Starry, Starry Night



The Prison Courtyard by Van Gogh
I stayed up last night watching Schlinder’s List and interviews of Holocaust survivors, and this plus having awakened with a passage by Loren Eiseley stuck in my head following a night of physical pain and sleeplessness, have put me into such an altered state that when Peggy played the song Starry, Starry Night,* I wept for an hour. Not perceiving this at first, she asked if I thought that great artists and writers really are prone to insanity. I couldn’t answer without betraying my tears, but my silence had the same effect.

The following is from an Eiseley essay entitled “The Dancing Rat.”** I do him a severe injustice by quoting so little of it, but someone still owns the copyright, and I feel morally obligated to respect that. He’s writing about his days as a hobo during the 1930s when an unregulated stock market left millions impoverished and sparked considerable interest in Communism. His face is swollen from a beating by a railway brakeman who had tried to kill him just for the hell of it. The man with whom he is speaking is another
hobo with “prison eyes” who is more than twice the age of the nineteen-year-old Eiseley.  I first read this passage 40-years ago, and realized upon awakening that much of the misery in my life has come from resisting its truth, that is from trying to think better of man and God than they deserve.

“The sack was empty. He stood up in the firelight and cast it on the flames. The paper flared briefly, accentuating the hard contours of his face. ‘Remember this,’ he said suddenly, dispassionately, as though the voice originated over his shoulder. ‘Just get this straight. It’s all there is and after a while you’ll see it for yourself.’ He studied me again without expression. ‘The capitalists beat men into line. Okay? The communists beat men into line. Right again?’

“‘I reckon,’ I ventured, more to fill the silence growing around us than because I understood.

“He pointed gently at my swollen face. ‘Men beat men, that’s all. That’s all there is. Remember it, kid. Take care of yourself.’ He walked away up the dark diverging track.

“That man, whose name I never knew, must be long dead. I know he would have died as he lived, perhaps in his final moments staring silently upward at the cracked ceiling of a Chicago flophouse, or alone in some gun-lit moment of violence.

“Years later when the bodies of men like him lay on dissecting tables before me, I steeled myself to look at their faces. I never found him. I’m glad I never did, but if I had, I would have claimed him for burial. I owed him that much for some intangible reason. He did not kill the illusions of youth, not right away. But he left all my life henceforward free of mobs and moments, free as only wild thing are both solitary and free. I owed him that.

“Before nothing
behind nothing
worship it the zero.”

 

This country will have a presidential election in November of next year, but news of the contrivances of the many hopefuls already dominates the news. Maybe my sickness over the state of American politics is why I awakened with Eiseley’s words in my head because seldom is the truth of them more obvious than in the greed, filth, tackiness, and brutality of America’s money-dominated political system. It creates in me the feeling of being under the thumb of people who are as malevolent as they are powerful, people whose moral forebears caused the crash of 1929 and who are working to create the same deregulation now that existed then.

*Rather than having committed suicide, it is likely that the emotionally fragile Van Gogh was murdered by bullies. Though he lived in poverty, his paintings are now too spendy for art museums but are instead sought by investors who lock them away in vaults with the hope of turning a profit.


**https://books.google.com/books?id=6vQ2WZQJoQ8C&pg=PA10&dq=eiseley+%22men+beat+men,+that%27s+all%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CEcQ6AEwCGoVChMIqcqE4oGuxwIVSzqICh3MxQGF#v=onepage&q=eiseley%20%22men%20beat%20men%2C%20that%27s%20all%22&f=false

18 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

'she asked if I thought that great artists and writers really are prone to insanity.' Or is it because they see reality? Hard-edged.
I really don't know but am so grateful that they do. And that they wrestle to capture and share.
I can't listen to stories of the Holocaust, including those of survivors, for very long at all without dissolving. Family history and empathy both have their cost.
Love that excerpt you shared. Powerful, beautiful and true. I didn't know the author, and will have to track him down. Thank you.

