I could have told you, Vincent

Three things I learned about Vincent Van Gogh from reading Van Gogh by Pierre Cabanne, © 1961:

  1. When Van Gogh took up painting, late in life, he began by taking lessons, visiting museums to study the works of the masters, and inviting established artists to critique his work.  In the popular imagination he simply sat down at his canvas and let the genius flow forth– and there was an element of that– but he had carefully laid the foundation.
  2. He didn’t cut off his whole ear, just the tip of his earlobe.  That’s still disturbing and indicative of a troubled mind, but far less ghastly than if he had lopped off the whole thing.
  3. While it is true he sold only a single painting while alive, his career had a major breakthrough shortly before his suicide.  A respected art critic had published a glowing review of his work, and he was being contacted by other successful painters who were intrigued by his work and wanted to meet him and exchange paintings.  He had several public exhibitions which were widely attended and brought positive attention.  He had every objective reason to be optimistic.

She was dancing for herself…

This excerpt from Zelda by Nancy Milford, ©1970, describes an incident that took place when she was in her mid-twenties, before mental illness consumed her life.  She must have been quite a force of nature:

When Zelda indulged in high jinks that summer there was a quality about the performance that was striking; she seemed unconcerned about the presence of others and that gave her actions an unforgettable touch.  One evening the Murphys and the Fitzgeralds were sitting at a table in the Casino at Juan-les-Pins.  It was very late and nearly everyone had gone home.  Zelda rose from the table and raising her skirts above her waist began to dance.  Motionless, Scott sat watching her.  When the orchestra caught on it played to her.  At first the Murphys were startled, and then, Gerald said, “I remember it was perfect music for her to dance to and soon the Frenchmen who were left gathered about the archways leading to the small dance area near our table gaped at her– they expected to see a show, something spectacular.  Well, it was spectacular, but not at all in the way they had expected it to be.  She was dancing for herself; she didn’t look left or right, or catch anyone’s eyes.  She looked at no one, not once, not even at Scott.  I saw a mass of lace ruffles as she whirled– I’ll never forget it.  We were frozen.  She had the tremendous natural dignity.  She was so self-possessed, so absorbed in her dance.  Somehow she was incapable of doing anything unladylike.”

A New Significance

In this excerpt from a letter to Scott,  Zelda Fitzgerald describes her mental illness in words that sound very much like Beat Poetry:

In Paris, before I realized that I was sick, there was a new significance to everything:  stations and streets and facades of buildings– colors were infinite, part of the air, and not restricted by the lines that encompassed them and lines were free of the masses they held.  There was music that beat behind my forehead and other music that fell into my stomach from a high parabola and there was some of Schumann that was still and tender and the sadness of Chopin Mazurkas– Some of them sound as if he thought he couldn’t compose them– and there was the madness of turning, turning, turning through the decisiveness of Litz.  Then the world became embryonic in Africa– and there was no need for communication.  The Arabs fermenting in the vastness; the curious quality of their eyes and the smell of ants; a detachment as if I was on the other side of a black gauze…

From Zelda by Nancy Milford, ©1970, pages 166-167.


Excerpt from The Will Rogers Book compiled by Paula McSpadden Love, ©1971:

Will’s mother died when he was ten years old, and somehow he always carried the hurt of this parting.  Instinctively his heart was touched by anyone who was motherless.  His sisters, Sallie, Maud and May, were devoted to him and left nothing undone for their young brother.  His father seldom denied him anything.  To them he was always someone very special.  Neighboring ranchers and all the relatives felt he belonged to them.  Their homes were always open to “Uncle Clem’s boy.”  It was this love he prized so much that he never grew apart from the “home folks.”  In fact, his years of success intensified his love for his people, and it was no wonder everyone in the Southwest claimed kin to him.

If you look closely at anyone who is good and kind, or someone who is evil and vindictive, you’ll find the same root cause:  suffering.

Some people will spend their lives doing their best to make sure nobody else suffers as they did, and some will spend their lives trying to make sure everyone suffers as badly as they have.

I think which path they take is a reflection of the compassion that was directed towards them when they needed it most.

General Obliviousness

Excerpted from the biography of Henry A. Wallace, American Dreamer by John C. Culver and John Hyde ©2000:

“Henry Wallace was on her trail every minute,” said one of Ilo’s friends. “He used to take Ilo driving in a dilapidated old car. Money never meant a thing to Henry, and his eccentricity didn’t matter to Ilo.” His general obliviousness to customary courtship practices had an endearing quality of its own. On one of their dates Henry brought along his copy of Farmers of Forty Centuries so he and Ilo could discuss Chinese agricultural practices.

At times Henry’s peculiarity was a bit much for Ilo’s friends. They gossiped that he was existing on a diet of nothing but soybeans and cabbages, and grumbled about his unruly appearance. “Ilo, don’t you think you could do something about Henry’s ties,” one of her friends asked. To Ilo, however, what mattered were the “splendid qualities” she saw in him. His quiet strength, his dedication to God and family, his serious demeanor– these were qualities she thought her late father would have admired. She felt with Henry a sense of comfort and security. It seemed, she remarked years later, as if she had always known him.

I’m a long-haired vegetarian communist Hare Krishna devotee living in East Texas.  When there’s a bug in the house I grab my butterfly net and a Peterson’s Field Guide, not a can of Raid. I don’t eat peanuts because it’s disturbing to me that a seed would grow underground.

I  know I’m weird, and I know that Mona’s friends and family expressed concern while we were courting.

I’m very lucky that, like Henry’s Ilo,  my Mona found my general obliviousness to customary courtship practices endearing.

Something Divine

I’m reading a biography of Henry A. Wallace, American Dreamer by John C. Culver and John Hyde ©2000, and it mentions a famous friend he made at the age of four:

(George Washington) Carver, the son of slaves, wandered through the Midwest for years after the Civil War before becoming Iowa State’s first black student in 1891.  There his gentle manner, enormous dedication, and religious devotion won him wide acceptance with students and faculty alike.  Among Carver’s friends was Harry Wallace.  First as a student and then as a professor, Wallace spent hours with Carver and regularly invited him to his home for dinner.  There Carver met young Henry, the boy who loved plants.

Carver “took a fancy to me and took me with him on botanizing expeditions and pointed out to me  the flowers and the parts of the flowers– the stamens and the pistil,” H. A. Wallace recalled.  “I remember him claiming to my father that I had greatly surprised him by recognizing the pistil and stamen  of redtop, a kind of grass– grass Agrostis alba to be precise.  I also remember rather questioning his accuracy in believing that I recognized these parts, but anyhow he boasted about me, and the mere fact of his boasting, I think, incited me to learn more than if I had really done what he said I had done.”

More important, Carver had a sense that all living things possessed something divine, that God could speak from the parts of a flower or a blade of grass.  Their walks continued for about a year, after which Wallace left Ames, but Young Henry had permanently absorbed the philosophy of his gentle friend.

I have read many lists in my life of all the wonderful things George Washington Carver could do with peanuts, but this is the first time I’ve really wanted to get to know him.

My Friend

Before Jeffery Dahmer was a serial killer, he was just a kid in school.  His peers all knew there was something seriously wrong, but they were just kids, too, and were not equipped to deal with the problem.  Adults were largely absent from his life– he didn’t make trouble for them, so they never looked too closely at him.

And we all know how it turned out.

One of his classmates, Derf Backderf, has written a haunting memoir of what is was like growing up down the street from Dahmer.  It’s not prurient– the book stops well before the killings began– but it is disturbing.

My Friend Dahmer is a book that will stick with you.  I recommend it.

The author’s web page is HERE.