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Van Gogh on the Beauty of Sorrow and the Enchantment of Storms, in Nature and in Life

“Oh, there must be a little bit of air, a little bit of happiness, but chiefly to let the form be felt, to make the lines of the silhouette speak. But let the whole be sombre.”

Chance doesn’t deal happiness with an even hand — some lives are more weighed down by sorrow than others. It can be easy, and misguided, to romanticize suffering — despite Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s superb admonition against it, we have a long cultural history of perpetuating the “tortured genius” myth, the reality behind which is far more complex. What would it mean, instead, to orient ourselves toward sorrow neither with indulgence nor with self-pity, to regard it not as a malignancy of life but as part of its elemental richness?

That is what Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) addressed in a remarkable letter to his brother Theo, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library) — the treasure trove that gave us Van Gogh on talking vs. doing and how inspired mistakes move us forward.

‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh

Despite his lifelong poverty, despite his debilitating mental illness, Van Gogh managed to transmute his various hardships into some of the most visionary art humanity has produced. During one particularly harrowing period of struggle, he writes to his brother in a letter from the Hague penned in mid-September 1883:

You write about your walk to Ville-d’Avray that Sunday, at the same time on that same day I was also walking alone, and I want to tell you something about that walk, since then our thoughts probably crossed again in some degree.

Van Gogh had set out on this particular walk in order to clear his head and his heart after finally splitting up with Sien — the alcoholic prostitute with whom he had fallen in love a year and a half earlier, just after recovering from the heartbreak that taught him how to turn unrequited love into fuel for art. It was a deeply ambivalent breakup — Van Gogh recognized that they couldn’t make each other happy in the long run, but he was deeply attached to Sien and her children, as was she to him.

Seeking to quiet his mind, Van Gogh headed out “to talk to nature for a while.” From this turbulent inner state, he witnessed a violent storm which, paradoxically, reconciled him to his sorrow and helped him rediscover in it the elemental beauty of life.

Vincent van Gogh: Pine Trees against an Evening Sky, 1889. (Van Gogh Museum)

He recounts this transcendent encounter with nature to his brother:

You know the landscape there, superb trees full of majesty and serenity beside green, dreadful, toy-box summer-houses, and every absurdity the lumbering imagination of Hollanders with private incomes can come up with in the way of flower-beds, arbours, verandas. Most of the houses very ugly, but some old and elegant. Well, at that moment, high above the meadows as endless as the desert, came one driven mass of cloud after the other, and the wind first struck the row of country houses with their trees on the opposite side of the waterway, where the black cinder road runs. Those trees, they were superb, there was a drama in each figure I’m tempted to say, but I mean in each tree.

Then, the whole was almost finer than those windblown trees seen on their own, because the moment was such that even those absurd summer houses took on a singular character, rain-soaked and dishevelled. In it I saw an image of how even a person of absurd forms and conventions, or another full of eccentricity and caprice, can become a dramatic figure of special character if he’s gripped by true sorrow, moved by a calamity. It made me think for a moment of society today, how as it founders it now often appears like a large, sombre silhouette viewed against the light of reform.

Writing half a century before before Rilke contemplated how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves, Van Gogh adds:

Yes, for me the drama of a storm in nature, the drama of sorrow in life, is the best… Oh, there must be a little bit of air, a little bit of happiness, but chiefly to let the form be felt, to make the lines of the silhouette speak. But let the whole be sombre.

Vincent Van Gogh: Landscape in Stormy Weather, 1885. (Van Gogh Museum)

Seven years later, the drama of sorrow disfigured the silhouette of Van Gogh’s life.

Complement this fragment of Van Gogh’s deeply alive Essential Letters with French philosopher Simone Weil — one of the most luminous and underappreciated minds of the twentieth century — on how to make use of our suffering and Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, then revisit Nicole Krauss’s beautiful letter to Van Gogh across space and time about fear, courage, and how to break our destructive patterns.

BP

Oliver Sacks on Nature’s Beauty as a Gateway into Deep Time and a Lens on the Interconnectedness of the Universe

“The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life… a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.”

