Twenty-Five Hundred Years before 9/11

(9/11/11: fourth in a series)

Van Gogh’s Eyes

Before my drive to Normandy and my second stay in Paris, I had left Julia in St. Remy-de-Provence, where she taught a photo workshop to the eight students who had braved their fears to fly there less than two weeks after 9/11. I stayed a few days myself before leaving and did some historical and artistic touring.

Along one of the primary spoke roads that lead to the center of St. Remy, about a mile out, are the ruins of the ancient town of Glanum. Dating back over twenty five hundred years, Glanum was settled by the Saylens, a Celto-Ligurian tribe, and evolved, after conquest, over subsequent Greek and Roman eras. Though, except for a couple of monuments, the town was long covered over by soil and time, its entire foundation has now been unearthed, as well as some nearly whole structures.

Throughout the preceding month, I had engaged, amid my travels, in much historical re-imagining, imagining soon to be concentrated by circumstance. At one point, then, as I walked the ruins of Glanum, I chose to descend the winding stairs that lead to the once sacred waters of an underground stream. I stood and tried to inhabit the sense of life that would have accompanied the bare feet dipped hopefully into the now fetid water I declined to enter. What, I wondered, was the wholeness of that world, the totality of that belief unconcerned to justify itself through reason, beyond reason, at once at home with itself, in complete conviction, yet sufficiently agitated by its contrary to seek to destroy it. For, though they were a spiritual people, the Glanic people were also a war-like people, and the frieze around the town’s intact Mausolée and monument to its dead enshrines, with faces worn away by time, but with vividness and vitality, the fierceness and slaughter of battle. I try to imagine that, too.

Very near Glanum, across a field, is the thousand year old St. Paul’s monastery, the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh sought care after cutting off his ear in 1888.

“I do not hide from you the fact that I would rather have died than cause or suffer so much unhappiness,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, before entering St. Paul’s.

Van Gogh stayed at St. Paul’s for just over a year. Although he suffered several incapacitating depressions during his time there, he managed to produce over a hundred and fifty paintings, many of them among his greatest and most famous. Then, within two months after Van Gogh left his monastic asylum, he was dead.

Beyond the entrance to St. Paul’s, one can take a walking tour of locations at which Van Gogh painted eight of his well-known works. At each site is a reproduction of the painting, for comparison with the actual view. The first is The Mountains of Saint Remy. In the foreground of the painting is a small house, in the background the peaks of the Alpilles Mountains. The tour exists because, of course, it is fascinating to view the great paintings alongside, so to speak – in the very space and prospect – that gave rise to them. This is the world (as I am seeing it) and this is how Van Gogh saw it. How alike. How different. How totally the product of imagination, of hope, desire, fear, foreboding. How to tell the difference among them all.

What is also fascinating, in an entirely different way, beyond matters of aesthetics and creation – yet somehow the same? – is that the area in The Mountains of Saint Remy just behind the house is where Glanum stands, perhaps fifty yards from where Van Gogh painted, though Van Gogh would not have known this, since the ruins of Glanum were not uncovered until thirty-one years after his death: the world’s, and history’s, pentimento, marking off the invisible boundaries of all we can and cannot see – can ever understand completely in all our certainty.

St. Paul’s has cared for the mentally ill for much of its thousand-year history. It still does. Quiet and reverent in its atmosphere, as one would expect, the monastery guards the privacy of its current residents while earning funds through its Van Gogh connection. For a fee, one can enter and visit a replica of the small, sparsely furnished room in which Van Gogh lived. A brief video movingly considers both the man’s artistic genius and the human dimensions of his illness. A note from the director of the institutional program astutely even asks that travelers not reduce their visit to mere tourism, in disregard of the human being who suffered. The visitor cannot help but ponder the nature of that suffering – the daily struggle of a human life – against the product history makes of it.

By the time I left the monastery grounds, hours of roaming and solitary consideration had led me deep into myself. The ancient and recent impulses to conflict, the sources of inner turmoil, the search for accommodation to circumstance and peace, pressed against me like a humid skin. From the front gate of St. Paul’s, I walked the long avenue of trees to which Van Gogh, in his illness, was often accompanied by an attendant to paint. And in the curve of the road before me, in the onion-domed tree hoods bending concavely as if under some unseen pressure of sky, in the curling profile of the Alpilles’ slopes cutting geometries out of the air, I suddenly saw, in utter revelation, in the world, the startling, swirling visions that seemed before then always surely the product of Van Gogh’s eyes alone.



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