If I met songwriter Don McLean, I’d thank him for his song “Starry, Starry Night.” Because Don ‘gets’ it. A really beautiful thing in Don recognized a really beautiful thing abiding in the subject of his song – Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890).
That would be the same Vincent Van Gogh who, with singular courage and passion, dared to explore the depth of life as life is – his own, and the life around him. Very few people can do this. Very few people want to do this. I’m not even sure I’d widely recommend it, because, frankly, it’s dangerous. Reality is like Niagra Falls – beautiful, inspirational, primordial, transforming … but get too close to it, or even for a moment forget to respect it, and it will swallow you whole.
Again and again Van Gogh descended to his inner self, and returned to share that self nakedly with brushes, oil, and canvas. Of course, at the time, nobody knew what they were seeing. In his lifetime Van Gogh sold only one painting for a meager 400 francs, and that just a few months before he died, in his own mind and by any worldly standard, an utter failure at family, romance, and vocation.
That would be the same Vincent Van Gogh who, in his 37th year, murdered himself. He had the courage to make the journey, the generosity to share the journey with an unappreciative world; but, in the end, Van Gogh was overwhelmed by what he beheld. For while there is unspeakable beauty and breathless truth contained in uncensored Reality, there is also a crushing emptiness. An aloneness that can make you lose your mind. A sadness that can make your heart question the wisdom and the relevance of continuing to beat.
On some days, to very much wish it would stop beating.
Much has been said about Van Gogh’s mental health. Indeed, he paints Starry Night while a patient at a mental hospital in 1889. There is evidence that he suffered from bipolar disorder. He was odd and alienating. From an early age, he lived as one bearing a terrible psychic injury.
Or maybe it just appeared that way. Maybe some people are just born without guile. Maybe some people simply come to this lifetime with no choice but to see, hear, and feel with shameless clarity. And maybe the rest of us have no choice but to see these people as odd, injured, or crazy. A right pain in the ass.
Truly, I don’t know.
I just know there is more than one reason people decide to die. Yes, sometimes because of the delusions wrought by severe mental illness. Other times suicide is a tragic moment of impulse, a retroflected rage that, even a few moments later, the deceased would have found resources to survive. Still others kill themselves as a narcissistic, twisted martyrdom, sold as a favor to the world, but in actuality intending to deliver a savage punishment to friends and family.
But Don McLean doesn’t think any of these describe Vincent Van Gogh. Rather, “when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life as lovers often do.” And I don’t mean romantic love for a woman, though certainly Van Gogh saw himself as a miserable failure at that, too. No; Van Gogh loved truth, beauty, and authenticity. And he loved, admired, and respected us enough to want to share it with us. To believe we’d want to see it.
Vincent Van Gogh died of unrequited love. He didn’t shoot himself in the head; he shot himself in the heart. He saw reality so deeply and clearly, yet could not ultimately connect his heart to that reality or the other people in it. And in that gap was a sadness and aloneness no man can bear alone. He died because, in the end, he could not differentiate himself from the Collective Unconscious into which he was compelled to wander.
It’s a theme that echoes in significant religions. Religious folks, of whatever ilk, admonish us to seek God. To long for God. And yet, some of those same religions also say this endeavor ranges from impossible to dangerous: “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” (Exodus 33:20)
Ironic, yes? Seek him, find him, know him – but there are inherent risks and real dangers in doing so. Count on returning from that journey with a limp. An injury. In some cases with a variable grip on your faculties.
I’m saying I don’t judge Vincent for committing suicide. Neither am I saying, “Way to go, Vincent.” I’m just saying I get it.
And I don’t know why something so beautiful should have to cost so much.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)