On 23 March 1890, in Auvers-sur-Oise, Doctor Paul Gachet received a letter from Theo van Gogh asking whether he would be willing to look after Theo’s brother, Vincent, who’d been suffering from nervous complaints. The doctor was willing, and Vincent ended up spending the last months of his life in Gachet’s care.
One day, after taking his midday meal at the inn where he was staying, he went out into the fields and shot himself. The bullet entered his body just below the heart. He bled profusely, but managed to get back to the inn by nightfall.
Gachet and a second doctor who saw him determined that the bullet was inaccessible and that Vincent’s life could not be saved. Theo was called to his brother’s bedside. Going against the doctors’ pessimism, he urged them to encourage Vincent to hold out. But Vincent would invariably reply, ‘There’s no point. The sadness will last all my life’.
Two days later, at one-thirty in the morning, he died.
Marguerite, Gachet’s daughter—whose kindness had touched Vincent during these last months of his life—said of him, ‘His life was one moment of weakness after another, but in the end, what strength!’.
I’m no Vincent, Tilda, but on a night like this, when you are so near and yet so far, I console myself with the hope that one day you will see my moments of weakness redeemed by an ultimate strength.
And I say this despite the certainty lodged in my soul, the certainty that you too hold, that for me ‘the sadness will last all my life’.
My intention here is not to reinscribe Van Gogh’s automutilation within the economy of sacrifice as elaborated by Bataille. I want only to try to inflect his analysis by means of Van Gogh’s famous letters to his brother Theo, wherein the painter little by little discovered, with a deep horror, the destructive effects that are attached to artistic activity.
But what exactly does Bataille say? Very simply, first, that ‘Van Gogh’s life was dominated by the overwhelming relations he maintained with the sun’; that his ‘sun paintings only become intelligible when they are seen as the very expression of the personality (or, as some would say, of the sickness) of the painter’; that although these ‘sun paintings’ appear fairly early on within his production, for the most part they postdate that Christmas night of 1888. That night, the tension with Gauguin—who had come to stay with him and to paint at Arles—having reached an extreme pitch, Van Gogh severed his left ear (or rather the lobe of the ear), wrapped it, all bloody, in a newspaper, and sent this package to the prostitute Rachel in the brothel he frequented on the rue du Bout-d’Arles.
Bataille observed that ‘in order to show the importance and the development of Van Gogh’s obsession, suns must be linked with sunflowers, whose large disks haloed with short petals recall the disk of the sun, at which they ceaselessly and fixedly stare throughout the day’.
Van Gogh had a confused double identity as a re-created, creative replacement, and as a ghost of himself and his deceased brother. The double represented triumph over loss and death, but was also a menacing harbinger of death. Theo joined Vincent in living out the parental shared fantasy of a twinship, a double, and eerily soon joined his brother in death. (Theo’s death has now been attributed to tertiary syphilis. His body was moved by his widow to Auvers, France, where the brothers are buried beside each other.)
Van Gogh experienced an acute psychotic episode shortly after learning of the pregnancy of Theo’s wife. He committed suicide in July 1890, six months after this new Vincent van Gogh’s birth. The replacement child was replaced by ‘Vincent van Gogh’, and this repetition contributed to his final psychological decompensation. With a despondent sense of failure as an artist, and anticipating Theo’s loss, van Gogh succumbed to depressive hopelessness. He had taken refuge in paintings of fantasized merger with Mother Earth, his namesake in the earth, and his idealized narcissistic objects in the heavenly blue sky. ‘We take death to reach a star, we cannot reach a star while we are alive’ (letter to Theo, August 3, 1888). His suicide enacted the fantasy of merger, as well as murderous aggression against himself and his object world.