Oliver Sacks on Nature’s Beauty as a Gateway into Deep Time and a Lens on the Interconnectedness of the Universe

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in contemplating what our arboreal companions can teach us about belonging and life, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Nearly a century later Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) — another titan of insight at the nexus of nature and human nature — explored how trees root us in deep time and absolute presence. In his superb 1997 book The Island of the Colorblind (public library), Sacks recounts to Micronesia on a journey “not part of any program or agenda, not intended to prove or disprove any thesis, but simply to observe.”

Oliver Sacks at the New York Botanical Garden. (Photograph by Bill Hayes, Dr. Sacks’s partner, from How New York Breaks Your Heart.)

Wandering the rain forest of Rota in a state of reverence, Sacks echoes Thoreau’s ideas about nature as a form of prayer and writes:

I find myself walking softly on the rich undergrowth beneath the trees, not wanting to crack a twig, to crush or disturb anything in the least — for there is such a sense of stillness and peace that the wrong sort of movement, even one’s very presence, might be felt as an intrusion… The beauty of the forest is extraordinary — but “beauty” is too simple a word, for being here is not just an esthetic experience, but one steeped with mystery, and awe.

Sacks traces this sense of awe in nature to his most formative memories. He felt it first as a child, lying beneath the ferns — a lifelong love of his; he felt it again upon entering the iconic Kew Gardens as a young man — a place he found to be not only of botanical fascination but endowed with “an element of the mystical, the religious too.” More than a century after the great nature writer Richard Jefferies — a compatriot of Sacks’s and a peer in the small group of writers who enchant the reader with the science of the natural world — considered how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the rest of the natural world, Sacks considers the smallness of the word beauty in holding this expansive sense of awe in nature:

The primeval, the sublime, are much better words here — for they indicate realms remote from the moral or the human, realms which force us to gaze into immense vistas of space and time, where the beginnings and originations of all things lie hidden. Now, as I wandered in the cycad forest on Rota, it seemed as if my senses were actually enlarging, as if a new sense, a time sense, was opening within me, something which might allow me to appreciate millennia or eons as directly as I had experienced seconds or minutes.

He finds a parallel of this awe-induced fathoming of deep time in the mating rituals of horseshoe crabs near his home on City Island, New York — something he would later revisit in his sublime memoir. Every June for the past 400 million years, the horseshoe crabs emerge from the water, mate, deposit their eggs onto the sandy shores, then quietly return to the sea in which life began on the primordial Earth. In sharing a beach and a moment in time with these “rugged models, great survivors which have endured,” Sacks finds the same sublime consolation found in an ancient forest — a sense of deep time and an awareness of the interconnectedness of life consonant with the pioneering naturalist John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Standing amid the rainforest — a place governed by the beauty of interrelation — Sacks reflects:

The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life. Seeing these volcanic islands and coral atolls, and wandering, above all, through this cycad forest on Rota, has given me an intimate feeling of the antiquity of the earth, and the slow, continuous processes by which different forms of life evolve and come into being. Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.

Complement this particular fragment of the thoroughly fantastic Island of the Colorblind (public library) — which also gave us Sacks’s wisdom on evolving our notions of normalcy and treating the chronically ill with dignity — with Walt Whitman, a poet beloved by Sacks, on the wisdom of trees, then revisit Sacks on narrative as the pillar of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, the paradoxical power of music, and his stirring meditation on what makes for a life fully lived.

BP

The Universe as an Infinite Storm of Beauty: John Muir on the Transcendent Interconnectedness of Nature

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The Universe as an Infinite Storm of Beauty: John Muir on the Transcendent Interconnectedness of Nature

“I… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote in his lovely prose poem about evolution. “The fact that we are connected through space and time,” evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis observed of the interconnectedness of the universe, “shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact.”

A century before Feynman and Margulis, the great Scottish-American naturalist and pioneering environmental philosopher John Muir (April 21, 1838–December 24, 1914) channeled this elemental fact of existence with uncommon poetic might in John Muir: Nature Writings (public library) — a timeless treasure I revisited in composing The Universe in Verse.

John Muir

Recounting the epiphany he had while hiking Yosemite’s Cathedral Peak for the first time in the summer of his thirtieth year — an epiphany strikingly similar to the one Virginia Woolf had at the moment she understood what it means to be an artist — Muir writes:

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains — beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.

