used to think of him and mother daily; writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true – but I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.)

She also acknowledges the slump into depression when a piece of work is finished (page 144):

Directly I stopped working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth.

Its consequences could have been potentially serious (page 229):

That’s the end of the book. I looked up past diaries – a reason for keeping them, and found the same misery after Waves – after Lighthouse I was, I remember, nearer suicide, seriously, than since 1913.

If ending a piece of work plunged her into the depths, working on one could lift her (page 143):

I pitched into my great lake of melancholy. Lord how deep it is! What a born melancholic I am! The only way I keep afloat is by working.

She even makes links between the creative act and her experiences of ‘madness’ such as after the completion of The Waves (page 169):

I wrote the words O death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.

And the creative experience was not without its tensions (page 209): ‘I think the effort to live in two spheres: the novel; and life; is a strain.’

There is the irritating tendency for the distraction of company to cause her to let slip valuable insights and inspirations (page 212):

I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip – why? Because of feeding the goldfish, of looking at the new pond, of playing bowls. Nothing remains now. I forget what it was about.

Or to simply gobble up time and energy she could have used for writing (page 258):

I am again held up in the years by my accursed love of talk. That is to say, if I talk to Rose Macaulay from 4–6.30: to Elizabeth Bowen from 8–12 I have a dull heavy hot mop inside my brain next day and an prey to every flea, ant, gnat. So I have shut the book…

She was neither a recluse nor a socialite but found the balance between them hard to strike while being fully aware of the evils at either extreme (page 342): ‘Incessant company is as bad as solitary confinement.’

Her diaries confirm what at least two of her novels suggest: that there was a degree of transliminality about her consciousness. Things kept bubbling up from below its threshold. These could occur at any time (page 67):

But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things shining up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.

The work itself drew her ever deeper. Concerning the writing of Mrs Dalloway she wrote (page 69-74):

. . . it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world. . . .

One thing, in considering my state of mind now, seems to be beyond dispute; that I have, at last, bored down into my oil well, and can’t scribble fast enough to bring it all to the surface.

Fishing is the metaphor she settled on at one point to describe it (page 271):

She talked about the creative process, describing it as one of apparent inertia, of “mooning”, in which the artist as fisherwoman lets herself “down into the depths of her consciousness”, surrendering herself to “the mysterious nosing about, feelings around, darts and dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and elusive fish the imagination.’

The Waves raises another possibility (page 247):

The originating experience had been one of ‘the mystical side of this solitude.’ Writing it out required her to ‘come to terms with mystical feelings’, to acknowledge, if not a universal consciousness, then at least a wider design and meaning to which art aspired. Though Woolf shared her father’s impatience with conventional religion, her novel (The Waves) took up the challenge thrown down in the concluding sentences of Fry’s Vision and Design, where the attempt to explain aesthetic emotion threatened to land its author ‘in the depths of mysticism.’

When I came to look closely at The Waves the issue of interconnectedness kept rearing its head. More of that later, I hope.

Her take on religion is intriguing, and maps onto that of other writers such as Yeats (page 398):

Though Woolf did not believe in a personal God, “A Sketch of the Past” shows that she did believe in some kind of “world soul” embodied in beauty, form and meaning, and transmitted by great artists: ‘all human beings – are connected with this;… the whole world is a work of art;… we are parts of the work of art…

All in all it would be unwise to explain her creativity simply in terms of her vulnerable state of mind and her traumatic early experiences. However, it is possible that her intensity, her access to aspects of consciousness that elude most of us, and her moments of almost mystical experience helped shape the unprecedented focus of some of her later work, work that has drawn me in because of its almost unique ability to convey the experience of consciousness in words.

With luck, I should begin to address that more directly next time!

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Dore STC Holmes p144

Picture scanned from ‘Coleridge: Early Visions’ Richard Holmes (page 144)

The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God. But sincerity, justice, humility, severance, and love for the believers of God will purify the mirror and make it radiant with reflected rays from the Sun of Truth.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Coleridge (1834) Rime of the Ancient Mariner (lines 115-118)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

Events over the last four years have taught me a lot. It would be tedious in the extreme to bore you with all the details. The events were of the kind exemplified in the first post of the sequence about the Three ‘I’s.

What I want to talk about just now is the way that a poem, which I had translated and which raised interesting questions for a friend, led to a breakthrough into a different angle of understanding, enriched admittedly both by my recent practice of mindfulness, my intense encounter with van Gogh in Amsterdam, and my long-standing struggle with the processes of reflection and disidentification in general.

