Authors: Nellie Hermann
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For M. H. and for “entirely different” idlers everywhere
Though I fall ninety-nine times, the hundredth time I shall stand.
âVincent van Gogh, November 19, 1881
September 3, 1879
Petit Wasmes, the Borinage mining district, Belgium
It was quite a long time ago that we saw each other or wrote to each other as we used to. All the same, it's better that we feel something for each other rather than behave like corpses toward each other, so I am putting my hand to paper to reach out to you.
It's mainly to tell you that I'm grateful for your visit that I'm writing to you. The hours we spent together those weeks ago have at least assured us that we're both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and took a walk with you, I felt more cheerful and alive than I have for a long time, because in spite of myself life has gradually become or has seemed much less precious to me, much more unimportant and indifferent. When one lives with others and is bound by a feeling of affection one is aware that one has a reason for being, that one might not be entirely worthless and superfluous but perhaps good for one thing or another. It has been a quite a while since I have felt this way. A prisoner who is kept in isolation, who is prevented from working, would in the long run suffer the consequences just as surely as one who went hungry for too long. Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or lamppost, whether of stone or iron.
Since my dismissal as lay preacher in July, yes, you are right, I have been waiting for something, and I don't know what. You call this
; I do not. You say I am not the same any longer; I say perhaps, but what man is? This time I am trying to do things right.
I have been wandering through mining country, a man in exile, a castaway, a snake wriggling out of its skin. I move between my room in Cuesmes at the evangelist Frank's houseâwith a bed and a desk and a worn carpet on the floorâand the room where I write from now, the abandoned salon in Petit Wasmes, a few miles away, where the floor is dirty and the few chairs are strewn across the space. I prefer the salon to the furnished room; it suits me better, and I appreciate the notion that no one can see me. I walk the landscape, I sit by the mine, in the cemetery, in the open fields covered with soot, unaware of the time, guiding myself only by the movement of the sun. I carry stacks of paper and occasionally sketch on my knees, quick strokes of what I see. Often, after I have done so, I tear up the paper and let the wind carry the strips away.
Yes, this is what I have been doing, Theo, but it is not idling. I have been trying to be patient, to be calm, to make no sudden moves. I am trying to do things right this time, to listen, to hear, to see. Great forces are shifting in me; I must let them take their time. I have been riding the waves of these forces as if I were in the ocean: some nights, they cast me to the floor, where I weep into the dirt; other nights, they are calm, and I feel I can see the land ahead.
As I think back on your visit with thankfulness, our talks naturally come to mind. I've heard such talks before, many, in fact, and often. You said, “Do you not wish for improvement in your life?” Plans for improvement and change and raising the spiritsâdon't let it anger you, but I'm a little afraid of them, because I have acted upon them before and ended up rather disappointed. How much in the past has been well thought out that is, however, impracticable!
Improvement in my lifeâshould I not desire it or should I not be in need of improvement? I really want to improve. But it's precisely because I yearn for it that I'm afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease. Can you blame a sick person if he looks the doctor straight in the eye and prefers not to be treated wrongly or by a quack?
And if you should now assume from what I've said that I intended to say that you were a quack because of your advice then you will have completely misunderstood me, since I have no such idea or opinion of you. If, on the other hand, you think that I would do well to take your advice literally and become a lithographer of invoice headings and visiting cards, or a bookkeeper or carpenter's apprentice, you would also be mistaken. Supposing it were possible for us to assume the guise of a baker or a hair-cutter or librarian with lightning speed, it would still be a foolish answer, rather like the way the man acted who, when accused of heartlessness because he was sitting on a donkey, immediately dismounted and continued on his way with the donkey on his shoulders.
But, you say, I'm not giving you this advice for you to follow to the letter, but because I thought you had a taste for idling and because I was of the opinion that you should put an end to it.
Might I be allowed to point out to you that such idling is really a rather strange sort of idling? It is rather difficult for me to defend myself on this score, but I will be sorry if you can't eventually see this in a different light. Idling? The word makes me crazy; I wish it were a tangible thing so I could light it on fire.