Snowbrush said...

I added the fact that I also re-watched Schlinder's List, which Peggy had never seen, and that the interviews made it much more meaningful because with a movie like that, you never know what was real and what was added in for dramatic effect. It turned out that most of it was real, but, sad to say, two of the best scenes weren't.

"I didn't know the author, and will have to track him down."

He was an anthropologist and some of his works are geared to his profession, so you need to pay attention to what you get, assuming you get anything. He and Moritz Thomsen are my favorite writers, but, like "Schlinder's List" and Holocaust interviews, they're to be taken in moderation. Right now, I'm reading almost everything I can get by Conan Doyle plus two biographies of him. Like a lot of people, he was such a mess that I almost regret reading the biographies, but at least he wasn't a moral mess. It's just that once he got into spiritualism, he would believe in any damn thing, including crystal balls, teleportation, and even fairies. How to reconcile that part of him with Sherlock Holmes--or with his friendship with Houdini who was the world's foremost critic of spiritualism? BTW, Doyle traveled all over your country of Australia promoting spiritualism, but, as happened everywhere, he was severely castigated by the press. In his account of his time in Australia, he mentioned several visits with a man who was known as the Australian Thoreau, but I can't think of his name. Do you know of him?

Stephen Hayes said...

I've always found this particular Van Gogh particularly appealing. His sadness is palpable, as was the essay you included. Take care.

billy pilgrim, knight of the woeful countenance. said...

yeah, the captains of industry are getting a little greedy but they're not as mean as the pope and his crew were centuries ago when they were calling the shots.

did i get drunk and miss the age of aquarius?

Snowbrush said...

“I've always found this particular Van Gogh particularly appealing. His sadness is palpable, as was the essay you included. Take care.”

Thank you, Stephen. The pain just keeps getting worse of late, and this leads to some sad posts and, I’ve noted, to a loss of readers. Even people who have been with me for years are leaving.

“the captains of industry are getting a little greedy but they're not as mean as the pope and his crew were centuries ago when they were calling the shots.”

You’re right, for whatever it’s worth, because no one brings more misery into the world than those who are trying to make it better as opposed to those who are simply greedy, not that I mean to minimize the wickedness of those who are willing to sacrifice entire species and the health of the earth and its people for another dollar. I do wonder, though, if even those old Christians were as bad as the Islamic State. I think not because they would at least allow people to get by with observing the customary morality of the day whereas the Islamic State is so strict that it’s hard for anyone to avoid being killed. I should think that hell on earth would be to live under their control, yet many Americans have gone there to join them.

Helen said...

"The pain just keeps getting worse of late, and this leads to some sad posts and, I’ve noted, to a loss of readers. Even people who have been with me for years are leaving."

I, for one, will not leave. No matter how sad your posts, they are insightful, sometimes controversial, interesting (actually fascinating) .. I remember seeing Schindler's List years ago with my son Carl. The only time I've seen it, I could barely move when it ended. I walked into the ladies restroom and found it full of sobbing women ~ I joined them.

kylie said...

i want you to reassure you that i read everything you write. my responses, though, all feel the same, so i dont comment so much these days.

i saw schindlers list for the first time only recently. i have shed many tears over the holocaust over the years but of late i always just wonder why, with all the regret over those events, we seem to be perfectly happy to torture and demonise people all over again

lotta joy said...

Such is life. They say "life is what you make it" and I call "bullshit". Most people still living never had to endure what those did in the past, and here's hoping it never gets that bad again. But who thought it would?

That is what makes for having an invisible friend in the clouds so attractive. You either walk through it, hoping some sanity remains after the trip, or you crumble. I'm all for crumbling at times, but it's not how hard you fall: it's how you insist on getting back up. At some point, even the best of us decide it's not worth the effort to rise again.

I love you and always have.

Snowbrush said...

“I remember seeing Schindler's List years ago with my son Carl.”

