Theories/Ideas

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I’ve been reading Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith seemingly forever, taking breaks now and then to read other books. It’s a tome but I’ve enjoyed getting to know Vincent, which is possible because we have a treasure trove of letters between him, his siblings, his parents and others. Has any other great artist left behind such a complete inventory of his or her thoughts? And short of reading all those letters, it’s hard to imagine a better way to get to know Vincent than reading this exhaustive biography. Naifeh and Smith have read the letters for us.

I’m not done with the book so I don’t what happens to Vincent in the last seven years of his life (except that the art he created in those last seven years changed the world). I’m in 1883 when, at age 30, after bouts with mental illness, a string of failed relationships and broken friendships, a life of failed endeavors despite extensive work painting & drawing, and no success whatsoever, Vincent is forced to move back in with his parents because he has nowhere else to go.

As a former girlfriend of mine (who says a lot of smart things like this) pointed out to me, we know far too little about the struggles of artists prior to their success. That is what we should be teaching in schools, the struggle to become a creator. Instead all we talk about are the creations. I wish as a young wannabe writer I had known more about the struggle. It’s not that I thought becoming a writer would be easy. I just did not fully realize how hard it would be. It’s easier to climb a mountain when you know you setting out to climb a mountain.

After Vincent moves home, he spends a lot of time arguing with his father Dorus, who is a minister in the Dutch village of Nuenen. In this excerpt (p. 373-5 of the paperback version of the bio) you get a good feel for Vincent van Gogh’s struggle during the first thirty years of his life, not so much the particulars but his state of mind:

Their clashes sometimes lasted three or four hours, according to one witness. Even when they ended–when Vincent stormed out–they didn’t end. Every shouting match was followed by long stretches of silence in the parsonage, a darkness of recrimination far more threatening than the fireworks of temper. Just as he had in Etten two years earlier, Vincent spent days pretending to be “invisible”–enacting the very judgment that he protested against. Rather than speak to his parents, he wrote them notes. At meals, he pulled his chair to the corner of the room, placed his plate on his lap, and sat in utter silence. He ate with one hand, using the other to shield his face, as if hiding. When his behavior attracted reproving stares, he accused his parents of treating him like “a big, rough dog” that “runs into the room with wet paws,” barks too loud, and “gets in everybody’s way.” Possessed by this conceit, he spun it into a long, bitter indictment that hints at an even more bizarre playing-out of the judgments against him.

He is a foul beast. All right–but the beast has a human history, and though only a dog, he has a human soul, and even a very sensitive one, that makes him feel what people think of him . . . The dog feels that if they keep him, it will only mean putting up with him and tolerating him, “in this house” so he will try to find another kennel. The dog is in fact Father’s son, and has been left rather too much in the streets, where he could not but become rougher and rougher . . . The dog might bite, he might become rabid, and the constable would have to come to shoot him. . . . The dog is only sorry that he did not stay away, for it was less lonely on the heath than in this house, notwithstanding all the kindness. . . . I have found myself–I am that dog. [Vincent's quote, italics in original]

Trapped in this cycle of abuse and escalating outrages, Dorus and Anna van Gogh coped in the only ways they knew how. They offered the universal panaceas of new clothes and earnest prayers. They offered to lend Vincent money to pay off his debts. They complimented his drawings (“He is doing several that we think are beautiful,” Dorus reported to Theo.) They made hopeful excuses. “When he looks back and recalls how he has broken with all former relations,” Dorus explained, “it must be very painful to him.” Whenever possible, they surrendered to the storm of his moods. When he demanded a studio–like Rappard’s [a gentleman painter friend who Vincent aspired to be]–they set aside their objections and cleared a room in the parsonage that had been used for a laundry, spending precious funds to install a stove and a wooden floor “to make it nice and warm and dry.” They offered to put in a window for more light.

In perhaps the hardest concession of all, they capitulated to the immutability of their son’s strangeness. “We are undertaking the experiment with real confidence,” they wrote Theo soon after Vincent’s arrival, “and we intend to leave him perfectly free in his peculiarities of dress, etc. . . . There is simply no changing the fact that he is eccentric.”

But Vincent could not be satisfied. Every attempt at appeasement was met with greater and greater provocation as he focused the anger of a lifetime on his captive captors. He saw only criticism in their gifts (“my clothes were not good enough”) and condescending indulgence in their courtesies. “Their cordial reception grieves me,” he complained. “Their indulgence without acknowledging their error is, for me, perhaps worse than the error itself.” He referred to the laundry room dismissively as an “apology of a studio” and almost immediately began demanding a better one. He answered every offer of accommodation with more rigid demands and fiercer rhetoric. “I cannot stand the least appearance of being in agreement with [Father],” he wrote two weeks after arriving. “I am dead against him, absolutely in opposition to him.” When his parents expressed doubts about him remaining in Nuenen, Vincent resolved to stay; when they reaffirmed their welcome, he threatened to leave. The gift of the laundry room studio triggered walls of martyrdom (“you people do not understand me, and I fear you never will”) and the melodramatic vows to make himself scarce. “I must try to find a way not to ‘bother’ you or Father any longer,” he wrote Theo. “Let me go on my own way.”

