Two Syrian Familes Won the Lottery Today

Mike Pence, the knuckle-dragging GOP governor of the saddest state north of the Mason-Dixon line, today once again vaunted himself into the foreground of Republican bigotry. He did so by “refusing” to allow two families of Syrian refugees from moving into “his” state of Indiana. We have grown accustomed to Republican bigotry. That seems to be the one common ingredient to the party that really has no clue about how to govern. They are currently, however, taking a break from their go-to anti-black and anti-hispanic bigotry to throw hysterical fits about refugees fleeing the carnage in Syria. The ostensible reason is that these refugees might do to “us” what “they” did to Paris last Friday night. Of course, the difference between a cultural capital of the world, one which has been in the vanguard in the struggle for human dignity and liberty for 250 years, and the state of Indiana could not be more stark. But apparently in Pence’s minuscule mind the analogy has something to do with Christianity.Or maybe he sees some similarity between the Louvre and Highland Park, Kokomo, which boasts both the the world’s largest preserved steer and the world’s largest sycamore stump.

The families in question have been waiting since 2012 to emigrate. So if they were Islamic State terrorists in waiting, they have had an attention span and patience much longer than the Republic party. But no matter. Pence, who mistakenly thought that anti-gay bigotry was his ticket to Republican stardom, now is going to ride the newly fashioned GOP anti-Syrian family gravy train to Hoosier reactionary glory. So, as a result, Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc. and Catholic Charities Indianapolis, evidently jihadist sleeper cells who were sponsoring the families, have decided to route them to Connecticut instead.

I wonder how long it will be before these families thank their lucky stars that they ended up in a state that is not filled with the kind of mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging troglodytes who elect an ambitious bigot like Pence? In the bargain these families won’t have to learn about the sad history of Indiana and realize the unbroken string of events which explains how it ended up as it is. Although by accident of geography it was part of the Union effort during the civil war, it was nonetheless home of the most famous confederate sympathizer in the north, Lambdin P. Milligan. Never quite comfortable with the outcome of that conflict, in 1923 Indiana held the largest rally of KKK member and sympathizers (over 200,000) in history. The state’s Republican governor, Edward L. Jackson, was a proud Klan member who did its bidding in office. He was particularly interested in eliminating Roman Catholic influence in the state. Evidently Catholics were not then considered “Christian” enough. May they still aren’t and that’s why Catholic Charities Indianapolis could not be trusted with two families of potential … something or other. Whatever the reason, here’s a hint: Chaldean Catholics, look elsewhere.

In 1969 Klan members were discovered with 314 pounds of dynamite and a “bushel” of caps. (See NYT, Aug. 22, 1969, p. 17, online here  (sub. required)) .This of course led to state police patrols of black neighborhoods with predictable violence. (See NYT, June 28, 1969, p. 14, online here (sub. required)). Even in those days Republican grasp on governing principles was hazy at best.

In the 1980s Indiana pioneered a new form of bigotry: anti-HIV victims. When teenager Ryan White, a hemophiliac became infected by transfusion of contaminated blood, he was expelled from his public middle school, even though doctors explained he posed no risk. In the grip of modern know-nothing Republicanism Indiana saw a problem (HIV) and chose to attack the victim rather than the cause (blood supply safety). It has become a party of who can’t think clearly, so filled as their heads are with prejudice.

Mike Pence, our current hero, surely vying for a place in the Indiana Bigotry Hall of Shame, early in his career in 2006 strode into the well of Congress to defend both God’s will and American civilization from the grave threat of giving civil rights to gay couples. Homophobia was then his bigotry of choice. He felt his aversions to gays so deeply that he advocated changing that document which American wingnuts revere more than holy writ itself, the U.S. Constitution:

“Marriage matters, Mr. Speaker. It was ordained by God, instituted in the law. It is the glue of the American family and the safest harbor to raise children. Let us put in that most sacred of documents an affirmation of that institution upon which our society demands.”(Cong. Record—House, Vol. 152, Pt. II, p. 14796; online here.)

His efforts against The Gay did not end with his failure to correct the glaring omission of the founding fathers. As governor, he supported the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, designed to allow Hoosiers the right to discriminate against gays in provision of goods and services. Unfortunately, this plan came a cropper in the most humiliating way for Governor Pence, when it was slapped down by the one power that Republicans venerate more than God and cater to more than the health of American society—Big business . Though the law passed and Pence claimed it did nothing to permit discrimination, under pressure from business which threatened to withhold their custom from Indiana, Pence drafted a law that expressly prevented discrimination. One step forward and two backwards for bigotry. It was looking bad for Pence’s election to the Hall of Shame.

