Retranscription of a letter to his brother Theo (June 1880)
My dear Theo,
It’s with some reluctance that I write to you, not having done so for so long, and that for many a reason. Up to a certain point you’ve become a stranger to me, and I too am one to you, perhaps more than you think; perhaps it would be better for us not to go on this way. It’s possible that I wouldn’t even have written to you now if it weren’t that I’m under the obligation, the necessity, of writing to you. If, I say, you yourself hadn’t imposed that necessity. I learned at Etten that you had sent ﬁfty francs for me; well, I accepted them. Certainly reluctantly, certainly with a rather melancholy feeling, but I’m in some sort of impasse or mess; what else can one do?
And so it’s to thank you for it that I’m writing to you.
As you may perhaps know, I’m back in the Borinage; my father spoke to me of staying in the vicinity of Etten instead; I said no, and I believe I acted thus for the best. Without wishing to, I’ve more or less become some sort of impossible and suspect character in the family, in any event, somebody who isn’t trusted, so how, then, could I be useful to anybody in any way?
That’s why, ﬁrst of all, so I’m inclined to believe, it is beneﬁcial and the best and most reasonable position to take, for me to go away and to remain at a proper distance, as if I didn’t exist. What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed, but it’s not to be done in public, however; it’s scarcely entertaining, it’s not cheerful, so it’s a matter of making oneself scarce. Well, so be it. Now, although it may be a thing of rather demoralizing difficulty to regain the trust of an entire family perhaps not entirely devoid of prejudices and other similarly honourable and fashionable qualities, nevertheless, I’m not utterly without hope that little by little, slowly and surely, a good understanding may be re-established with this person and that.
In the ﬁrst place, then, I’d like to see this good understanding, to say no more, re-established between my father and me, and I would also be very keen that it be re-established between the two of us. Good understanding is inﬁnitely better than misunderstanding.
I must now bore you with certain abstract things; however, I’d like you to listen to them patiently.
I, for one, am a man of passions, capable of and liable to do rather foolish things for which I sometimes feel rather sorry. I do often ﬁnd myself speaking or acting somewhat too quickly when it would be better to wait more patiently. I think that other people may also sometimes do similar foolish things. Now that being so, what’s to be done, must one consider oneself a dangerous man, incapable of anything at all? I don’t think so. But it’s a matter of trying by every means to turn even these passions to good account. For example, to name one passion among others, I have a more or less irresistible passion for books, and I have a need continually to educate myself, to study, if you like, precisely as I need to eat my bread. You’ll be able to understand that yourself. When I was in different surroundings, in surroundings of paintings and works of art, you well know that I then took a violent passion for those surroundings that went as far as enthusiasm. And I don’t repent it, and now, far from the country again, I often feel homesick for the country of paintings.
You may perhaps clearly remember that I knew very well (and it may well be that I still know) what Rembrandt was or what Millet was, or Jules Dupré or Delacroix or Millais or M. Maris.
Good – now I no longer have those surroundings – however, that something that’s called soul, they claim that it never dies and that it lives for ever and seeks for ever and for ever and for evermore.
So instead of succumbing to homesickness, I said to myself, one’s country or native land is everywhere. So instead of giving way to despair, I took the way of active melancholy as long as I had strength for activity, or in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and searches to the one that despairs, mournful and stagnant. So I studied the books I had to hand rather seriously, such as the Bible and Michelet’s La révolution Française,and then last winter, Shakespeare and a little V. Hugo and Dickens and Beecher Stowe, and then recently Aeschylus, and then several other less classic authors, several good minor masters. You well know that one who is ranked among the minor (?) masters
is called Fabricius or Bida.
Now the man who is absorbed in all that is sometimes shocking, to others, and without wishing to, offends to a greater or lesser degree against certain forms and customs and social conventions. It’s a pity, though, when people take that in bad part. For example, you well know that I’ve frequently neglected my appearance, I admit it, and I admit that it’s shocking. But look, money troubles and poverty have something to do with it, and then a profound discouragement also has something to do with it, and then it’s sometimes a good means of ensuring for oneself the solitude needed to be able to go somewhat more deeply into this or that ﬁeld of study with which one is preoccupied. One very necessary ﬁeld of study is medicine; there’s hardly a man who doesn’t try to know a little bit about it, who doesn’t try to understand at least what it’s about, and here I still don’t know anything at all about it. But all of that absorbs you, but all of that preoccupies you, but all of that makes you dream, ponder, think.
And now for as much as 5 years, perhaps, I don’t know exactly, I’ve been more or less without a position, wandering hither and thither. Now you say, from such and such a time you’ve been going downhill, you’ve faded away, you’ve done nothing. Is that entirely true?
