Moves home at 27 to live with his parents and experiment with the possibility of being an artist. Realizes, “well…shit, I am an artist,” and then makes dope-ass art for the rest of his life. Experiences inexplicable solidarity with peasant farmers. Writes reams of letters to his brother. Cuts his ear off at some point. Plays around with insanity in the twilight of his life. Checks into an asylum and keeps painting because that’s just what you do when you check into an asylum and you’re a self-mutilating artist. Shoots himself in the chest. Dies two days later.
That last bit, the italicized part, made me laugh out loud in the Van Gogh Museum. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to see humor in someone shooting himself in the chest, but in that context, it felt like Van Gogh’s last piece of absurd art, or at least the curator’s cherry on top of this delicious sundae. It’s so matter-of-fact, so plainly stated. As it should be, I guess. That’s what happened, after all.
Wait, I’m just supposed to move through the rest of the museum now with polite silence? My man shot himself in the chest! Can we all just pause and digest that for a second? My man shot himself in the chest. Not to make light of whatever deranged (or totally lucid) state led him to such self-violence (I mean, damn…in the chest?), but it’s just such a specifically unexpected body location for the scene of the crime. As DFW points out in his famous “this is water” commencement speech, most people, when left with suicide as their only option, choose their head, the likely source of their decision, the place, so to speak, where their pain lives; where they are trapped inside with their pain, hopeful for release. Perhaps for Van Gogh, his mind long gone, it was his heart he couldn’t bear. Perhaps it was too full. Perhaps he couldn’t paint quickly and prolifically enough to keep pace with his heart’s overflowing.
And now it makes sense why the museum states the case more plainly. Shoots himself in the chest. There’s not even a doer. Whatever more there was to it died with Van Gogh. It’s not for us to speculate. Whether it was a matter of the heart, the mind, both, or something else entirely, it was an event that happened, and when we isolate an event, we have to leave out the infinite matrix of complexity that would lead someone to such a point. To museum patrons, it reads like a solemn dramatic resolution. To Van Gogh, who knows?
Now I’m sorry for my irreverence before. I began this piece ready to move in a particular direction with an unapologetically light tone, and here we are in the midst of heaviness, and I’m totally out of my depth.
The final line of Van Gogh’s life, so simply worded, might capture the finality of the moment: “It has happened. I have done the thing.” But all the possibility that swirled around Van Gogh that day, that continues to swirl around this day, it went out with a bang and a whimper. “So that’s it then. I have done the thing. That’s it. And yet, what is it?” My imagination fails me. I can’t quite empathize with Van Gogh. I can only imagine myself in his situation; I lack all the specific details of his life, the details of his time. And even if I had all that information at my disposal, and I could enter it all into some computer and spit out a Van Gogh AR simulation, I wouldn’t come close to the universe he was in that moment. I can’t even come close to the universe I am in this moment, and I’m in here with me. (That might be the problem, constructing some “I” who’s supposed to understand it all and who can’t by the very nature of its construction.)
I think I’m experiencing hope in this writing. I know empathy has limits, and yet I’m trying to connect anyway. I know I can’t connect, and I persist almost in spite of that knowledge. Surely I can touch Van Gogh’s life and feel my own more fully. In that touch we are all alive as one. If it’s a lie, it’s one I choose to believe. I’d rather live in a state of mind where everything is possible and nothing is real. Let me repeat that with emphasis: nothing is real. When I imagine Van Gogh, I see nothing. It’s in the abyss my mind faces where everything happens. Poets, as Auden wrote, “make nothing happen.”
Van Gogh’s life was nothing. It happened. My life is nothing. It’s happening. I hope.
Throwback lyric of the day:
At the beginning of Christina Aguilera’s blazing track “Dirty,” Redman declares that it’s “too dirty to clean my after.” Never has the mood been set more effectively for a song. Thank you for priming us, Redman, and for leaving your “after” dripping all over the beat.