'Does what happens on the inside affect what happens on the outside?' Nobody ever comes to warm themselves at someone's enormous fire in their spirit, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.'
Long before Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) became a creative legend and attained such mastery of art that he explained nature better than science, he faced the same existential challenge that many young people and aspiring artists face as they set out to find their purpose and do what they love — something that frequently necessitates the unsettling uncertainty of straying from the beaten path.
Van Gogh, who had dropped out of high school, was offered a six-month position as a preacher in a tiny hamlet in January 1879, a job that included Bible readings, instructing schoolchildren, and caring for the sick and impoverished. He committed himself completely to the effort and, in solidarity with the poor, he gave away all of his belongings to live in a little hut on the ground. His devotion, however, backfired when the church committee that recruited him regarded it as exaggerated humility posturing and dismissed him.
Van Gogh relocated to a nearby hamlet in August and turned his hobby of painting and writing — which he had been doing for years for his personal enjoyment — into a more serious undertaking. Vincent's loving brother Theo paid him a visit that summer to talk about his future, making it plain that the family was concerned about his lack of direction. (Vincent was the eldest of six children, which added to the pressure.) The awkward conversation, which produced a gap between the brothers at the time, had a great impact on Van Gogh and marked a significant turning point in his life.
On August 14, 1879, he wrote an exquisite letter to Theo, found in the newly released 800-page treasure trove Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library). The letter stands as a cutting monument to the notion that "it is not essential to accept the options handed down to you by life as you know it," as another prominent young man wrote in his own defense of the undisturbed road.
Van Gogh starts by looking for the silver lining in why the talk had wounded and enraged him so much:
It’s better that we feel something for each other rather than behave like corpses toward one another, the more so because as long as one has no real right to be called a corpse by being legally dead, it smacks of hypocrisy or at least childishness to pose as such… The hours we spent together in this way have at least assured us that we’re both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and took a walk with you, I had the same feeling I used to have more than I do now, as though life were something good and precious that one should cherish, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I had been for a long time, cause in spite of myself life has gradually become or has seemed much less precious to me, much more unimportant and indifferent. When one lives with others and is bound by a feeling of affection one is aware that one has a reason for being, that one might not be entirely worthless and superfluous but perhaps good for one thing or another, considering that we need one another and are making the same journey as traveling companions. Proper self-respect, however, is also very dependent on relations with others.
Noting the “salutary effect” his brother’s visit had on him, Van Gogh speaks to the soul-nurturing power of close relationships:
A prisoner who’s kept in isolation, who’s prevented from working &c., would in the long run, especially if this were to last too long, suffer the consequences just as surely as one who went hungry for too long. Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or lamp-post, whether of stone or iron, so that I can’t do without them without perceiving an emptiness and feeling their lack, like any other generally civilized and highly respectable man.
The letter, however, takes on the tone of an impassioned plea as Van Gogh seeks to convince his brother that he, Vincent, is not the failure the family believes him to be. Lamenting what “the damage, the sorrow, the heart’s regretfulness” inflected by his uncle’s most recent attempt to convince him to return to school and pursue a proper occupation, Van Gogh scoffs at the formulaic life-path laid before those who pursue traditional education:
I would rather die a natural death than be prepared for it by the academy, and have occasionally had a lesson from a grass-mower that seemed to me more useful than one in Greek.
Improvement in my life — should I not desire it or should I not be in need of improvement? I really want to improve. But it’s precisely because I yearn for it that I’m afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease. Can you blame a sick person if he looks the doctor straight in the eye and prefers not to be treated wrongly or by a quack?
Van Gogh responds to his brother's criticism that he has "a taste for idling" by pointing out that there are different degrees of doing nothing, and he wonderfully expresses the concept that boredom is a vital element of creativity:
Such idling is really a rather strange sort of idling. It’s rather difficult for me to defend myself on this score, but I would be sorry if you couldn’t eventually see this in a different light. I also don’t know if I would do well to counter such accusations by following the advice to become a baker, for example. That would really be a sufficient answer (supposing it were possible for us to assume the guise of a baker or hair-cutter or librarian with lightning speed) and yet actually a foolish response, rather like the way the man acted who, when accused of heartlessness because he was sitting on a donkey, immediately dismounted and continued on his way with the donkey on his shoulders.
Putting aside the wit, Van Gogh admits to being "overcome by a feeling of melancholy" and a perpetual "battle against despair" in the knowledge that his family regards him as "annoying or onerous," "useless for neither one thing nor another," because of his lack of purpose and direction in life. He makes an impassioned plea for being given some space, support, and hope while he seeks his own path, expressing a wish for the brothers' relationship to be "more trustworthy on both sides":
If it were indeed so, then I’d truly wish that it be granted me not to have to go on living too long. Yet whenever this depresses me beyond measure, all too deeply, after a long time the thought also occurs to me: It’s perhaps only a bad, terrible dream, and later we’ll perhaps learn to understand and comprehend it better. But is it not, after all, reality, and won’t it one day become better than worse? To many it would no doubt appear foolish and superstitious to believe in any improvement for the better. Sometimes in winter it’s so bitterly cold that one says, it’s simply too cold, what do I care whether summer comes, the bad outweighs the good. But whether we like it or not, an end finally comes to the hard frost, and one fine morning the wind has turned and we have a thaw. Comparing the natural state of the weather with our state of mind and our circumstances, subject to variables and change, I still have some hope that it can improve.
