Van Gogh and “celestial means of locomotion”


starrynightMovie critic Roger Ebert has died, after a long and disfiguring journey with cancer.  Some pundits are calling him the greatest movie critic ever … have they forgotten Pauline Kael so soon?

Also making the rounds is this essay about death from Ebert in Salon.  I don’t know much about Vincent Van Gogh‘s life, except for the famous bits.  Since childhood, I adored his 1889 painting “Starry Night,” with its turbulent movement of the heavens, until I saw it on too many placemats and tea towels.

Van Gogh’s words in his last months, to his brother Theo:

“Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.”

tintin3Van Gogh wrote words from an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence – he painted “Starry Night” about that time; it was the view outside his window.  I hadn’t realized that his later years were so deeply associated with Provence, where I visited last December, nor did I know his 1888 painting in Arles, “Starry Night Over the Rhône,” reminding me of the river that runs through Avignon, as turbulent as the stars above Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Ebert’s comment on Van Gogh’s letter, which he found cheering in his final months:  “That is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably take the celestial locomotive. Or, as his little dog, Milou, says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, ‘Not by foot, I hope!’”

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