Three Brains

To understand fully what I’m going to be saying I need to take a brief detour at this point into the three-brain model, which I’ve already dealt with on this blog. I looked at the work of Charles Tart, especially his book Waking Up. He is influenced heavily in this by Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

I have now tweaked that model somewhat in the light of my own experience, trying to integrate some previously unmentioned aspects and also to make more explicit ways to begin using it in practice while keeping it as simple as possible. I have not repeated some of the detailed suggestions in the Three ‘I’s sequence such as how to work with dreams, as these are accessible still on this blog.

Emotions and feelings of various kinds are triggered by the content of experience at every level.

A Three-Brain Model BasicThose at the instinctual, limbic system or ‘gut’ level tend to be linked to survival and are frequently negative involving fear (flight) and anger (fight). The other ‘f’ words, such as ‘food,’ usually trigger pleasure and other more positive responses. We tend to react strongly and quickly to all such triggers: there isn’t much thought, if any at all involved. It’s very much a flash point situation which can make catching ourselves in time before we react a bit of a problem. It takes practice.

At the intellectual, left-brain or ‘head’ level, the nature of feelings will depend upon the content and difficulty of whatever preoccupies our thinking processes. When we have a complex problem we end up having to work things out more slowly and what comes out after a longer period is a calculated decision rather than a gut reaction. I’ve been over much of this ground in recording my responses to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow so I won’t rehash it all in detail here.

At the right-brain level of intuition, which can be termed the ‘heart,’ where holistic and creative processes tend to take place, emotions are overall usually more positive. Love and compassion are more frequently experienced at this level. It takes time for these processes to produce a sense of what to do next and more time still for us to explain what that is to our thinking mind. I have called the outcome here a ‘resolution’ because that word contains both the idea of resolving a problem and achieving a firm resolve about tackling it.

I will come back in the last post of this sequence to an examination of how to apply this model to any given situation.

Stranded Mariners

The poem in question was my rendering in English of Machado’s A Crazy Song, in particular the line I chose to render as ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed.’

A Crazy Song

My friend’s comment was unexpected:

. . . I was struck by your line ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed’.  Several images and connections arise:  The ship is like our conscious or personal self, . . . . If the ship is becalmed there is no wind in its sails, and the sea itself is barely moving.  So the reason for the ship’s lack of movement has its origin outside the conscious self, . . . . .  The ship is a symbol for the personal Will (in psychosynthesis) and its crew is the multiplicity of our subpersonalities, hundreds of different selves which work in unison to make sail across the ocean. But in the becalmed ship the crew are all waiting, they can do nothing. . . . . . Perhaps [there are issues] need[ing] resolution in order to find some wind for your sails?

My immediate reaction was to dismiss the idea of present relevance. I had seen the translation I made as drawing on past experiences to mediate the transference of the emotional meaning of the poem for me from Spanish into English. I resonated so strongly to the original poem, I felt, because I’d been there, done that and got the t-shirt.

However, because I have learned that when this friend asks a question or raises an issue there is usually something substantial behind it, I went back to the original text. In doing so I came realise that ‘transference’ is an interesting word to have used in this context.

I went back to check out what I’d added to or subtracted from the original, which reads at that point:

Y no es verdad, dolor, yo te conozco,
tú eres nostalgia de la vida buena
y soledad de corazón sombrío,
de barco sin naufragio y sin estrella.

[Literal Translation: ‘But that’s not it – pain, I know you better: you are the longing for the happy days, the loneliness that fills the sombre heart, that haunts the ship unfoundering (ie ‘unwrecked’) and unstarred.’]

Clearly rotting and becalmed are my associations to what Machado wrote.

Whereas at first I had thought that I was simply rendering the spirit of the Spanish into an English equivalent, I’d clearly gone beyond it. So, in support of the ‘been there, done that’ theory, I argued to myself that perhaps I was referring back to some earlier state of mind and using the Spanish as a bridge to help me recreate it.

For example, at the time I was learning Spanish both at school, and later when a Spanish Assistante came to work at the college I was teaching at, I was still locked in my dissociation from or denial of the emotional turmoil of my childhood, up to and including my father’s death when I was 24. Not until my rather risky experiences with Reichian and Janovian breathing therapies (see link) at the hands of amateurs did I open Pandora’s box and discover what I really felt and really wanted to do – till then it had all been about addictive pastimes to help me keep shut down.

In one blog post I described it as follows:

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.