I went to visit our parents after you left here, just as you suggested I do. They were surprised to see me, Pa answering the door in his suit, Ma standing behind him in her apron, as if they were expecting a visit from a holy angel. I was a disappointment, as usual. It was oppressive to be there, everything in that house reminding me of earlier times, when we were brothers in all the senses of the word, and I kept thinking of you turning your back on me to get on the train to Paris. I left there after only a few days. Our parents handed me an envelope containing money, and they said it was from you, though there was no note. I have not touched the moneyâit sits in the desk in my room in Cuesmesâbut I wonder about it. After a visit like we had, what could you mean by such a gift, and without so much as an acknowledgment of what has passed between us?
If I must seriously feel that I'm annoying or burdensome to you or those at home, useful for neither one thing nor another, and were to go on being forced to feel like an intruder or a fifth wheel in your presence, so that it would be better if I weren't thereâif I think that indeed it will be so and cannot be otherwise, then I'm overcome by a feeling of sorrow and I must struggle against despair. It's difficult for me to bear these thoughts and more difficult still to bear the thought that so much discord, misery and sorrow, in our midst and in our family, has been caused by me.
If it were indeed so, then I'd truly wish that it be granted me not to have to go on living too long. Yet whenever this depresses me beyond measure, after a long time the thought also occurs to me: it's perhaps only a bad, terrible dream, and later we'll perhaps learn to understand and comprehend it better. But is it not, after all, reality, and won't it one day become better rather than worse? Sometimes in winter it's so bitterly cold that one says, it's simply too cold, what do I care whether summer comes, the bad outweighs the good. But whether we like it or not, an end finally comes to the hard frost, and one fine morning the wind has turned and we have a thaw. Comparing the natural state of the weather with our state of mind and our circumstances, subject to variableness and change, I still have some hope that it can improve.
There is so much that you don't know. This may be what hurts me most. It takes a person to explain, but it takes another person to hear the explanation. If I have changed, it is because of what I have been through here, and you make no effort to understand what that has been. In all the hours that we spent together, how could you not have asked me about this place? How could you not have asked for the story of what might have changed me?
I want to tell you the story of what I have been through here. I am tired already of the silence, but you are not here to talk to, so I pick up my pen. It will take me a long time to tell you, and I am not sure if I will be able to tell all of it properly, or if I will ever actually send this letter or any other to you again, but tonight I am calling out: Theo! I am here! I am your brother, always, and despite how you have hurt me, I want to reach you.
I feel a sun beginning to burn in my handsâsomething is growing in me that I must coax and tame.
Your loving brother,
May 12, 12:00 p.m.
He walks. Cold water is pouring from the sky, and he tries to hear the rain falling around him, onto him, trickling off the brim of his hat, over his eyes, through the hair of his beard, over his lips. He listens for each drop of water cascading against his skin, into the streams along the side of the road, onto the crows sitting on the thin, bare branches of the trees. The knapsack that he carries is thick canvas, but it must be soaked through. He thinks of the letters tucked inside, tied together with a length of twine, and imagines the words on them turning to water and washing away. He knows he should worry about this, but he cannot muster the strength.
What is the sound of the rain? It is too overwhelming to be a symphony; it is a whoosh, a swallowing, a leviathan with open mouth and lifted tongue. He is inside the cold body of a devil made of water.
His hands are growing numb. He touches the sprig of ivy that he keeps in his pocket, and its contours are blurry to his fingers. They cannot see it, he thinks, his fingers are growing blind with cold. The shape of the ivy emerges in his mind; he sees it rise behind his closed eyes, but his fingers fumble against it clumsily. My mind is not yet numb, he thinks vaguely, and trudges on.
He is going to Paris to see his brother Theo. Theo, at long last, Theo who abandoned him, whom he hasn't heard from in nine months, since Theo visited him in August. Is that right? Is that where he is going? Suddenly he is confused. His feet are carrying him somewhere, but his mind does not know where. Who will be there at the end of this road; who will greet him when he arrives at his destination? Theo, Father, Angeline? He sees his father's top hat, resting on the table inside the parsonage door; Angeline's delicate hand, her long, slender fingers topped by nails blunted and dirtied by too many shifts in the mine.
He is walking through the rain; he will walk on until it stops. This is all he knows. He is somewhere near the border of France; he knows this because for a long time he was walking along the train tracks. Did he reach France today? Was that yesterday? He is walking. His life is collected in his footsteps; there is no past or future, only one step and then the next. He feels as if he has been walking on this road his whole life. The water has reached his feet through his boots; he wears a suit of ice water under his clothes.
He fights the temptation to lie down in the road. He walks on, a man made of water.