I saw it when it first came out, but enjoyed it more this time, partly because of the interviews of those whom the movie was about. Now, as when I first saw the movie, I found two scenes darkly funny. One was when the Nazis were trying to murder a man, but their notoriously inefficient Luger wouldn’t fire, so after many clicks and tinkering, they hit him over the head with it and walked away, leaving him alive, not because they were merciful but because they considered him a subhuman and therefore had so little interest in him that they didn’t really care whether he lived or not. The other was when the commandant was trying to cut back on murdering people in the same way that one might cut back on cigarettes, but, as often happens with cigarettes, failed in his attempt. I am moved by many things more than most people appear to be, but I am also moved in different directions, so I laughed at these very dark and disturbing scenes but cried at others. The thing that moved me most was that Schlinder didn’t start that factory to save Jews but to get rich. He was a party animal, a lover of money and luxury, and a womanizer, who was thrust into the role of a savior rather than looking to be one. Also, he failed at everything he did after the war. His was simply the case of the right man coming along at the right time and in the right circumstances. This suggests to me the extent to which we owe our success or failure to forces outside ourselves.

“I, for one, will not leave. No matter how sad your posts, they are insightful, sometimes controversial, interesting (actually fascinating).”

Thank you, Helen. You get what I try to give.

“I want you to reassure you that i read everything you write. my responses, though, all feel the same, so i dont comment so much these days.”

I appreciate you, think of you often, and treasure your responses. Perhaps, it is with you as it is with me in that you often wonder why the hell you even bother to blog.

Snowbrush said...

“i always just wonder why, with all the regret over those events, we seem to be perfectly happy to torture and demonise people all over again”

Yes, there was something in the movie or, more likely, in the extras about “we must tell the story so such a thing will never happen again.” I consider this an absurd statement given that it has happened again many times since, and is continuing to happen again all the time. I can’t tell that humanity ever learns anything, rather we cycle through the same mistakes. I’ve been reading Conan Doyle of late, and he makes many references to the second British war in Afghanistan! Well, after the British came the Russians, and after the Russians came the Americans, determined to win a war in a part of the country that we have no business even being in. People die everyday in pointless wars that no one will even remember in a hundred years.

“Most people still living never had to endure what those did in the past, and here's hoping it never gets that bad again. But who thought it would?”

Someone in the interviews said that they couldn’t believe that what was to happen would happen because they had no precedent. Given that Jews had been persecuted and murdered enmasse for at least 2,500 years, I thought it a very odd statement. Still, the Holocaust was surely the worst such incident, and it happened in what everyone liked to think was a liberal country in civilized times. As I wrote to you somewhere, the Jews who were optimists stayed—and were sent to the camps—while the pessimists fled and became valued citizens of other countries. While optimists are surely happier overall, they have weaknesses that pessimists lack, namely they minimize signs of danger.

“I love you and always have.”

Thank you, Love. Perhaps, you’re like I in that you’re forever associating one thing with another, and your words “always have” brought forth in me a Bible verse: ”I knew you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart for me before you were born…” I don’t think you and I go back that far, but who knows. Part of what I’ve been reading in the extensive works of (and about) Conan Doyle are accounts of his spiritualist interests. He didn’t believe in a personal God, but he did belief that life could exist apart from the body. You and I don’t, but I think we both wish we did, and that the verse I quoted was in some way true.

Snowbrush said...

P.S. Here's a list of post-Holocaust genocides: http://www.spiegel.de/international/genocide-since-1945-never-again-a-338612.html

PhilipH said...

So sorry that you've been suffering a lot of pain Snowy. Hope that you are as good as possible right now.

I'm fairly sure that there's a very fine line between sanity and madness in every one of us. Life is like that and we are all as likely to go crazy as we are of getting hit by cancer.

It takes very little to push one 'over the edge' in my opinion.

Snowbrush said...

