To Theo van Gogh. Etten, Saturday, 12 November 1881.
My dear Theo,
One phrase in your letter of 6 Nov. is worth a special reply.
You say: in the present situation I shouldn’t give up hope if I were you, but let the affair rest completely for the people who have nothing to do with it. That course of action, it seems to me, ‘will then surprise several people who are now interfering a great deal and will disarm them, as it were’. If, more than once before this, I hadn’t already found this tactic to be one of the best weapons, you would have told me something new. Now, though, I can only say, yes, that much I knew, but now, after that, what else do you know? Because you mustn’t forget that there are situations in which remaining defensive isn’t always enough. Especially not when the opposition’s battle-plan is based on the somewhat rash assumption that waiting defensively is probably the most I can do. If you, Theo, were in love and felt the same kind of love as I do, and why, old chap, would you feel any other kind? – then you would discover something completely new in yourself. The likes of you and I, who mostly associate with men and pursue business interests of one kind or another, you in a big way and I in a small way, well, we’re used to doing what we do with our heads – with a certain discretion, with a certain shrewd calculation – but just fall in love, and lo and behold you’ll discover to your amazement that there’s another power that urges us to action, namely feeling. We’re sometimes inclined to mock it a little... but all the same it’s a mistake to think that the man is mistaken who says, especially in matters of love: I don’t go to my head to ask my duty, in this case I go to my heart. He who shrugs his shoulders or shakes his head at this, I wish him happiness with his shoulder-shrugging and head-shaking, but I don’t let him upset me, and I doubt if he knows what love is.
Now I don’t really believe that you would wish me to view either my parents or her parents as people ‘who have nothing to do with it’ etc. On the contrary, I refuse to think that it would be unnecessary to talk to them occasionally about this and that.
Especially when their inclination is neither positive nor negative, as is actually the case now, meaning not doing anything plainly for or against it.
Which is an attitude that, I fear, will cause them much dissatisfaction and indecisiveness and a kind of heartache (something between remorse and no remorse), certainly giving no satisfaction. How they can stand this I cannot comprehend (it’s like something neither cold nor hot, and that has something miserable about it). They have a kind of chronic anguish of spirit that never comes to a crisis. They cannot come to a crisis, nor to deliverance. They put water in their wine and wine in their water.
They take a step forwards, but, fearful of the consequences, they retreat; they take a step backwards, but then, too, something gnaws at them. There’s something fatal about that as well. They trust and they distrust. What to do? Be half-hearted! How pathetic you make a person! It’s a difficult position for me, for I can say nothing but Onward!
If I myself were undecided, hesitant, vacillating, I could accept Pa and Ma’s attitude. Now, though, things are completely different. This love of mine has made me choose sides, and I feel energy, new wholesome energy in me, as anyone experiences who truly loves.
If Pa and Ma were unenergetic by nature, I’d resign myself to it, but if they wanted to, we could do a great deal that now cannot be done, and that’s why I can’t reconcile myself to it by any means.
In short, it’s a peculiar difficulty, and to the best of my ability I’ll make the most of the existing situation anyway. Will Pa and Ma never make up their minds! Will they remain neither hot nor cold for ever and ever! If I ask them, you’re in favour of it, aren’t you? Then they say neither yes nor no, and guard against committing themselves. If I say, but no, you’re against it! Then they say: how could you think such a thing of us!
My dear Theo, may I ask you if in fact you aren’t almost of the same mind as Pa and Ma, whose feelings I tried to define in the above lines? And if this should be your frame of mind, though I hope I’m mistaken about this, then I’d just like to say to you: Friend, I believe that you don’t love a girl and... yet... think of love......... If you were to have a positive outcome... then – then – you would truly know how strange an attitude of neither for nor against is, and why someone who’s in love has this advantage over you (if indeed you don’t love), that he can see inside you but you can’t see inside him.
Do you know why it is, Theo, that Pa and Ma are neither for nor against, neither hot nor cold, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied? This is why, because they know what love is, but through some mental obscurement or other can’t recall it and – and – and – something is sleeping in them that must awaken. I’d like it to awaken fairly soon, it’s been idling for so long already. It’s as though they’ve taken quite a large dose of laudanum, they’re awake on the outside but the actual spirit is sleeping SOUNDLY.—.—.—
Oh how much precious time this is possibly wasting! But no, I don’t want to think like that. Naturally I’d wish that Pa and Ma see ardency of spirit, positively for it!
But if I don’t see this – will my love be cooled by a couple of buckets of cold water? No, that won’t affect it one way or the other.
If you would rather that I count you among the people ‘who have nothing to do with it and for whom I should let the matter rest completely’, then I’d nevertheless talk about it occasionally against your will and, you see, that’s what it’s like now with Pa and Ma and Uncle and Aunt Stricker, exactly the same.
And to her??? Yes..... Can one love like I love and... in vain??? I mean... no... — God forbid.
