To Theo van Gogh. Etten, Thursday, 10 or Friday, 11 November 1881.
I received your letter but think that it’s only an answer to my no. 1.
In no. 2 and no. 3 you obviously found ‘a rebuke’ as thanks for your advice: ‘be careful not to indulge too much in idle fancies before you know for sure that it isn’t a futile undertaking’.
Because you’ve already had to swallow that rebuke anyway, I won’t repeat it. Much good may it do you, old boy! Fortunately for you, at least you haven’t committed a ‘meanwhile!!!’ yet, eh? No, neither you nor I think of meanwhile, you and I, we don’t know any better than to think that someone who has no courage or refuses to commit himself or wouldn’t dare risk his life with a smile would do better not to occupy himself with winning a real woman’s heart.
From the beginning of this love I’ve felt that unless I threw myself into it unreservedly, committing myself to it whole-heartedly, fully and forever, there would be absolutely no chance for me, and if I’ve thrown myself into it in the above-mentioned way, that doesn’t alter the fact that the chance is very small. But does it matter to me if the chance is larger or smaller? I mean, must I, can I, take that into account when I love? No — no thought to the winnings — one loves because one loves.
To love — what a business!
Just imagine what a real woman would think if she noticed that someone proposed to her, refusing to commit himself — wouldn’t she say something worse to him than ‘no, nay, never’? Oh Theo — let’s not talk about it, if you and I love then we love, that’s all there is to it.
And then we keep a clear head and don’t cloud our minds nor restrain our feelings nor quench the fire and the light — but say simply, thank God — I love.
What, moreover, would a real woman think of a lover who came to her feeling certain of his success? I wouldn’t give tuppence for his result with someone like Kee Vos, and not for a hundred thousand more would I trade his result with the present no, nay, never.
I’ve sent you a few drawings because I thought, perhaps he’ll find something of Het Heike in them.
Tell me now why they’re unsaleable; how could I make saleable ones?
Because I’d like to earn some travelling money now and then to go and plumb the depths of the no, nay, never.
You mustn’t inform the Rev. Dr J.P.S. of my intentions! Because if I come very unexpectedly it’s possible he won’t be able to do anything but turn a blind eye to it for the sake of peace and quiet.
Such a man as the Rev. Dr J.P.S. becomes a completely different person if you love his daughter than he was before then, in the mind of the person concerned with ‘the case in question’. He then becomes quite gigantic and takes on unheard-of proportions! All the same, if one loves his daughter one is more afraid of not going to him than of going to him, even though one knows he can do terrible things in the circumstances.
Anyway — these days I really feel: ‘I have a draughtsman’s fist’, and I’m very glad to possess such an instrument, even though it’s still rather awkward. The Ingres paper is excellent.
And so you’re popularly known as the lucky dog. Also a petty misery of human life. And you doubt whether or not you really are. But what reason do you have to doubt it?
That’s what I’d like to know, you see. What kind of petty miseries do you have? Some I know partly or wholly, others not at all.
Do you also have petty miseries involving a lady now and then? Naturally, but I’d like to hear what manner of miseries. Surely nothing like no, nay, nevers?
Or, conversely, too many depressing yea and amens perhaps? Well, your petty miseries with the ladies interest me very much. Especially because I think the same about your petty miseries as I do about my own, namely that in many cases they’re due to our lack of understanding, but that they actually contain hidden treasure, provided we know how to find and secure it.
Those petty miseries, or great ones, are riddles; looking for the solution — that’s certainly worth the effort.
A lucky dog who complains — without reason!
And they call me ‘the gloomy one’ and I ask you to congratulate me on a no, nay, never.
And get very angry if people tell me that it’s dangerous to sail at sea and remark that one might drown; I don’t get angry because I think they’re wrong in saying so, but because they seem to forget ‘that there is safety in the very heart of danger’. So there, lucky dog. What’s wrong with your happiness? You certainly know how to say very piquantly what it’s like to fall in love by comparing it to the strawberry.
