To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Friday, 4 January 1884.
My dear Theo,
I still have to thank you for your letter of 1 Jan. and the enclosure. As to being brotherly, it seems to me that this depends very much on whether or not people look at things with the same eyes — and I pointed this out — since it appears to me that our views will probably diverge considerably — if this isn’t already the case. If I had already seen a difference — (not just supposed) — I do so, I tell you again, because I won’t behave towards you other than as I am, and precisely because I don’t want to quarrel. In the long run, I would rather do without the support that I get through you, however great it may be, than continue with it on the condition that I work against what I believe in.
All the more so because in later years, if we live to see them, you may perhaps not really carry on believing in what you now take to be certain. But that’s not the issue now.
Regarding what you say, that I could become totally isolated — I don’t say that this couldn’t happen — I expect little else, and will be content enough if life remains tolerable, bearable for me. I tell you, though, that I wouldn’t consider that as a fate that I deserve, for I believe, after all, that I haven’t done nor will do anything that means that I have forfeited or will forfeit my right to feel myself a human being among human beings. To a considerable extent, then, others could also be at fault here. Well, I try to look at myself as if I were somebody else, objectively in other words, so that I also try to see my own faults as well as what perhaps offsets them. And I know various stories of men who had to live in relatively great isolation — also just because neither one party nor the other found them precisely as they wanted them to be.
Now there are two sorts of folk who get between the parties, namely those who don’t have a personal character, and secondly such whose character really is a character but, as
I said, is nevertheless not what the one party or the other who have the say wants. Isolation is wretched enough, and a sort of prison. It is, however, perhaps not yet possible
to say for certain to what extent I’ll go further into it. Which you don’t do anyway. For myself, I usually find it more pleasant among the people who don’t even know
the word in question, for example the peasants, the weavers &c., than in the more civilized world. That’s fortunate for me.
So, for instance, I’ve been studying the weavers while I’ve been here.
Do you know many drawings of weavers? I only very few.
So far I’ve made 3 watercolours of them. These folk are difficult to draw because in the small rooms one can’t get far enough away to draw the loom. I think this is why attempts to do it usually fail. However, I’ve found a room here where there are two looms and where it can be done. Rappard painted a study of it in Drenthe, which I found beautiful. Very gloomy — for these weavers are very poor people.
I’ve also made a drawing, although only an impression, of a timber sale.
I wish you appreciated and understood that if I do indeed wish at times that you might have other ideas about certain questions than your present ones, I can’t let it go, because I believe you would be the better for it. And it isn’t because I want to make a proselyte for MY OPINIONS. I don’t believe that my opinions are any better than other people’s opinions. Yet I’m starting to believe more and more that there’s something compared to which all opinions, thus including mine, are as nothing. Certain truths and facts, on which our opinions have little or no effect, and which I hope I don’t confuse with mine or others’ opinions, which would be a mistaken point of view.
Just as weathercocks have no effect on the direction of the wind, so opinions have no effect on certain standard truths.
The weathercocks don’t make the wind east or north, any more than any opinions whatsoever make the truth true.
I don’t know whether you’ll understand me, but I was concerned to make it clear to you that, thinking as I think, I could hardly be angry with anyone merely for the sake of an opinion. Not counting my own opinions for much. But it’s a very different matter if I don’t like it when I see many people, rather recklessly in my view, living too far removed from what is true for everyone. In other words if I get angry, it might well be about something where having a high opinion of myself had absolutely nothing to do with it.
There are things that are as old as mankind itself, and that won’t cease for the present. I know an old legend of, I don’t even know which people, which I like, which obviously certainly didn’t happen literally, but is nonetheless a symbol of a great deal. The story goes that humankind is descended from two brothers. These folk were allowed to choose what, of all things, they wanted to have. One chose the gold and the other chose the book.
Everything went well for the first one, who had chosen the gold, but things went badly with the second. The legend — without exactly explaining why — relates how the man with the book was banished to a cold and miserable land and isolated.
But then in his misery he began to read that book, and he learned things from it.