As far as Pa and Ma are concerned, I think they’d much rather that I didn’t talk to them about it, and yet I speak of it now and then against their will. Why?... to see if something is awakening. What?... The awareness that there is love, thank God, and that we, old or young, must feel its warmth and see its light. When I told Pa about it this summer – he interrupted me with an anecdote about someone who had eaten too much and another who had eaten too little, completely out of place, and it was an anecdote with neither head nor tail, which made me think, not without a shudder, is Pa in a muddle?
This was perhaps from nervousness, because he hadn’t expected it – and yet it was before his very eyes, as it were, that she and I had spent days and weeks walking and talking with each other. Are those eyes of Pa and Ma all-seeing in their present frame of mind? I think not. The man whom the sight of true, serious love leaves neither hot nor cold has either been stunned in some way or he isn’t worth the leather his shoes are made of, in my opinion.
So what I want to say, brother, is neither more nor less than that I firmly believe that a man, no matter who he be, is unaware of something very special, a great, hidden power, hidden deep inside him, until sooner or later he’s awakened by a meeting with someone of whom he says ‘she and no other’. And also that I think that someone like you who doesn’t yet say, she and no other, does well to be on the qui vive for things that can sometimes paralyze, either completely or partially, the aforementioned great, hidden power before it awakens. Have you never done anything that could have a rather fatal influence on the development of that power that one calls love?
In my opinion, to some extent. How? I’ll tell you to the best of my ability. Thinking you had to do it, you have perhaps fuelled the ambition in yourself a bit too much, and it’s become a passion in you like a fire. More tender feelings have suffered from it. That’s your case. How do I know this? Do I have grounds for my assertion? Or am I tilting at windmills? How can one know whether or not someone has ambition? (I mean ambition that’s like a fire.) One can tell from two things, first when one catches the patient suffering from the illness. Second when one notices the lack of love, or contentment with love that is wholly deficient. Please don’t get all too angry now, but count to 10 or 20 or 30, slowly and calmly, if I make it sound too bad. But if I didn’t tell you what I have to tell you, who would? It’s bad enough to tell someone: you don’t love, or you’re contented with insufficient love. But to hold one’s tongue when one has something practical to say about it is possibly a great deal worse. At any rate, I’ll now venture to continue. If a man doesn’t have less avarice and ambition than love there’s something wrong with that man, in my opinion. If a man has only love and isn’t able to earn any money, there’s also something the matter with him.
Ambition and avarice is a partnership inside us, very hostile to Love. Those two powers are in all of us, in seed or bud, from the beginning. Later in life they usually develop in unequal proportion, in one love, in the other ambition and avarice. But now we, you and I, at our present ages, can to some extent do something ourselves one way or another to keep the things inside us in order.
I maintain that love, if it develops, fully develops, produces people of better character than the opposing passion Ambition & Co.
But precisely because love is so strong, we are, especially in our youth (I mean now, 17, 18, 20 years old), usually not strong enough to maintain a straight course.
The passions are the ship’s sails, you see. And someone of 20 who gives himself over completely to his feelings catches too much wind and his boat fills with water and – and he founders or..... he surfaces again.
On the other hand, someone who hoists the sail of Ambition & Co. and none other, sails through life on a straight course without mishap, without rocking the boat until – until at last – at last circumstances arise in which he notices, I don’t have enough sail – then he says, I would give everything, everything I have, for one more square metre of sail and I don’t have it! He despairs.
Oh! But now he realizes that he can bring other powers to bear – he thinks about the sail of love, scorned until today, which until now he has stowed with the ballast. And this sail saves him. The sail of love must save him, if he doesn’t hoist it he won’t make it.
The first case, that of the man whose little boat capsized in his 20th year or thereabouts and perished, did it not? – or no – surfaced again recently – is actually that of your brother V. who writes to you as one:
‘who has been down but yet came up again’.
The second case, that of the man who said ‘everything, everything I have for one more square metre of sail’ and he didn’t have it – and yet and yet... he has it! – that’s actually the position of my brother Theo perhaps.
What kind of love did I have in my 20th year?7 Difficult to define, my physical passions were very weak then, perhaps owing to a couple of years of dreadful poverty and hard work. But my intellectual passions were strong, and by that I mean that I was determined, without asking anything in return or accepting any favours, only to give but not to receive.
Absurd, wrong, exaggerated, haughty, arrogant. For in matters of love one mustn’t only take but also give, and conversely, not only give but also take.
He who turns aside to the right hand or to the left falls, there is no mercy for him. So I fell, and it was a miracle that I found my footing again.
What gradually set me to rights, more than anything, was reading practical books about physical and moral diseases. I learned to look more deeply into my own heart and also into that of others. Gradually I began to love people again, myself included, and with each passing day I regained a little heart and spirit which for a time had been destroyed and withered and devastated, so to speak, by all manner of great misery.
And the more I returned to real life and was among people, the more new life awoke in me until finally I met her.
It is written, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. One can turn aside to the right or to the left, and that’s just as bad.
It seems to me, exchanging everything for everything is the real, true thing, that’s it, and now both extremes, first asking everything without giving anything, second asking nothing and giving everything.