Vincent, who ended up staying two years, sounds like a typical teenager and he acted like a teenager for many of the same reasons a teenager does. I think he hated being dependent on his brother and most frequent correspondent Theo (who had supported him and his parents for years) and hated being forced to live with his parents as a dependent. He yearned to be a successful, respected painter and pillar of the art world. Ironically his uncle and Theo were pillars of the art world. They were successful merchants of popular art prints. (One of several career paths Vincent had tried unsuccessfully.)

By 1883, Vincent had been painting and drawing diligently–obsessively–for years. It no doubt developed his artistic skills. The problem was, he had mostly been painting and drawing, for him, the wrong things (human models) in the wrong mediums (he was determined to succeed in black and white) in the wrong style (he seemed to favor realism over impressionism). He was about to start painting, for him, the right things (landscapes and scenes) in the right medium (oil) in the right style (his own).

I’ve been in the middle of a health episode since just before Labor Day and unfortunately the various treatments I’ve been doing haven’t worked. My lung capacity is still down over 10%. So I’m doing another Solumedrol blast this weekend. Hopefully the second time is the charm. I’m calling King Arthur and his knights back out of the castle for another gallop!

Wide awake and jacked up on steroids at 4am, I may as well riff on religion, right? Some friends and I were talking about religion yesterday and one said all religions are crazy fictions, with Mormonism being among the craziest. Here’s what I think:

1. In just the visible universe, what we can see from Earth, we know there are billions of stars in our own galaxy and billions of galaxies. We estimate the entire universe is at least 250 times bigger than the visible universe, or maybe infinite. We are small. We are ignorant. We barely have a grip on what the universe is all about.

2. Here on Earth, we barely have a grip on how our own brains work.

3. When someone dies, something that was there is no longer there. Call that something the soul, life energy, whatever. Where does that go? Does it go somewhere or does it just dissipate into the ether? Nobody knows.

4. In short, we know next to nothing. If you have a religion that helps you deal with these unknowns more power to you. I’m not going to get worked up about your belief system. It would be nice if you didn’t try to ram it down my throat, however, and most people don’t. The ones who do are loud. That’s why fundamentalists and rabid atheists annoy me equally. (Also, I don’t like many of the political stances taken by religious organizations, but I’m not getting into that here.)

5. People are going to find their own belief systems. This cannot be stopped. So why stress over what people believe? (As long as they don’t harm the rest of us with it.)

6. Even people in organized religions rarely believe every tenet of the religion. If you talk to people about what they actually believe, there are as many belief systems as there are people. I think most Westerners and maybe most non-Westerners too, whether they know it or not, live within an eclectic belief system comprised of many tenets of many religions.

7. When it comes to the Universe, death, God and so forth I suspect we are ALL WRONG. The Truth is unknowable for us at the present time. So how can I hold it against someone for coming up with a fiction that works for them? We all live within our own fictions, religious and non-religious.

8. Don’t bother worrying about what is Truth. Believe what you want to believe.

9. I’m about to epublish a novella called “The Forever Library” in which I talk about what I want to believe about life and death. Stay tuned!

Malcolm Gladwell is a genius. Not because he told us it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become good at something. No, because he invented a number to define what everybody knows.

Everybody knows it takes practice to become good at something. Whether you are pumping gas or running the Oval Office, it takes practice.

But does it take 10,000 hours to become good at pumping gas? Or tying your shoes? Or riding a bicycle? No.

10,000 hours is a year and two months in straight time. But let’s say you work nine hours a day five days a week. You’ll need just over four years to get to 10,000 hours.

You need more than four years to become a good doctor or lawyer, many more. To become a good janitor or bellman? Less than four years. 10,000 hours might be about right for an athlete but it seems like the more important measure is years, years of doing a few hours a day.

In other words, becoming good at anything requires a variable amount of practice time depending on what it is you are trying to become good at. We all know this, but it is a godsend to have a nice round figure to throw around: 10,000 hours. His figure makes it so much more official. More real! It gives us a catchy shorthand.

Malcolm Gladwell wrapped up what we already knew — we need practice and experience to become good at anything — in a neat little (inaccurate) bow for us. Not 8,874 hours. Not 20,188 hours. 10,000 hours. And because it was in a bestselling book it becomes cultural fact and this crock will now be with us forever. A new myth to add to our myth-laden zeitgeist.

If there is anything those with world-class talent have taught us, whether an athlete or lawyer or doctor or artist, it is that no matter how good you are you never stop practicing or learning or perfecting your art, whatever that art is. You don’t stop when you get good or “world-class,” you reach your peak many hours later.

At the same time, you might hit 20,000 hours and still not be world-class. If time was all you needed, there would be many more talented people around. The truth is, for every world-class talent there are 1000 people who put in just as many hours but are not as good.

The real theory should be, if you’ve put in 10,000 hours doing something you are probably competent at it. But that probably won’t sell as many books.

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