Later that summer, as he makes his way to Tuolumne Meadow in eastern Yosemite, Muir is reanimated with this awareness of the exquisite, poetic interconnectedness of nature, which transcends individual mortality. In a sentiment evocative of Rachel Carson’s lyrical assertion that “the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” Muir writes:

One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature — inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.

[…]

More and more, in a place like this, we feel ourselves part of wild Nature, kin to everything.

One of Chiura Obata’s paintings of Yosemite

A year earlier, during his famous thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir recorded his observations and meditations in a notebook inscribed John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe. In one of the entries from this notebook, the twenty-nine-year-old Muir counters the human hubris of anthropocentricity in a sentiment far ahead of his time and, in many ways, ahead of our own as we grapple with our responsibility to the natural world. More than a century before Carl Sagan reminded us that we, like all creatures, are “made of starstuff,” Muir humbles us into our proper place in the cosmic order:

The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge… The fearfully good, the orthodox, of this laborious patchwork of modern civilization cry “Heresy” on every one whose sympathies reach a single hair’s breadth beyond the boundary epidermis of our own species. Not content with taking all of earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kind of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned.

Long before Maya Angelou reminded us that we are creatures “traveling through casual space, past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns,” Muir adds:

This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.

However disquieting and corrosive to the human ego such awareness may be, Muir argues that we can never be conscientious citizens of the universe unless we accept this fundamental cosmic reality. In our chronic civilizational denial of it, we are denying nature itself — we are denying, in consequence, our own humanity. A century before the inception of the modern environmental movement, he writes:

No dogma taught by the present civilization seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in the way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wildness as that which regards the world as made especially for the uses of man. Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged.

I have never yet happened upon a trace of evidence that seemed to show that any one animal was ever made for another as much as it was made for itself. Not that Nature manifests any such thing as selfish isolation. In the making of every animal the presence of every other animal has been recognized. Indeed, every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other, but with universal union there is a division sufficient in degree for the purposes of the most intense individuality; no matter, therefore, what may be the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself, then more and more remotely for all the world and worlds.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth

This revelatory sense of interconnectedness comes over Muir again a decade later, as he journeys to British Columbia on a steamer in the spring of 1879, experiencing for the first time the otherworldly wonder and might of the open ocean. A century after William Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand, Muir writes:

The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

More than a century later, Muir’s complete Nature Writings remain a transcendent read. Complement this portion with Loren Eiseley on the relationship between nature and human nature and Terry Tempest Williams — a modern-day spiritual heir of Muir’s — on the wilderness as an antidote to the war within ourselves, then revisit Muir’s British contemporary Richard Jefferies on how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the world.

BP

How New York Breaks Your Heart: A Photographic Elegy for the City of Electric Beauty with an Edge of Sorrow

“First, it lets you fall in love with it…”

How New York Breaks Your Heart: A Photographic Elegy for the City of Electric Beauty with an Edge of Sorrow

“A poem,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York, “compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” The poetics of any city, but especially of this city, springs from its glorious, unmetered humanity. The New York poem is sometimes a serenade to loneliness, sometimes an ode to unsung heroes, and always an elegy in the classic poetic sense of celebration and lamentation welded together. That electric beauty with an edge of sorrow comes alive in How New York Breaks Your Heart (public library) by Bill Hayes.

After his stirring memoir of Oliver Sacks and New York, Hayes — himself an elegant science writer as well as a photographer — turns his sensitive, sympathetic lens to the human poetics coursing through the streets of the iconic city at all hours of the day and night, across every social stratum, every age, every feeling-tone. From the hipsters and the homeless and the protesters and the lovers — oh so many lovers — emerges a chorus of humanity singing the siren song of New York.

Accompanying Hayes’s expressive photographs are his minimalist words — a kind of spare, lovely prose poem, nestling into the larger portrait of this tessellated city his own story of love and heartbreak.

First, it lets you fall in love with it.

And lets you think it loves you back.

You begin to forget the sorrow that brought you to New York in the first place and the love you feel for the city becomes the love you feel for another man.

But then, when he is taken from you late one summer night,
there is New York — right there, outside your window.

Complement How New York Breaks Your Heart with Hayes’s splendid prose counterpart, Insomniac City, then revisit Walt Whitman’s sensual ode to New York.

Photographs courtesy of Bill Hayes

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