My dear sister,
I thank you and Lies for the book by Rod 1, which
I have read, and which I shall return to you soon. The
terrifying title Le sens de la vie scared me a little, but
seeing that the subject is fortunately hardly discussed in the
book, I much enjoyed reading something which bears a family
resemblance to Le philosophe sous les toits by Souvestre, or to
Monsieur, Madame et bébé by Diuz. The
moral of the story is that under certain circumstances a
gentleman prefers ultimately to live with a sweet and very
devoted wife and his child, rather than to live in the
restaurants and cafés of the boulevards, a life he
had led before without committing too many excesses. This is
undoubtedly very nice.
It is remarkable that the good Madame Duquesne's illness
came to an unexpected end after all. Nevertheless it must have
been a day of blessed deliverance for her.
If you say in your letter that, as you observe so many other
people who try to make their way in life, they seem to be
making more progress - coming and going - than you - oh well,
what shall I say to that? I myself occasionally have a feeling
of stupefaction when I look at my own life, and for that matter
at the lives of so many other workers in my profession.
Today I sent Theo a dozen drawings after canvases I am
working on; otherwise my life is definitely as inept as it was
when I was a twelve-year-old boy at boarding school, where I
learned absolutely nothing.
An enormous number of painters who would decidedly not be
able to do my twelve canvases, either in two months or in
twelve, are now living in town or in the country and are looked
up to as artists as well as intelligent people. But believe me,
I say this in order to explain my meaning, and not because I
want to give expression to the urgency, or possibility, or
desire on my part to change things. We hardly know life, we
know so little of its foundation, and besides, we are living in
a period in which everybody seems to be talking raving
nonsense, and everything seems to be in a tottering state, so
that it cannot be called being unhappy if we have found a duty
that forces us to remain quietly in our corner, busy with our
modest work, which is simpler than that imposed by certain
other duties whose existence also makes sense. In the days we
are living through, one runs the risk of returning from a
battle ashamed of having fought a battle.
So my friend who was with me at Arles and some others have
organized an exhibition, 1 which I should have
participated in if I had been in good health. And what have
they been able to do? - next to nothing - and yet there was
something new in their canvases, something good, which gave
me pleasure, for instance, and aroused my
enthusiasm - this I assure you. Among artists, we no longer
know what to say to each other, we don't know whether we ought
to laugh or to weep at it, and the damnable fact is that we are
doing neither one nor the other; we are happiest after all when
we possess a small quantity of paint and canvas - which we lack
at times too - and can at least work.
But all thoughts of a regular life, all thoughts of being
able to evoke in ourselves or in others gentle ideas or
sensations - all this must of necessity appear purely utopian
And though only yesterday they paid over half a million
francs for Millet's “Angelus,” don't think that
more souls will now feel what Millet had in mind, or that
middle-class people or workingmen are now going to hang
lithographs of this “Angelus” of Millet's in their
houses, for instance. Don't think that for such a reason those
painters who are still at work among the peasants in Brittany
should become more encouraged or suffer less under the black
need that always tortured Millet, need of courage above all.
Alas, we often get out of breath and faith, which is certainly
the wrong thing to do - but there, now we return to our
starting point: if we nevertheless want to go on working, we
have to resign ourselves to the obstinate callousness of the
times and to our isolation, which is sometimes as hard to
endure as living in exile. And so we have to expect, after the
years that, relatively speaking, we lost, poverty, sickness,
old age, madness and always exile. Yes, certainly, this is the
moment to say, “Blessed be Thebe, daughter of Telhui,
priestess of Osiris, who never complained of anyone.”
Wouldn't cherishing the memory of good people be of greater
value on the whole than being among the ambitious? I am now
rather absorbed in reading Shakespeare, whose words Theo sent
me here, where I am at last quiet enough to be able to engage
in a little more difficult reading.
I have started with the historical plays, and have already
read Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and part of Henry VI - for
these dramas were the least known to me. 2 Did you
ever read King Lear? But never mind, I think I am not going to
urge you too much to read books or dramas, seeing that I
myself, after reading them for some time, feel obliged to go
out and look at a blade of grass, the branch of a fir tree, an
ear of wheat, in order to calm down. So if you want to do, as
the artists do, go look at the red and white poppies with their
bluish leaves, their buds soaring on gracefully bent stems. The
hours of trouble and strife will know how to find us without
our going to look for them.
The separation from Cor will be hard; it is drawing nearer
and nearer. What else can one do, when we think of all the
things we do not know the reason for, than go look at a field
of wheat? The history of those plants is like our own; for
aren't we, who live on bread, to a considerable extent like
wheat, at least aren't we forced to submit to growing like a
plant without the power to move, by which I mean in what way
our imagination impels us, and to being reaped when we are
ripe, like the same wheat?
What I want to tell you is that the wisest thing to do is
not to long for complete recovery, not to long to get back more
strength than I have now, and I shall probably get used to the
idea that I shall be broken a little sooner or a little later -
what does it matter after all?
I think his wife sensible and affectionate
enough to take very good care of him, and to see to it that he
does not eat that restaurant stuff exclusively, but that he
once more comes to know the true Dutch cooking. That Dutch
cooking is very good, so let her more or less change into a
cook and let her assume a reassuring attitude, even if she
should have to be a bit tart about it. Theo himself is obliged
to be a Parisian, but notwithstanding that he is absolutely in
need of being reminded of his youth and his past. I, who have
neither wife nor child, feel the need of seeing the wheat
fields, and it would be difficult for me to stay in a city for
any length of time. Besides, knowing his character, I fully
expect that his marriage will do him an enormous amount of
good. Before one can arrive at an opinion about his health, it
is more or less necessary to give them time to take root
together and attain harmony.
And besides, I dare say she will have found the means to
make life a bit more pleasant for him than it has been up to
now. For he has been through hard times.
That is all for now, for I have to finish this letter if I
want it to go off today, and I haven't got time to read it
over. So in case I have made many blunders, you will kindly
excuse me. Be prosperous, and don't worry too much; and by
cultivating your garden, and by doing all the other things, be
well assured that you are making headway against trouble. A
kiss in thought.
See letter 601 to Theo.
See letter 597 to Theo.
At this time, Vincent was 36 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh. Written 2 July 1889 in Saint-Rémy. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number W13.
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