Van Gogh, Bourdain and unknowable urges

In town to cover a conference on rheumatology, I ended up in the most appropriate of Amsterdam’s museums a few hours after my plane landed: the Van Gogh museum.

With the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade still haunting our consciousness, there I was at ground zero of one of the most famous suicidal artists in history. 

I wasn’t thinking about Bourdain or Spade when I headed to the museum. I went for the paintings, not gloom.

But what we were directed to first was a timeline reminding us of Van Gogh’s tormented life, decorated with haunting self-portraits. How he cut off his ear and checked himself into a mental hospital and eventually shot himself at age 37.

After this introduction, we all shuffled silently through the rest of the museum, in a kind of sad, perplexed reverence, wondering how this great talent could have done such a thing. We gazed at Van Gogh’s oddly forbidding olive groves, the stark, gnarled faces and hands of peasants, the chaotic beauty of his abstract ‘Tree Roots,’ most likely his last painting, which remains slightly unfinished in the lower left corner.

As always with a suicide, we sought answers.

Nothing could have left us more desperate for answers than the shocking suicide last week of Anthony Bourdain, considered one of the coolest, bravest, happiest guys around. His suicide, it seemed, was like taking a couple bites of a juicy, perfectly marbled, flame-broiled steak and throwing the rest in the garbage.

We can’t find answers from what we saw on TV. I imagine that meeting with Vietnamese villagers, trying Punjabi street food, and easing down wild rivers, for a good while, beat back what pursued him.

And in that museum, none of us could hope to find answers to Van Gogh’s suicide by looking at his art. After all, he said that when he painted, he could start to ‘feel a little of life.’ It was the art that helped keep him a bit ahead of his pursuer, until it finally caught up.

You can’t know the evil by its talisman. What ailed them is essentially unknowable, except to them. There’s a reason we think of it as darkness.

David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself, did his best to give a sense of what suicide-caliber depression is before he did himself in. In Infinite Jest, he describes it not as a passive numbness, as is commonly thought, but an active pain.

Here is another of his powerful descriptions:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

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