I’m not sure why so many of my important experiences have such an aquatic flavour. Actually, I think I know why: anyone interested could check out an earlier post, which hints at the connection.

Anyway, after those moments, psychology/psychotherapy became the wind in my sails. I had reasons for wishing to become properly qualified in this area, having witnessed, as I saw it, the potential damage amateurs could do to the vulnerable (but that’s another story). I wanted to make a positive difference, something I couldn’t do outside the system against which I had rebelled. So I came back in, got a job, worked in mental health and found my vocation.

Finding the Bahá’í Faith put more wind in my sails. I thought the ‘painted ship upon a painted ocean’ experience that the Ancient Mariner describes was behind me. The imagery didn’t apply anymore to the present, did it?

Then, I began to wonder whether such a state might still be active somewhere underneath consciousness. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time I had failed fully to understand my own poem, let alone my translation of someone else’s. It’s some consolation to think that if you can completely understand a poem you’ve written, it probably isn’t much good.

Anyway, because she questioned what I might have meant and whether it applied to me and to what extent, a key association came to mind, the probable original source of those kinds of images for this kind of purpose. Surprise, surprise, it was Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Coleridge’s life has always fascinated me. He was 26 when he published this, younger than Keats when he died at 28 and younger than van Gogh when he started painting at 27 – extremely young to have composed, over what seems to have been a brief period of five months before first publication, such a powerful and dark poem. At least one biographer regards it as uncannily prophetic of his later life and all its suffering. He kept tinkering with the poem over a period of many years. It clearly was of profound significance to him.

In the next post I’ll be looking closely at the implication of this association for governing our reactions to experience. The poem would seem to have left a deeper mark on me than I had ever realised.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tomorrow I begin posting a short sequence on the idea of a ‘calling,’ by which is meant the powerful urge to fulfil a purpose which gives life meaning as the same time time as it dominates it entirely.  Republishing this post seemed a good preparation.

In the light of my ruminations on van Gogh after my trip to Amsterdam and the recent revelations about the rediscovered gun and his ear, the recent Guardian longer article by  came as a brilliant pulling of threads together into a coherent and compelling pattern. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

When Vincent van Gogh got out of hospital in January 1889, with a white bandage covering the place where his left ear had been, he immediately went back to work in his house next to a cafe in the southern French town of Arles. A still life he painted that month looks like a determined attempt to hold on to the things of this world, to quell his inner turbulence by concentrating on the solid facts of his life. Around a sturdy wooden table he has laid out a symbolic array of the simple pillars of his existence. Four onions. A medical self-help book. A candle. The pipe and tobacco he found steadying. A letter from his brother Theo. A teapot. And one more thing: a large, emptied bottle of absinthe.

Has he drunk the absinthe since leaving hospital? Does its emptiness represent a promise to swear off the stuff from now on?

The first thing to be said about this painting is that it is revolutionary. It is a new kind of art. The very idea that a collection of objects, painted with fiery brushstrokes in heightened luminous colours, with ridges of thick impasto in some places and bare canvas in others, can reveal the state of someone’s soul was utterly new. Van Gogh was its originator. In the months after this mostly self-taught Dutch artist in his mid 30s arrived in Arles in February 1888 he invented a new kind of art that would come to be called expressionism.

In the process he drove himself mad.

That probably sounds like a dangerously Romantic way of putting it to curators of On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This sensational show – how strange to see the rusty gun, found in a field at Auvers-sur-Oise, that the museum is “80% sure” Van Gogh shot himself with, in 1890, at the age of just 37 – is full of fascinating documents that tell a sad story of a man struggling with his declining mental health until finally, in despair of ever getting well or living independently, he chose suicide. It presents a lucid narrative of the final phase of Van Gogh’s life. Yet it is ultimately a pedantic and misleading exhibition whose pursuit of clinical accuracy misses the mystery of Van Gogh’s life and art.

The straw man the curators want to tear down is the myth that Van Gogh’s genius lay in his “madness”, that he painted in the fever of hallucinations and took inspiration from illness.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

As I have brought Shelley back into the frame with yesterday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! There are examples of trauma in his life at the point I take it up, that I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning. This phase in the sequence also looks at some general principles that may be relevant to creativity in general as well as Shelley in particular.

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!


Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

For insights shed on this from the trauma literature see my earlier see the three immediately preceding posts accessible from the links at the start of this post..

The really difficult bit starts with the next post tomorrow – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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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.


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.


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


[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.’

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