Having been burned on that issue, Pence has evidently decided that women and children fleeing a brutal civil war are not as likely as gay wedding planners to bring him to grief. And so onward Christian soldiers! He just can’t help himself. The current GOP is built on bigotry and Pence is GOP to his very core. Deep down he thinks he can become President of the United States. And why not? Didn’t the first GOP President say “you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time”? Surely he did. And that is the only thing modern Republicans know of him or his philosophy.

Well, who knows. Maybe this ended up a win-win. After all, Hoosiers are not going to rise up against him in defense of helpless non-Christian immigrants. There’s no statue of liberty in that state. They were more likely, given their history, to pick up blazing fagots and pitchforks to harass the families. And maybe in this one case providence was looking out for the very families in question for their own long-term well-being and for protection from the likes of Pence.

After all, Judeo-Christian history/myth gives countless examples of how the godless have been used to achieve providential fortune for the friendless. Nebuchadnezzar, for example, was supposedly god’s tool for dealing with the Israelites before he used the Persians to deal with the Babylonians. If there is a god, and he is not loathe to use Nebuchadnezzar, then I suppose it certainly would be quite conceivable that he would use a person as petty and insignificant as the preeninng buffoon Pence to render a service to these oppressed families. And this time they won’t have to sing An wasserflüsse Wabash to commemorate their lonely exile in a godforsaken land.


Rodoreda’s last novel: A haunting portrayal of a disordered world

We read certain novelists, like Dostoevsky and especially Dickens, relatively quickly, anticipating something astonishing around the corner. There are others, like Mercè Rodoreda, that one reads slowly, anticipating something astonishing in every paragraph.

Mural of Mercè Rodoreda at 163 Numancia Street during Barcelona's 2014 exhibition Discover 10. (Photo by diveuniversefest under CC licennse at Flickr.

Mural of Mercè Rodoreda at 163 Numancia Street during Barcelona’s 2014 exhibition Discover 10. (Photo by diveuniversefest under CC license at Flickr).

Rodoreda is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Catalan language. Her modernist novel La Plaça del Diamant (“Diamond Square” after a place in Barcelona), first published in English as The Time of the Doves (New York: Taplinger, ©1981), a woman’s growing understanding of love and life over two decades, has been acclaimed as the best fictional treatment of the Spanish Civil War in any language. All of her mature works, both novels and stories, are characterized by simple yet meticulously concise expression, making her one of the greatest stylists of any language.

It is therefore a major event that Open Letter, the press of the University of Rochester dedicated to new translations of literary works, publishes this month War, So Much War, a translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennant of Rodoreda’s Quanta, quanta guerra… the last novel published during Rodoreda’s lifetime (Barcelona: Club Editor, 1980). (Open Book first published in 2009 Death in Spring, a translation of the posthumously published and unfinished La mort i la primavera (Barcelona: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 1997). In September, Open Letter came out with a paperback edition.) As for the newly translated novel, unlike many major events, this one does not disappoint expectations.

Her Life, in Brief

Rodoreda with her grandfather, Pere Gurguí, and bouquet of flowers. Photo from the collection of Carme Arnau.

Merc¡e Rodoreda i Gurguí was born in the Sarrià-Sant Gervasi section of Barcelona (where the Diamond Plaza was located) at a time (October 1908) when modernity and tradition were vying for supremacy. This conflict took place in the fields of culture and politics. In culture Modernisme was temporarily defeated by Noucentisme but the dialectics of these opposites produced a synthesis which led to a modern Catalan nationalism. In politics, Barcelona (the largest center of industry in Spain) found both its bourgeois and working class interests unrepresented in parliament, where both the Conservatives and Liberals were captives of the land-holding classes. Not willing to admit other groups the two parliamentary parties managed elections and agreed to a rotation in office (el turno) and left it to the Army to manage dissent without interference by the civil authorities. In Barcelona anti-militarism, on the rise among the workers and the intelligentsia, especially after the loss of the empire in the war with the United States in 1898,  was met with open hostility on the part of the local barracks. The climax came a year after Rodoreda was born with the demonstrations against the Army’s call up for the Moroccan. The Army responded during the Tragic Week, la Setmana Tràgica in 1909, with an iron fist, and the civilian government supported the unauthorized repression by executing five protestors and sentencing 59 others to life for their opposition and supposedly participating in the violence that followed. This event proved the turning point for Catalonia, and the working class would now organize for serious confrontations, a pose that would last for nearly three decades until Franco’s forces permanently subdued the region and executed, imprisoned or expelled everyone associated with Catalan nationalism, socialism, anarchism and democracy.

