To Willemien van Gogh. Arles, between about Sunday, 28 April and Thursday, 2 May 1889.
My dear sister,
Your kind letter really touched me, especially since it tells me that you’ve returned to care for Mrs du Quesne.
Certainly cancer is a terrible illness, as for me, I always shiver when I see a case – and it isn’t rare in the south, although often it’s not the real incurable, mortal cancer but cancerous abscesses from which one sometimes recovers. Whatever the case, you’re very brave, my sister, not to recoil before these Gethsemanes. And I feel less brave than you when I think of these things, feeling awkward, heavy and clumsy in them. We have, if my memory serves, a Dutch proverb to this effect: they aren’t the worst fruits that wasps gnaw at... This leads me straight to what I wanted to say, ivy loves the old lopped willows each spring, ivy loves the trunk of the old oak tree – and so cancer, that mysterious plant, attaches itself so often to people whose lives were nothing but ardent love and devotion. So, however terrible the mystery of these pains may be, the horror of them is sacred, and in them there might indeed be a gentle, heartbreaking thing, just as we see the green moss in abundance on the old thatched roof. However, I don’t know anything about it – I have no right to assert anything.
Not very far from here there’s a very, very, very ancient tomb, more ancient than Christ, on which this is inscribed, ‘Blessed be Thebe, daughter of Telhui, priestess of Osiris, who never complained about anyone.’ I couldn’t help thinking of that when you told me in your previous letter that the sick lady you’re caring for didn’t complain. Mother must be pleased with Theo’s marriage, and he writes to me that she looks as if she’s getting younger. That pleases me greatly. Now he too is very pleased with his matrimonial experiences, and is considerably reassured.
He has so few illusions about it, having to a rare degree the strength of character to take things as they are without making pronouncements about good and evil. In which he’s quite right, for what do we know of what we do?
As for me, I’m going for at least 3 months into an asylum at St-Rémy, not far from here.
In all I’ve had 4 big crises in which I hadn’t the slightest idea of what I said, wanted, did.
Not counting that I fainted 3 times previously without plausible reason, and not retaining the least memory of what I felt then.
Ah well, that’s quite serious, although I’m much calmer since then, and physically I’m perfectly well. And I still feel incapable of taking a studio again. I’m working though, and have just done two paintings of the hospital. One is a ward, a very long ward with the rows of beds with white curtains where a few figures of patients are moving. The walls, the ceiling with the large beams, everything is white in a lilac white or green white. Here and there a window with a pink or bright green curtain. The floor tiled with red bricks. At the far end a door surmounted by a crucifix.
It’s very, very simple. And then, as a pendant, the inner courtyard. It’s an arcaded gallery like in Arab buildings, whitewashed. In front of these galleries an ancient garden with a pond in the middle and 8 beds of flowers, forget-me-nots, Christmas roses, anemones, buttercups, wallflowers, daisies &c. And beneath the gallery, orange trees and oleanders. So it’s a painting chock-full of flowers and springtime greenery. However, three black, sad tree-trunks cross it like snakes, and in the foreground four large sad, dark box bushes.
The people here probably don’t see much in it, but however it has always been so much my desire to paint for those who don’t know the artistic side of a painting. What shall I say to you, you don’t know the reasonings of good père Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, nor Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet. These are books from man to man, and I don’t know if women understand that. But the memory of that often sustains me in the uncomfortable and unenviable hours and days or nights.
I’ve re-read Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom with extreme attention precisely because it’s a woman’s book, written, she says, while making soup for her children, and then also with extreme attention C. Dickens’s Christmas Tales.
I read little so as to think about it more. It’s very likely that I have a lot more to suffer. And that doesn’t suit me at all, to tell you the truth, for I wouldn’t wish for a martyr’s career in any circumstances.
For I’ve always sought something other than the heroism I don’t have, which I certainly admire in others but which, I repeat, I do not believe to be my duty or my ideal.
I haven’t re-read those excellent books by Renan but how often I think of them here, where we have the olive trees and other characteristic plants and the blue sky. Ah, how right Renan is and what a fine work his is, to speak to us in a French like no other person speaks. A French in which, in the sound of the words, there’s the blue sky and the gentle rustling of the olive trees and a thousand true and explanatory things in short that turn his history into a resurrection. It’s one of the saddest things I know, the prejudices of people who through bias oppose so many good and beautiful things that have been created in our time. Ah, the eternal ‘ignorance’, the eternal ‘misunderstandings’, and how much good it then does to happen upon words that are truly Serene... Blessed be Thebe – daughter of Telhui – priestess of Osiris – who never complained about anyone.
For myself, I quite often worry that my life hasn’t been calm enough, all these disappointments, annoyances, changes mean that I don’t develop naturally and in full in my artistic career. ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’ they say, don’t they?
But what does that matter if, as rightly the above-mentioned père Pangloss alone proves, ‘everything is always for the best in the best of worlds’.
Last year I did about ten or a dozen orchards in blossom and this year I have only four, so work isn’t going with much gusto.
If you have the Drône book you speak of I’d very much like to read it, but do me the pleasure of not buying it especially for me at the moment. I’ve seen some very interesting nuns here, the majority of the priests seem to me to be in a sad state. Religion has frightened me so much for so many years now. For example, do you happen to know that love perhaps doesn’t exist exactly as one imagines it – the junior doctor here, the worthiest man one could possibly imagine, the most dedicated, the most valiant, a warm, manly heart, sometimes amuses himself mystifying the little women by telling them that love is also a microbe. Although then the little women, and even a few men, let out loud shouts, he doesn’t care at all and is imperturbable on that point.
As for kissing and all the rest that it pleases us to add to it, that’s just a natural kind of act like drinking a glass of water or eating a piece of bread. Certainly it’s quite indispensable to kiss, otherwise serious disorders arise.
Now must cerebral sympathies always go with or without what precedes. Why regulate all that, eh, what’s the use?
For myself I’m not opposed to love being a microbe, and even so that wouldn’t prevent me at all from feeling things such as respect before the pains of cancer for example. And do you see, the doctors of whom you say, sometimes they can’t do very much (which I leave you free to say as much as you consider right) – very well – do you know what they can do all the same – they give you a more cordial handshake, gentler than many other hands, and their presence can really be very pleasant and reassuring sometimes. There you are, I’m letting myself go on and on. Yet often I can’t write two lines, and I really fear that my ideas may be futile or incoherent this time too.
Only I wanted to write to you in any case while you were there. I can’t precisely describe what the thing I have is like, there are terrible fits of anxiety sometimes – without any apparent cause – or then again a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the mind.
I consider the whole rather as a simple accident, no doubt a large part of it is my fault, and from time to time I have fits of melancholy, atrocious remorse, but you see, when that’s going to discourage me completely and make me gloomy, I’m not exactly embarrassed to say that remorse and fault are possibly microbes too, just like love.
Every day I take the remedy that the incomparable Dickens prescribes against suicide. It consists of a glass of wine, a piece of bread and cheese and a pipe of tobacco. It isn’t complicated, you’ll tell me, and you don’t think that my melancholy comes close to that place, however at moments – ah but...
Anyway, it isn’t always pleasant, but I try not to forget completely how to jest, I try to avoid everything that might relate to heroism and martyrdom, in short I try not to take lugubrious things lugubriously.
Now I wish you good-night, and my respects to your patient, although I don’t know her.
I don’t know if Lies is in Soesterberg at the moment, if she’s there, kind regards from me.