Two wholly – fatal – bad things. Both damned bad.
Naturally there are those who praise one or other of these extremes to a greater or lesser extent, the first supplies us with those members of society one calls scoundrels, thieves &c., usurers &c., for instance, the second supplies us with Jesuits and Pharisees, male and female, scoundrels all of them!
If you tell me to ‘take care not to become too fond of that no, nay, never’ and by that you mean, take care not to give everything and take nothing, then you’re perfectly right about that, and if you tell me that then I’ll say in return that I once made such a mistake. I gave up on a girl and she married someone else, and I went far away from her and kept her in my thoughts anyway. Fatal.
But, having become a little wiser after learning the hard way, I now say: we’ll just see whether, far from merely resigning ourselves, we can’t achieve, by means of tireless, patient energy, an outcome that will give us a deal more pleasure. We’ll use all of our common sense to thaw that no, nay, never.
Theo, to prove to you that I can reason calmly, even though I love, I’ll tell you the following.
If she and I were of a sentimental nature and weak of heart, then we’d have taken each other already and reaped much misery from it later. Much poverty, hunger, cold, sickness, among other things, but oh we’d nonetheless have done better to take each other than not to take each other.
If wild passion urged me on and she gave in to it, then that passion would cool and my morning-after would be desolation and hers a broken heart.
If she were a coquette and played with a man’s heart and the man didn’t see her coquetry, that man would be a fool but a sublime fool, if a fool can in fact be sublime, which I don’t really believe. If I ran after her with ulterior motives, money, for example, or lust, and thought, she can’t escape me for this or that reason, I would be the damnedest of all Jesuits and Pharisees (may I ‘meanwhile’ tell you that it isn’t like that between her and me).
If we were to play at being brother and sister we’d be acting like children, and that would be out of place.
If I thought that the key to the front door also unlocked the heart of the woman who’s in that house, and that whether or not that woman’s heart opened or closed depended on that front door and that same key, then I’d be more fearful of the Rev. Dr J.P.S. than is now the case.
If she were never, ever to respond to my feelings of love, then I would probably become an old bachelor.
If I saw that she loved another man I would go away, far away. If I saw that she took a man she didn’t love because he was rich, I would admit I was wrong and ask forgiveness for my short-sightedness, and I would say, I’ve taken a painting by Brochart for one by Jules Goupil, a fashion plate for a figure by Boughton, Millais or Tissot. Am I as short-sighted as that??? Surely my eye is, like yours, fairly steady and practised.
But if she and I stand up to a new life with renewed energy, then the future is not dark.
If she with her lady’s hand and I with my draughtsman’s fist are willing to work, we won’t be short of our daily bread, nor will her boy.
If I hadn’t been whole-hearted when proposing to her, she’d have despised me, and now she doesn’t despise me.
If I didn’t believe that God can and does work miracles in this our daily life, her no, nay, never would already have made me desperate. But now that I believe in such miracles and expect such miracles and trust in and pray to the God that works them and don’t resign myself but act forcefully, God will have mercy on me and and –
Kee Vos’s no, nay, never will thaw.
I’ll see that miracle, and you will too.
If we could no longer rise above earlier mistakes and faults, then you and I would be lost men. Because, however, either in our human nature or in God, call it what you will, there is ‘mercy, that he may be feared’, so there is redress of many a past and, ’tis never too late to mend, never too soon either, though.
I must remain in the love of Kee Vos.
You must also hoist a ‘she and no other’ sail. And then our future will be better than our past. Look, you lucky dog, maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t find your past so very good and tells you so – and my criticism is ‘hasn’t loved enough’, have many others dared say that to you? Your remedy, like mine, ‘Love on! And no time to lose’. Even being a little in love is — and you’re right about this — as you say in your letter, having something good at bottom.
But, dear brother, that’s wholly inadequate. The bottom must be good, and that’s something completely different. Theo, when you’ll say a heartfelt ‘she and no other’, then I believe that the foundation is good, but before that time I see only something good at bottom.
Now, though, my third sheet of paper is nearly full, and I still have something to ask you. Old chap, I must see her face again and speak to her and plumb the depths of the no, nay, never. If I don’t do it soon, something might happen at the big celebration18 that could do me much harm.
Don’t ask me to be more specific. If you were in love yourself, you would understand, but because you’re not in love yourself I wouldn’t be able to explain it to you.
Theo, I do need money to travel to Amsterdam. Even if I have only a bit of travelling money, I’ll go. Pa and Ma have promised not to oppose it, provided it has nothing to do with them, as it were.
I rather understand that in the circumstances. If you, brother, would care to send me some travelling money, I’ll make you a great many drawings of Het Heike and lots of other places. And they wouldn’t be any the worse if the no, nay, never began to thaw. Because the best means to go on drawing is to go on loving.
Would you be able to help me out with the travelling expenses, old chap? Even if it’s only 20 francs, perhaps I’ll get another 10 from Pa (‘leaving him out of it, as it were; turning a blind eye’) and then i’ll clear off with no time to lose. do you understand, my dear fellow! Believe me always