Monday, June 08, 2015

"The sadness will last forever"

I have often wondered whether Vincent van Gogh would have preferred an ordinary life.  I mean, now we celebrate him and his artistic genius.  But, when he lived his life, given all the troubles that he went through, would he have traded in all his creative talents in order to, for instance, live as a journeyman carpenter?  Marry, have a few kids, live into his middle age, develop a paunch, ...  As he put the gun to his head, did van Gogh curse the gods for the tortured life that he lived?

Life is cruel--all we have is the one life that we each have.  Within this one life, a great deal is simply beyond our control.  The parents who create us, for starters.  Whether we are "accidents" that resulted from blind passion or from calculated decisions to have kids, the fact of the matter is that we did not have a choice in it.  We happened.  

And then, as Philip Larkin colorfully and poetically put it, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad."  Before you get all riled up that Larkin is bad-mouthing your wonderful parents, treat it more than beyond the simple words.  Who we are depends so much on to whom we were born, where we were born, who raised us, where we were sent to school, how we spent our free time, ... all those and more then pretty much put us in a straitjacket of sorts.

The other day, I went driving around with the friend.  On the way back, we stopped to fill gas at Drain.  A young man, perhaps in his mid-twenties, filled gas.  An even younger guy, perhaps in his final year in high school, was at the cash register.  About the same minute these two men were born, kids would have been born to wealthy families in New York and Boston and even here in Eugene.  Every one of those kids who did not choose those wealthy parents was immediately set on a life trajectory that would be very different, and chances are that they are not doing anything like pumping gas in Drain.   

Of course, one can extend the comparison to kids who share the same birthday, year, and minute in different parts of the world.  For no fault of theirs, the kids turn out to have very, very different lives.

Thus, there is this one life that we have, in which we had no role whatsoever in choosing the beginning.  It then is almost like we walk into a play, in which we are assigned to play heroes and heroines in our own very lives, but we take on those lead roles only well into the play.  And from them on, the play's success and failures depend on us--even though we did not choose to be in the play in the first place.  How unfair!  To make things worse, there is not even one rehearsal.  For that matter, there is no script either--it is all ad-lib.

As he was dying, Vincent van Gogh apparently whispered to his beloved brother, Theo, "the sadness will last forever."  Are his paintings worth all the sadness that van Gogh experienced?  Wouldn't you have wished for a less-troubled life for him even if he had never produced anything artistic, so much so that you and I would never have known about him, like how we don't know anything about the billions of other humans who have lived and died?


Ramesh said...

Very philosophical today morning, aren't we !

I wouldn't wish it any other way. If we were to choose our lives, we'll all be the equivalent of the Stepford Wives (see, I even know that !!)

Life is a game of chance. But who is to say that being born in exactly the right place to the right people is the best option. I think what we make of the hand that is dealt to us is more satisfying. For most of us in the world, we are dealt an even hand - some good, some bad and lots in the middle. The extremes are the ones to be pitied - would you really want a life like Prince George ?? And what can you say to the ones to whom life deals a very raw hand. But for most of us, we can make something of ourselves. I am happy with that.

Anne in Salem said...

Yes, we are launched into the world without any input from us. Our lives are chosen for us at the beginning. It is not until we are 8 - 10 years old that we begin to have somewhat substantive choices, all of which are heavily influenced by the to whom, where, when, why of our birth. By the late teens, we have real choices - stay in school or not, join a gang or not, commit a crime or not. Once we leave home, all choices are ours. We shape our lives fully after that, making wise or foolish choices, learning or not from the foolish choices. Our situation at birth may shape us initially, but we have the freedom and obligation to make the changes necessary to make the most of what we have been given. Those who have to work harder tend to be more satisfied with their lives. Perhaps the struggle makes them appreciate the achievement more than if it had been handed to them at birth. Perhaps Van Gogh needed to struggle to be creative. I don't wish struggles on any person, but I appreciate the results of his struggles for sure.

Deanne Painter said...

I will also add that we don't really have much control over the end either outside of few select means. We are all born with an unknown expiration date that is just as random as when and to whom we were born.

gils said...

wow..Amazingly I read an exactly similar thought being posted on a different blog. cosmic co-incidence? :)

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, all we are left with is making the best of the situation in which we find ourselves when we come of age, whenever that might be. Yet, I am not sure if it was fair to van Gogh for him to have suffered like that.

Pretty much all the religions make suffering a virtue, but religious explanations don't ever appeal to this atheist. So, from a secular perspective, I see van Gogh's suffering as an awful one that was not any consequence of the decisions he made. As a thought experiment, if his parents had been told: "your son will either have a dull and boring life as a carpenter, or a tortured existence and he will kill himself when young but will be famous as an artist after his death" I would think that most parents, if not all, would prefer that dull and boring option. Most people would prefer the Stepford Wives life!

Given how the context frames our life, I am not even sure if we have any "freedom" really to fashion the rest of our existence.

Good to see Deanne here after a loooooong time ...