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I miss Spalding Gray redux: a ray of hope from Vincent van Gogh

October 26, 2011

van-gogh-001I previously wrote about missing Spalding Gray.  But my reading this week has given me a bit of hope. 

Spalding Gray reminds me on several levels of Vincent van Gogh, who is likely a hero to most of us.  Despite all the dross,  van Gogh is not only a hero because of his stunning art work, done at a breakneck pace, but because of the brilliance of his letters to his brother Theo.  (You can readily read the letters on an excellent annotated and illustrated online web site, but if you have the money, I recommend buying the new, six-volume, heavily illustrated printed book edition to enjoy the full aesthetic experience.  The printed book contains no information not on the web site, but it is infinitely more enjoyable to read the words from a printed book than a glowing LCD screen.  (If you are still having doubts about this purchase, read here.)

vg-youngVan Gogh has been on my mind recently because of the publicity for the new book by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  Now I certainly did not lack van Gogh’s presence on my bookshelves before (I have more than 40 books devoted to him.)   But the Naifeh-Smith biography is especially handsome and well-written and tastefully illustrated (without being an art book) and voluminous (in fact, so voluminous that the notes are banished to another web site).

But here is the best part.  Naifeh-Smith have a theory.  The traditional theory is that van Gogh died by shooting himself; he admitted that to the police while he was still conscious.  But Naifeh-Smith say this is all wrong:  van Gogh did not commit suicide – he was accidentally shot as a prank by some young boys, and he died telling the authorities not to prosecute them – protecting them on the basis of their youth.  Naifeh-Smith marshal a great deal of circumstantial evidence for their theory, but I am not sure it will convince historians.  It does, however, convince me, because it is so sweet and full of hope.  How many depressed people , one wonders, have been thought to have committed suicide, but in fact died in the all the pedestrian ways that people die.  “He was depressed, he gave up,” people say, but I like to think that in contrast, van Gogh struggled and rose to his greatest moment.  Van Gogh was famous for being misunderstood in life; how ironic that we misunderstand him so deeply in death too.

van-gogh-life-steven-naifeh-hardcover-cover-artWe have tedious lists of amazing creative, sensitive, intelligent – but also depressed – people who all lost their struggles.  But I prefer to believe that many of them rallied, and it is nothing but accidents of circumstance that thinks their own hands turned against them.  Naifeh-Smith makes me believe a bit more in people, a bit more in van Gogh, and a bit more in Spalding Gray.

And if these rambling words have no effect on you, I should also mention:  it is quite a good book too.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2011 6:48 am

    I’ve always nursed a secret hope that Spalding slipped overboard from that ferry accidentally, a tragic mistake rather than a suicide. A vain hope, I’m sure, but I’ll take hope wherever I find it.

  2. October 26, 2011 4:49 pm

    Craig, I agree completely — and have thought almost precisely the same thing.

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