It’s true that sometimes I’ve earned my crust of bread, sometimes some friend has given me it as a favour; I’ve lived as best I could, better or worse, as things went; it’s true that I’ve lost several people’s trust, it’s true that my ﬁnancial affairs are in a sorry state, it’s true that the future’s not a little dark, it’s true that I could have done better, it’s true that just in terms of earning my living I’ve lost time, it’s true that my studies themselves are in a rather sorry and disheartening state, and that I lack more,inﬁnitely more than I have. But is that called going downhill, and is that called doing nothing?
Perhaps you’ll say, but why didn’t you continue as people would have wished you to continue, along the university road?
To that I’d say only this, it costs too much and then, that future was no better than the present one, on the road that I’m on. But on the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.
But what’s your ultimate goal, you’ll say. That goal will become clearer, will take shape slowly and surely, as the croquis becomes a sketch and the sketch a painting, as one works more seriously, as one digs deeper into the originally vague idea, the ﬁrst fugitive, passing thought, unless it becomes ﬁrm.
You must know that it’s the same with evangelists as with artists. There’s an old, often detestable, tyrannical academic school, the abomination of desolation, in fact – men having, so to speak, a suit of armour, a steel breastplate of prejudices and conventions. Those men, when they’re in charge of things, have positions at their disposal, and by a system of circumlocution seek to support their protégés, and to exclude the natural man from among them.
Their God is like the God of Shakespeare’s drunkard, Falstaff, ‘the inside of a
church’; in truth, certain evangelical (???) gentlemen ﬁnd themselves, by a strange conjunction (perhaps they themselves, if they were capable of human feeling, would be somewhat surprised) ﬁnd themselves holding the very same point of view as the drunkard in spiritual matters. But there’s little fear that their blindness will ever turn into clear- sightedness on the subject.
This state of affairs has its bad side for someone who doesn’t agree with all that, and who protests against it with all his heart and with all his soul and with all the indignation of which he is capable.
Myself, I respect academicians who are not like those academicians, but the respectable ones are more thinly scattered than one would believe at ﬁrst glance. Now one of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.
It’s not a simple matter of appearance, as people have hypocritically held it against me, it’s something more serious than that, I assure you.
Why am I telling you all this? – not to grumble, not to apologize for things in which I may be more or less wrong, but quite simply to tell you this: on your last visit, last summer, when we walked together near the disused mine they call La Sorcière, you reminded me that there was a time when we also walked together near the old canal and mill of Rijswijk, and then, you said, we were in agreement on many things, but, you added – you’ve really changed since then, you’re not the same any more. Well, that’s not quite how it is; what has changed is that my life was less difficult then and my future less dark, but as far as my inner self, as far as my way of seeing and thinking are concerned, they haven’t changed. But if in fact there were a change, it’s that now I think and I believe and I love more seriously what then, too, I already thought, I believed and I loved.
So it would be a misunderstanding if you were to persist in believing that, for example, I would be less warm now towards Rembrandt or Millet or Delacroix, or whomever or whatever, because it’s the opposite. But you see, there are several things that are to be believed and to be loved; there’s something of Rembrandt in Shakespeare and something of Correggio or Sarto in Michelet, and something of Delacroix in V. Hugo, and in Beecher Stowe there’s something of Ary Scheffer. And in Bunyan there’s something of M. Maris or of Millet, a reality more real than reality, so to speak, but you have to know how to read him; then there are extraordinary things in him, and he knows how to say inexpressible things; and then there’s something of Rembrandt in the Gospels or of the Gospels in Rembrandt, as you wish, it comes to more or less the same, provided that one understands it rightly, without trying to twist it in the wrong direction, and if one bears in mind the equivalents of the comparisons, which make no claim to diminish the merits of the original ﬁgures.
If now you can forgive a man for going more deeply into paintings, admit also that the love of books is as holy as that of Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other.
I really love the portrait of a man by Fabritius, which one day, also while taking a walk together, we looked at for a long time in the Haarlem museum. Good, but I love Dickens’s ‘Richard Cartone’ in his Paris et Londres en 1793 just as much, and I could show you other strangely vivid ﬁgures in yet other books, with more or less striking resemblance. And I think that Kent, a man in Shakespeare’s King Lear, is just as noble and distinguished a character as any ﬁgure of T. de Keyser, although Kent and King Lear are supposed to have lived a long time earlier. To put it no higher, my God, how beautiful that is. Shakespeare – who is as mysterious as he? – his language and his way of doing things are surely the equal of any brush trembling with fever and emotion. But one has to learn to read, as one has to learn to see and learn to live.
So you mustn’t think that I’m rejecting this or that; 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? May whoever believes in God await the hour, which will come sooner or later.
Now for the moment all my affairs are going badly, so it would seem, and that has been so for a not so inconsiderable period of time, and it may stay that way for a future of longer or shorter duration, but it may be that after everything has seemed to go wrong, it may then all go better. I’m not counting on it, perhaps it won’t happen, but supposing there were to come some change for the better, I would count that as so much gained; I’d be pleased about it, I’d say, well then, there you are, there was something, after all.