Van Gogh descends into a condition of starvation and sorrow for nearly a year before the brothers reunite – the longest interval in their lifetime of letters and loving support. He ultimately contacts Theo on June 24, the following year, after receiving 50 francs from him (about $200 today), which the young artist takes "probably grudgingly, surely with a somewhat sorrowful emotion." In fact, in a letter to Theo, he attests to the creative value of sadness and repeats Nietzsche's conviction in the spiritual advantages of suffering:
What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed, but it’s not to be done in public, however; it’s scarcely entertaining, it’s not cheerful, so it’s a matter of making oneself scarce.
Instead of giving way to despair, I took the way of active melancholy as long as I had strength for activity, or in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and searches to the one that despairs, mournful and stagnant.
Considering how he adapted to this state of “active melancholy” as he immersed himself in making art, Van Gogh makes a wonderfully self-aware remark about his notorious unkept appearance:
The man who is absorbed in all that is sometimes shocking, to others, and without wishing to, offends to a greater or lesser degree against certain forms and customs of social convention. It’s a pity, though, when people take that in bad part. For example, you well know that I’ve frequently neglected my appearance, I admit it, and I admit that it’s shocking. But look, money troubles and poverty have something to do with it, and then a profound discouragement also has something to do with it, and then it’s sometimes a good means of ensuring for oneself the solitude needed to be able to go somewhat more deeply into this or that field of study with which one is preoccupied.
Van Gogh revisits the topic of finding his purpose after spending the previous five years "more or less without a position, roaming hither and thither." In a sentiment reminiscent of Picasso's remark that "to know what you're going to draw, you have to start drawing," he offers a magnificent counterpoint to the myth that so often paralyzes people, particularly young people, who set out to live a life of purpose — the idea that the path must reveal itself before you embark on it, that you must "find yourself" before you begin your creative journey. Van Gogh penned the following:
On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.
But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. The goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the first fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes firm.
Van Gogh adds cynically, echoing Kierkegaard's warning that most individuals fall to uniformity by pursuing "a stable place in life" — that is, a boring jobby job —
One of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.
Countering his brother’s accusation that he has changed a great deal since their youthful walks together, Van Gogh argues that merely his circumstances changed, while his innermost values only deepened as he immersed himself more fully in his two great loves, art and literature:
What has changed is that my life was less difficult then and my future less dark, but as far as my inner self, as far as my way of seeing and thinking are concerned, they haven’t changed. But if in fact there were a change, it’s that now I think and I believe and I love more seriously what then, too, I already thought, I believed and I loved.
If you now can forgive a man for going more deeply into paintings, admit also that the love of books is as holy as that of Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other.
He returns to the heart of the matter — the anguish of not having settled into his sense of purpose:
In my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?
And yet as cut off from the capacity for affection as he may feel, Van Gogh nonetheless believes that love is the only conduit to connecting with one’s purpose, with divinity itself:
I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.
Remarking on having benefited from “the free course at the great university of poverty,” Van Gogh envisions finding his purpose after a long period of floundering:
One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing, incapable of filling any position, any role, finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action, shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.
Once again, he appeals to his brother to see him as “something other than some sort of idler” and to learn to distinguish between the two types of idling, the destructive and the constructive:
There are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.
There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature… Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t’ always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler.
The hope that his brother would see him as the second kind of "idler" bleeds from Van Gogh's words, a hope he amplifies with a moving metaphor in the letter's closing paragraph, one that speaks with harrowing elegance to the haste with which we tend to judge others and mistake their circumstances for their capabilities:
In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!
An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.
You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…
He concludes by returning to the ennobling, liberating nature of close relationships:
You know, what makes the prison disappear is very deep, serious attachment. To be friends, to be brothers, to love; that opens the prison through sovereign power, through a most powerful spell. But he who doesn’t have that remains in death. But where sympathy springs up again, life springs up again.
Vincent made the decision that summer to make art his life's work. Van Gogh's biggest champion and most unselfish backer — one of artistic history's greatest unsung sidekicks — was Theo who initially encouraged him to pursue art as a vocation. Despite his well-documented and ultimately fatal struggle with mental illness, Van Gogh frequently wrote of the sublime joy and immense fulfillment he found in art — a sense of purpose without which his life would have been undoubtedly grimmer and possibly even shorter, and creative culture would have been vastly impoverished.