"Hope that you are as good as possible right now."

I am more tired of it than I can say, and my biggest problem right now is that I hurt too much to sleep no matter how many pills I take, and this leaves me perpetually exhausted.

"It takes very little to push one 'over the edge' in my opinion."

It varies so much, I think, from person to person. I can’t imagine that I would have survived a Nazi camp, but a lot of people did (of course, many of them killed themselves when they were finally freed). Speaking of which, I read just today that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America, yet few people here have it that bad, at least as far as being in physical need or having to work extremely had, compared to people in Third World countries, so why do people in many of those countries kill themselves less often than we (http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/cause-of-death/suicide/by-country/)? Are we spoiled; is it because we lack their sense of belonging to a community; is because their taboos are stronger? I don’t know.

PhilipH said...

So very sorry to hear of your extreme tiredness. Insomnia in such a state is like a torture; in fact it IS a torture. Hope this relents asap.

That website you included above is quite remarkable. Thanks so much for pointing to it.

billy pilgrim, knight of the woeful countenance. said...

my best friend committed suicide 2 months ago after talking about it for several years. he was suffering from major depression and refused medical treatment. i think depression and suicide are on the increase because there are so many people sitting around with nothing to do.

Snowbrush said...

“Insomnia in such a state is like a torture; in fact it IS a torture.”

Well, I take pills to help me sleep through the pain, but then I become dependent upon the pills although they help less and less.

“he was suffering from major depression and refused medical treatment.”

I’m very sorry about your friend. I too lost a good friend to suicide, and even all these decades, it still hurts more than if he had simply died. I believe that suicide should be a very judicious act because it does so wound those whom one leaves behind.

It’s harder for men to accept help because they are more prone than women to judge themselves harshly and to feel that it puts them one-down to talk about their problems. I’ve seen so my doctors over the years that I can talk easily about whatever problem I’m having, but the talk is at a clinical level because it makes no sense to me to use a doctor as a confidant and a witness to my emotions. Indeed, I think it a waste of time and money to share with a doctor at anything but a clinical level because that’s where they operate best; I’m only with them for 5-20 minutes at a time; and being clinical also enables me to be precise. This doesn’t mean that I hold back, but simply that I talk as if I’m describing someone else’s symptoms. As for shrinks, I hate and avoid them because of my observation that they’re uncaring, fucked-up people who are operating in a primitive field of medicine, and are therefore more likely to make their patients worse than better.

“i think depression and suicide are on the increase because there are so many people sitting around with nothing to do.”

My friend, that’s blaming too much on too little in my opinion. In my case, depression runs in my family, but it’s also connected to chronic pain and social isolation. The last two go together because it’s far harder to engage socially when I’m both hurting and fatigued from hurting. I have literally forgotten how to interact socially, plus the more isolated I become, the more I dislike people and the less I even want to be around them. I’ll grant you that not having enough to do is a problem, and that too goes with pain because so many of things that I would like to do either increase the pain or I feel too bad to do them. Hence, I spend far more time at the computer than I would really like.

Sparkling Red said...

I read a very enlightening book called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, by Kay Redfield Jamison. If you are interested in pursuing more on the question of artists and insanity, I recommend reading it. Or if you just want to know the bottom line: yes, there is a connection between artistic inspiration and mental illness. Poets seem to be the worst off (most likely to commit suicide). Jamison writes from the perspective of having bipolar disorder herself.

billy pilgrim, knight of the woeful countenance. said...

my reasoning is when people are busy all day making ends meet and slightly improving their lot in life, things runs relatively smoothly. that's because their "auto-pilot" is fully functional. when people sit around doing nothing, their "auto-pilot" shuts down because it's not needed and with the auto-pilot turned off the brain is free to run amok. these goddamned brains have a mind of their own if not properly engaged.

of course plenty of people commit suicide for different reason but the old adage "idle hands are the devil's workshop" does hold water in my opinion.