But you’ll say, though, you’re an execrable creature since you have impossible ideas on religion and childish scruples of conscience. If I have any that are impossible or childish, may I be freed from them; I’d like nothing better. But here’s where I am on this subject, more or less. You’ll ﬁnd in Souvestre’s Le philosophe sous les toits how a man of the people, a simple workman, very wretched, if you will, imagined his mother country, ‘Perhaps you have never thought about what your mother country is, he continued, putting a hand on my shoulder; it’s everything that surrounds you, everything that raised and nourished you, everything you have loved. This countryside that you see, these houses, these trees, these young girls, laughing as they pass by over there, that’s your mother country! The laws that protect you, the bread that is the reward of your labour, the words that you exchange, the joy and sadness that come to you from the men and the things among which you live, that’s your mother country! The little room where you once used to see your mother, the memories she left you, the earth in which she rests, that’s your mother country! You see it, you breathe it everywhere! Just think, your rights and your duties, your attachments and your needs, your memories and your gratitude, put all that together under a single name, and that name will be your mother country.’
Now likewise, everything in men and in their works that is truly good, and beautiful with an inner moral, spiritual and sublime beauty, I think that that comes from God, and that everything that is bad and wicked in the works of men and in men, that’s not from God, and God doesn’t ﬁnd it good, either. But without intending it, I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing God 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. That leads to God, that leads to unshakeable faith. Someone, to give an example, will love Rembrandt, but seriously, that man will know there is a God, he’ll believe ﬁrmly in Him. Someone will make a deep study of the history of the French Revolution – he will not be an unbeliever, he will see that in great things, too, there is a sovereign power that
Someone will have attended, for a time only, the free course at the great university of poverty, and will have paid attention to the things he sees with his eyes and hears with his ears, and will have thought about it; he too, will come to believe, and will perhaps learn more about it than he could say.
Try to understand the last word of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces; there will be God in it. Someone has written or said it in a book, someone in a painting.
And quite simply read the Bible, and the Gospels, because that will give you something to think about, and a great deal to think about and everything to think about, well then, think about this great deal, think about this everything, it raises your thinking above the ordinary level, despite yourself. Since we know how to read, let’s read, then!
Now, afterwards, we may well at times be a little absent-minded, a little dreamy; there are those who become a little too absentminded, a little too dreamy; that happens to me, perhaps, but it’s my own fault. And after all, who knows, wasn’t there some cause; it was for this or that reason that I was absorbed, preoccupied, anxious, but you get over that. The dreamer sometimes falls into a pit, but they say that afterwards he comes up out of it again.
And the absent-minded man, at times he too has his presence of mind, as if in compensation. He’s sometimes a character who has his raison d’être for one reason or another which one doesn’t always see right away, or which one forgets through being absent-minded, mostly unintentionally. 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 and incapable of ﬁlling any position, any role, ﬁnds one in the end, and, active and capable of action, shows himself entirely different from what he had seemed at ﬁrst sight.
I’m writing you somewhat at random whatever comes into my pen; I would be very happy if you could somehow see in me something other than some sort of idler. Because 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; you may, if you think ﬁt, take me for such a one. 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; you may, if you
think ﬁt, take me for such a one.
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. And it’s often impossible for men to do anything, prisoners in I don’t know what kind of horrible, horrible, very horrible
cage. There is also, I know, release, belated release. A reputation ruined rightly or wrongly, poverty, inevitability of circumstances, misfortune; that creates prisoners.
You may not always be able to say what it is that conﬁnes, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel I know not what bars, I know not what gates – walls.
Is all that imaginary, a fantasy? I don’t think so; and then you ask yourself, Dear God, is this for long, is this for ever, is this for eternity?
You know, what makes the prison disappear is every 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.
And the prison is sometimes called Prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance of this or that, mistrust, false shame.
But to speak of something else, if I’ve come down in the world, you, on the other hand, have gone up. And while I may have lost friendships, you have won them. That’s what I’m happy about, I say it in truth, and that will always make me glad. If you were not very serious and not very profound, I might fear that it won’t last, but since I think you are very serious and very profound, I’m inclined to believe that it will last.
But if it became possible for you to see in me something other than an idler of the bad kind, I would be very pleased about that.
And if I could ever do something for you, be useful to you in some way, know that I am at your service. Since I’ve accepted what you gave me, you could equally ask me for something if I could be of service to you in some way or another; it would make me happy and I would consider it a sign of trust. We’re quite distant from one another, and in certain respects we may have different ways of seeing, but nevertheless, sometime or some day one of us might be able to be of use to the other. For today, I shake your hand, thanking you again for the kindness you’ve shown me.
Now if you’d like to write to me one of these days, my address is care of C. Decrucq, rue du Pavillon 8, Cuesmes, near Mons, and know that by writing you’ll do me good.