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The anguish of being without pur­pose

Read­ing the Let­ters of Van Gogh,  I feel a sense of cath­arsis in his anguish in 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.

Bleed­ing from Van Gogh’s words is the hope that his broth­er would see him not as the first but as the second kind of “idler” — a hope he amp­li­fies with a mov­ing meta­phor in clos­ing the lengthy let­ter, one that speaks with har­row­ing eleg­ance to the hast­i­ness with which we tend to judge oth­ers and to 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.

‘Self-Por­trait with Straw Hat’ by Vin­cent van Gogh

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