Saturday, February 18, 2012

Biographies

At the store a customer asked me a question. After answering it, I was inspired to compliment his tie, which had lovely colours in a trippy, expressionist, Gauguin-like way. The compliment pleased the guy, who showed me that it was a Jerry Garcia tie. He said he had 12 of them. I have one myself.

I don’t know why I enter this vignette here, except that Garcia is someone of interest to me. That I share his birthday is an innocuous and not legitimately weight-carrying fact that I carry with me. I did not mention this to the man, not wanting this invention of mine to spoil our mutual high sign. But I want to listen to “Scarlet Begonias”.

So anyway, I have recently read two interesting bios. The second volume of Richard Holmes’ superb one on Coleridge, which I wrote upon earlier this month, on Babe Ruth's birthday. The other one, which I just finished, Van Gogh, by Steven Haifeh and Gregory White Pollock.

Both books are exhaustive, and in the case of the Van Gogh, exhausting.  The authors quote a lot of Vincent’s voluminous correspondence, in which he rails, enthuses and just plain pours forth. Both books describe tortured artists, without inflating that term beyond human levels. Coleridge suffered most acutely from opium, which ruled more than 30 years of his life. Had Van Gogh lived today, he might’ve been served medication that would have eased his tremendous emotional ups and downs. Maybe not—damn it, Jim, I’m not a doctor!—but that avenue of relief has widen greatly since his day.

Van Gogh is far less likeable than I expected. There was beauty in his soul—I do not mind using such a phrase—but his boat rocked so feverishly that he never seems in calm waters. I mean never. And his crazed enthusiasms and nearly complete inability to get along with others smashed up against a wall of middle class normality and propriety. His relationship with Theo is much more contentious than I expected. I figured him a naif who Theo helped along. The two were bonded for life, but never easily.

Wordsworth and Coleridge were somewhat similar. Whereas the Van Goghs competed within the family situation, Coleridge and Wordsworth competed as artists. They shared a youthful vision, but Wordsworth settled as a Grey Eminence, making good career moves, while Coleridge floundered in his own dissoloution and inconsolable yearning. He suffered unrequited love for Wordsworth’s wife’s sister. All of Van Gogh’s enthusiasms for people were unrequited, with the difficult exception of Theo. Gauguin was a dick, no surprise, but that does not ruin his paintings for me. Van Gogh was emotionally defenseless, and Gauguin was teh perfectly wrong person with whom he could broach a friendship.

I would love to be in Coleridge’s avuncular company. Vincent, would be a challenge but if I could keep my third eye observant while dealing with the lost lamb, maybe he would be someone one could learn from in his moments on Earth. His feet rarely touched the Earth, in this world of gravity. But Haifeh and Pollock advance with considerable backing evidence albeit without perfect proof that Vincent was killed, either accidentally or on purpose by some rich young a-holes who enjoyed tormenting the crazy man. Clearly this is one example of God not exactly tempering the wind to the shorn sheep.

That’s all biography right there, I mean, that’s the essence. We meet these human conspiracies of tension and release that make the subject worth our reading while. Internally, we take the facts and invent some vision. The man at the store and I, it felt like we shared a brief vision, some glint or spark that held Jerry’s music.

And I am writing my own story now, more than 100 pages in. It’s a matter of the brightly coloured thing shared.

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