Let’s imagine we could ask van Gogh if he would trade his life of suffering for one of feelings of contentment, satisfaction, wellbeing, pleasure; a positive emotional state. We know how Nietzsche would answer. I suspect van Gogh might answer the same way, declaring himself with William Blake:
“As I was walking among the fires of Hell,
delighted with the enjoyments of Genius;
which to Angels look like torment and insanity.”
And we can imagine van Gogh reflecting on Nietzsche’s admonition, to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.
Doctor Who is a long running British television science fiction series about a Time Lord, Doctor Who, who travels through time in a phone booth. In an episode titled “Vincent and the Doctor,” Doctor Who and his companion, Amy, travel to Provence in the south of France in 1890 to enlist van Gogh’s aid in fighting a space monster. They form an affection for van Gogh and in an attempt to relieve him of his despair, take him to our present to see an exhibit of his work in Paris. Van Gogh is overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception for his paintings.
Then, within earshot of van Gogh, Doctor Who asks the exhibit’s curator, “Where do you think van Gogh rates in the history of art?” The curator, played with British solemnity by Bill Nighy, replies, “Well, big question. But to me, van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of color the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world—no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will do it again. To my mind that strange wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”
Van Gogh never heard words like that, and of course it would have been wonderful if he could have. But did he need to? He wrote to Theo, “Wings, wings to fly above life! Wings to fly above the grave and death! That is what we want, and I am beginning to understand that we can get them.” We see from van Gogh’s letters that his greatest despair was not his misfortunes, but his inability to fully convey in his paintings the luminous world he experienced. As much as we admire what he accomplished, he had wanted to accomplish so much more.
Sometimes artists realize they will not receive the world’s recognition in their lifetimes. The Austrian painter, Egon Schiele, died of the Spanish flu at the age of twenty-eight in 1918. He spent the last three days of his life drawing his dead wife, also a victim of the flu, who had been six months pregnant. He could not afford a coffin. The twisting tormented figures in Schiele’s drawings and paintings captured the unconscious of fin de siecle Vienna. Although supported by the older Gustav Klimt, Schiele had been an outcast and had even been arrested for pornography. But as befits an artist, he had unlimited self-confidence, writing, “All beautiful and noble qualities have been united in me… I shall be the fruit which will leave eternal vitality behind even after its decay. How great must be your joy, therefore, to have given birth to me.” And then at the end, “The war is over—and I must go. My paintings will be shown in all the museums.”
Why does Francis Ford Coppola make his next movie? The question goes to human motivation, and shows the inadequacies of the measures we usually use. Money? Coppola has as much money as he needs, and he now makes movies that might not make money. Fame? He has that. Posterity? Yes, there is a satisfaction to leaving a coherent body of work, but I do not think people today share Achilles’ desire for glory such that one’s “song be sung; one’s life remembered.”
Joseph Campbell writes, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
Or we could look at a notion from the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset regarding the energies of the cosmos that pour into us.
[T]he political or cultural aspects of history are… the mere surface of history; that in preference to, and deeper than these, the reality of history lies in biological power, in pure vitality, in what is in man of cosmic energy, not identical with, but related to, the energy which agitates the sea, fecundates the beast, causes the tree to flower and the star to shine.
So perhaps Coppola makes movies to feel the rapture of being alive, to feel the flow of energy. What does that feel like? We could turn to psychological studies to find out, such as those presented by Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. But suppose we turn to the arts? Let’s start with The Immoralist, a 1902 novel by the French Noble Prize winner, André Gide. Michel is a scholar profoundly out of touch with himself. Traveling in Tunisia on his honeymoon he has a cathartic experience with tuberculosis and as he recovers, he discovers a life-force welling up within him, a need to let “the layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there.” He plunges deeper and deeper into the North African desert, where he can experience this life-force burning in him like the hot sand, where his outer journey can parallel his inner journey: “I did not understand the forbearance of this African earth, submerged for days at a time and now awakening from winter, drunk with water, bursting with new juices; it laughed in this springtime frenzy whose echo, whose image I perceived within myself.” Michel does some things we do not admire, and it is not clear if all will turn out well for him. The energies of the universe are not necessarily in tune with our values, they have their own.
Today we are less likely to read Gide, so let’s look at two movies that provide this same feeling of a life force welling up. The first is Wolf, a 1994 movie directed by Mike Nichols and staring Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays Will Randall, a mild mannered chief editor at a New York book publishing firm who is being undermined and cuckolded by a colleague, and who is about to be pushed out of the firm after a corporate takeover. He does not have the will to defend himself, and is resigned to his fate. Driving in the country at night, Randall hits a wolf. When he goes to look at it, it bites him and runs off. Over the next few days, Randall’s senses sharpen; he can smell where people have been; he can hear conspiratorial conversations anywhere in the building. He mounts a counterattack against those seeking to oust him. The movie has its twists and turns, but what is of interest to us here is how Randall comes alive, feels a power, a life force, welling up in him.
We see the same theme in the 2011 thriller, Limitless, directed by Neil Burger and staring Bradley Cooper as Eddie Morra, a smart but disorganized and drifting writer who cannot finish, or even start, his book, and who gets dumped by his girlfriend. He encounters an old acquaintance who talks him into taking a bootleg drug that boosts his mental powers. Again, lots of plot twists and turns, but again what is of interest here is how Eddie comes alive, develops a vision of what he wants to do, has limitless energy, takes control of his life, exudes creativity.
What were the joys of van Gogh and others who had horrendous lives, as well as of Picasso and others who had largely pleasant lives? What did they experience? Throughout this book we have been discussing Frank Lloyd Wright’s and Mies van der Rohe’s notions of the spirit of the age, and we mentioned Ortega’s notion of the energies of the cosmos flowing into the world. Joseph Campbell writes, “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into cultural manifestations.” When Wright and Mies refer to architecture and Campbell refers to myth, we would substitute all of life, and it is through engagement in the art, science, technology, business, that the Visionary Creative directly experiences this spirit of the age, directly experiences these inexhaustible energies that others can only attempt to understand. And in response to this spirit and this energy they produce works that are conduits for their flow into our world and at the same time are vehicles for the remaking of our world. That is the joy of the Visionary Creative, of Beethoven as well as Bach, of van Gogh as well as Picasso.
What greater satisfaction, what greater joy for a creative could there be?