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.