It’s very nicely put but — being in love with a triple no, nay, never staring you in the face, and moreover a Rev. Dr J.P.S. who demands means of subsistence in the ‘case in question’, that’s what the Rev. calls it, or rather doesn’t even demand them because he (also being a Philistine8 in the field of art) thinks there aren’t any. Being in love like that, I say, isn’t exactly like picking strawberries in the spring. And that no, nay, never isn’t as balmy as a spring breeze but as bitter, bitter, bitter as a biting winter frost. ‘This is no flattery’, Shakespeare would say. Samson, though, says somewhere else. And out of the strong came forth sweetness.
But it’s very questionable whether Samson wasn’t a lot wiser than I am. He boldly took on a lion and got the better of it, but — will we be able to do that too?
You must be able to, Samson would say, and rightly so. Enough, the strawberry season hasn’t arrived yet; I do see strawberry plants but they’re frozen. Will spring come and thaw them and will they blossom and then — then — who will pick them? This no, nay, never has, however, taught me things I didn’t know, first brought home to me the full measure of my ignorance, and second that there’s a woman’s world, and much, much more.
Also that there are means of subsistence. I would certainly find it considerate of people if they said (as the constitution says, everyone is presumed innocent until proved guilty) that people saw one another as having a means of subsistence until the opposite had been proved. One could say: this man exists — I see him, he speaks to me, proof of his actual existence is even that he is not uninvolved in a certain case, for example, ‘the case in question’. His existence being clear and obvious to me (being aware that the person in question isn’t merely a spirit but also has real live flesh and bones), I wish to take it as axiomatic that he owes that existence to means of subsistence, that he obtains them in one way or another and that he works for them. Thus I don’t wish to suspect him of existing without means of subsistence. People don’t reason like this, though, especially not the certain person ‘in question’ in Amsterdam. They must see the means of subsistence to believe in the existence of the person in question, but the existence of the person in question doesn’t prove to them his means of subsistence. Well, this being so, we must first hold a draughtsman’s fist before his eyes, not to attack him with it, though, or even to threaten him. We then have to use that draughtsman’s fist as best we can.
But this in no way solves the riddle of no, nay, never. Trying the exact opposite of some advice often proves both practical and satisfying. That’s why in many cases it’s so useful to ask for advice. Even so, there’s advice that’s usable in its natural condition and doesn’t need to be turned inside out or upside down. This latter kind is, however, very rare and desirable, because it has special qualities. The former can be had ten for a penny. The latter is dear, the former costs nothing and is sometimes delivered, unasked-for, by the barrelful. ‘Meanwhile’!!!
I’m closing this letter with a bit of advice in return. If you ever love, don’t refuse to commit yourself, or I’d rather say, if you ever love, you won’t think of not committing yourself. Furthermore, if you love, you won’t ‘feel certain’, beforehand, that you’ll succeed — you’ll be ‘a soul in need’ and yet you’ll smile.
He who feels ‘sure of what he’s doing’ in the sense that he prematurely imagines that ‘she’s mine’, before he fights the inner battle of loving, before, I say, he sails the high seas in storm and tempest, hovering between life and death — he knows too little what a real woman’s heart is, and it will be driven home to him by a real woman in a very special way. When I was younger I once half-imagined that I loved, while the other half truly loved, the result being many years of humiliation. May I not then have been humiliated too much in vain.
I speak as one ‘who has been down’, from bitter experience, having learned the hard way.
Lucky dog! What’s the matter? What aileth thee!
Perhaps you haven’t really been a lucky dog until now, but I maintain that you’re well on the way to becoming one.
I gather this from the tone of your letters. It’s as though there’s a hair in your throat, in your voice. What kind of hair is it? Couldn’t you tell me about it sometime, now that I’ve told you so much? Theo, all fathers with daughters have an object one calls the key to the front door. A very terrifying weapon, which can open and close the aforementioned front door as Peter and Paul the gates of heaven.18 Well, does that implement fit the hearts of their respective daughters ‘in question’ at the same time? Do they open or close with the front door key? I think not, only God and love are capable of opening or closing a woman’s heart. Will hers open up? Brother, will she ever let me in? God knoweth. I don’t know such things in advance.