So that he was able to make life more bearable for himself, and invented different things to rescue himself from his difficulties. So that at last he acquired a certain control, although always by working and as if through a struggle.
Then later, just as the one with the book became stronger, the first one weakened, and so he lived long enough to feel that gold isn’t the axis around which everything revolves. It’s only a legend, but all the same to me there’s something deep in it that I find true.
‘The book’, that isn’t only all books, or literature, it’s also conscience, reason — and it is art.
‘Gold’, that isn’t only money, but it’s an image of a lot of other things as well.
Don’t think, though, that I want to force anything in this respect — these things have to reveal themselves. However, having a word about things isn’t the same as forcing them — there are times when keeping silent is almost the same as hypocrisy. I simply didn’t want that either. And for the rest, however becoming isolated or not may turn out, I’ll try to steer it in such a way that I can go on working — and as far as my opinions are concerned — I sometimes think of what Taine said, ‘it seems to me that as far as it is personal to the worker, he may keep it to himself’. So it was probably something of a mistake on my part that I didn’t keep it to myself. Well.
And you should know that I don’t want you to regard helping me as something that you reckon you’re obliged to do, for you weren’t so obliged in the past nor are you now — it has been something voluntary on your part, for which I for my part really do have an obligation to you and, as I already said, really will continue to feel.
Wishing you success with your affairs,
I once read an interesting remark somewhere that people really do go on changing as they get older.
In a biography of Corot I find the following about the influence he had on Français.
It says, ‘at the age of thirty, Français did not know what a neutral tone was’.
I mean, until late in life both in art and very certainly no less ‘as a human being’, until late in life one may have certain stiff, rigid, let’s say steely ways of doing things, both of observing and of working, and may yet come later in life to milder, to more intelligent, to more reasonable, to more humane views.
Just want to point out that it’s perfectly possible that, both as a human being and as a workman, you could come to more nature, to more rest, to more ‘your own self’.
Just want to point out that I don’t find you natural, the way you sometimes are nowadays, for example last summer in The Hague. This means nothing for the time being — and is in no way regarded by me as your fixed and irrevocable character or state of mind, but as a curious phenomenon. Which I observe with interest and reflection, precisely because I myself have also known moments of that state of mind, precisely at a time when I was close to a reversal in my own mind. Well.
There’s something else I have to tell you about my talk with Pa. I told Pa that in my present state of mind and position I sometimes think about going back to the woman I lived with — yes, that I could go so far as to marry her. You should know, though — but Pa doesn’t need to know this — that up to now I still think as I did when I decided that it wouldn’t work and that nothing can come of living together again.
I mentioned it to Pa in order to return to the question of the ‘paternal right’ to prevent something of that nature, a question raised by Pa. I said in that regard that, firstly, should Pa ever oppose me in legal proceedings this would, in my view, be a very unwise thing. That, moreover, it would be necessary to use tricks and false testimony in such proceedings in order to give a semblance of justice to an impediment placed in the way of any marriage I might be contemplating.
That should people ever stand in my way in such a case, I, for my part, would defend myself very calmly and collectedly, and would stand up for my rights and not give in.
Realizing as I did that it would be a case in which the judge himself would urge the necessity of an amicable settlement.
This is how I talked to Pa about the question of marriage, taking the woman with whom I lived as an example of how it might turn out. However, you should know that on this point I see no reason to go back on the decision not to live with her again. Decision she herself knows too.
A whole lot of things would have to happen before I changed my mind in that regard, and they’re out of the question now.
So know what you have to know about this, but I spoke to Pa about it to make it plain that if I should ever want to do this, Pa wouldn’t be able to prevent it, since, whatever paternal rights there may be, I can see no provisions in the law that could apply to me to prevent me. Pa has already hinted at this so often, very vaguely but nonetheless very palpably, that for my part I simply came straight out and told him how absurd and crass I would find such an idea. I really do think sometimes that marriage would be a highly desirable thing for me, but nevertheless I don’t have specific plans in this respect, and certainly not as far as the woman I lived with is concerned.