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Being Vincent van Gogh

Inspired by the experience of standing alone in the first room of the exhibition: Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night at the Museum of Modern Art, December 2008

Down a lane, I can see an old, bent woman walking, a peasant. She is carrying a bundle, perhaps a child or roots gathered from the fields. I can barely make her out and see now a shoulder, now a fold of cloth as the sun lights each in orange.

Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent van Gogh. "The Sower." 1888. Oil on canvas, 12 5/8 x 15 3/4" (32 x 40 cm). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

That sun, when I look at it, blots everything else from my sight. It is formless there on the horizon, brushed lightly by the tops of the darkening firs, frozen in the dying light. When the sun goes like this I can feel myself going with it, the life and energy draining out of me as the light moves off the land. It is so each evening.

There is still some blue, cerulean hue, visible in the sky overhead. Alternately framed and obscured by the poplars’ branches, this blue is flecked by what few leaves remain. The poplars: each of their branches is like an original idea. I see myself in all of them and find comfort in each. 

The light is almost gone now. I am reminded of an evening outside father’s parsonage in Nuenen. That place haunts me still with its evening spirits. I cannot think of that heightened calling, service to others, without a tinge of guilt at my own self-involvement here trying to perfect an art form no one cares about anymore…but these thoughts lead nowhere.

I would often stand alone in the courtyard, just looking, until I felt I’d memorized each of the details (in truth infinite) of the stone path, the crooked windows, the thatched roof, the broken trees. Mentally, I would catalogue each of these under every changing circumstance of light. I can see it all before me now as though I am there, and it is not just a matter of seeing. I can feel these spaces inside of me, touch them with my hands if I like, until I feel so full of them I could burst.

In this particular twilight of my memory, there was a magenta glow creeping up the cobblestones toward the parish. On the lawn, what few trees grew were ghost-white and gray in the diminishing milky light. To the right, a tangle of trees rose up to obscure the sky – but not everywhere. Occasionally one clear patch of deep gray indigo would emerge whole against the deepening shadows and the twisting branches. These crepuscular fragments, supported as they were by the otherwise impenetrable wooded knot, seemed suspended in space, vessels for the infinite atmosphere they contained. These perceptual reversals sometimes cast me into a state of ecstasy and bliss beyond all reason.

There are moments when the world, like an animal, seizes me in its jaws and I feel its fangs closing on my spine. At first I resist; I struggle and berate myself, blaming myself for a situation that was never in my control. I feel then that I live under a delusion, to which we all sometimes fall victim, of believing that I can control my circumstances; that I can bend this world to my will. And so I cannot understand how the world has bested me and I cry: “It could have been otherwise if I had just…”

Or I ask questions: “Why is this happening?”

But finally I just give in to it and the recognition that this monster has had me all along. In this moment, I know my wound is my nature. The resistance subsides and I relax, even as I glide toward darkness. For the prey, it is always just so. Regarding this alien predator anew, its every feature is suddenly of the utmost importance to me. There is no fiber of its being that is beneath my attention. With so little time left, I cling to each moment trying to see as much as I can.

Vincent Van Gogh.
Vincent Van Gogh. "Lane of Poplars at Sunset," 1884. Oil on canvas, 18 1/16 x 12 11/16" (45.8 x 32.2 cm) Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

I have been meditating on this instant of release and its attendant openness to fate. I would feel myself a stranger to this world the better to experience the force with which it clutches me to itself. I want to lose myself in my feeling for what I see around me, to cherish the minutest detail—a flower’s lilt or a cloud’s disposition—as a unique epiphany.

In the end, you see, it is a matter of the prey’s perception. As the gates to the heaven of animals swing open, there is only one possible response to this predicament anyway: love. Anything less would dishonor the experience.

I know that I sometimes seem erratic and extreme. Perhaps I appear coarse or rude. Unpredictable. I get so very lonely at times. Here in these remote places, it is easy to feel how much we need one another, how we depend on those around us for love and warmth, even when we cannot or do not recognize it. It is odd how love works sometimes, making itself more fully palpable when we sense the dissolution of its bonds and fear sets in.

I often ask myself how far I can stray from societal and familial bonds and still keep my sanity. One reaps the seeds he sows, but there are two sides to the sower of seeds. There is the sower himself, driven on by inspiration or will. And there are the seeds, energy cast at desires. Some seeds will flourish, others will be absorbed into the earth.

I do not know if I am a sower or a seed. But I imagine them beneath the sun, this time a perfect circle of brightest cadmium yellow in a sky that has absorbed the acid green light of a thousand cities at night. It swallows little pink clouds. Below, cottages and trees seem obscure and the fields glow an unearthly light. Nearby a tree with black bark casts its branches upward like strokes of the calligrapher’s pen. Striding over us, mute and dark, is the sower. He is fate and we gather his seeds.

I have wrung all I can from this world and still it gives in waves so thick that I find myself gasping for air. Or digging for a foothold in the soil. It is a perplexing part of human experience that even though we know a feeling is fleeting by nature, a feeling felt seems absolute and permanent. I suppose this is the source of the old warning not to be carried away by one’s feelings. At a certain point, it becomes less a matter of care, more a matter of curiosity as to how many sunsets one might be granted to see.


Ben La Rocco


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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