Exiles in Roissy-en-Brie (l to r): Magin Muria, Armand Obiols, Rodoreda, Jordi Murià, Amalia Casals, Agusti Bartra, Muria Anna and Anna Romero at Villa Rosset in Roissy-en-Brie. October 16, 1939. (Source: Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Exiles in Roissy-en-Brie (l to r): Director Magí Murià, writer Armand Obiols, Mercè Rodoreda, Jordi Murià, Amàlia Casals (wife of Enric Cluselles), poet Agustí Bartra, writer Anna Murià and Anna Romaní at the Muria house, Villa Rosset in Roissy-en-Brie. October 16, 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

According to Rodoreda’s elliptical memoirs, she was an unlikely participant (as activist or memorialist) in these struggles, growing impoverished and only receiving two years of formal education. But a recent examination of her childhood shows that it was less impoverished and disadvantaged than she suggested. In El paradís perdut de Mercè Rodoreda (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 2015) (available since last month on Amazon, but only for Kindle and only in Catalan) Carme Arnau Faidella reconstructed Rodoreda’s childhood from unpublished letters and other memorabilia. She concludes that Mercè had a happy, somewhat Bohemian life. Her parents were devoted to the theater (both had taken classes at l’ Escola d’Art Dramàtic) and books. Her mother was fond of music as well. But she was especially fond of her maternal grandfather, Pere Gurguí, in whose house they lived. Gurguí was a journalist who had once been editor for the short-lived L’Arc de Sant Martí (“Rainbow”) and La Renaixença (“the Renaissance”), both conservative Catalan newspapers, which promoted the cultural identity of Catalans. Gurguí was dedicated to Catalonian history and culture and imparted his love to his granddaughter. He had been a friend of Jacint Verdaguer, poet and member of  the generation of Restoration of 1874, which led to La Renaixença, the rebirth of Catalan language and culture. Mercè remembered her grandfather telling her that a guardian angel watched over her, and occasionally those angels appear in her writing. He also read to her the works of Català, Ruyra and other Catalan modernists. The most important to him was Verdaguer.  In 1910, eight years after the poet’s death and two years after Mercè’s birth, Gurguí built a monument to Verdaguer in his garden,

“a hill of big stones, with pans of dirt in between, where rosemary plants and other typical Mediterranean plants grew, surrounded by a strip of pink cement that wound around the rocks and had the titles of Verdaguer’s main works engraved in it, El Canigó, L’Atlàntida, etc.” (from Images of Childhood.)

Rodoreda in 1980. Photo by Tomi Socies for Revista Canigó. (Universitat d'Alacant.)

Rodoreda in 1980. Photo by Tomi Socies for Revista Canigó. (Universitat d’Alacant.)

The garden and its flowers became a recurring figure in her writing especially after her exile. Almost as if flowers represented the Catalan culture they were associated with in the garden, flowers would spring up everywhere in her stories and novels. They could be symbols of love as in “Blood”: “My husband would say the dahlias were our children.” Disinterest in flowers could signal a breach in a relationship as in “Engaged”: “‘ I don’t understand your obsession with flowers. All that …’ he made a gesture with his head as if shaking off something that suddenly vexed him.” Flowers are sometimes provide subtle symbolism, as the bougainvillea in Isabel i Maria, a plant whose bracts imitate flower petals and in the story reflects the duplicity between the characters. But mostly flowers represented home, especially in exile. As Rodoreda herself said (in the preface to Mirall trencat (Broken Mirror) Rodoreda explained why she made a gardener and his garden the center of her novel Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea), the first novel after her exile: “Linked to flowers, without flowers for years, I felt the need to talk about flowers, and to make my main character a gardener.” Flowers therefore represented above all homesickness, which is probably why an idolized and innocent childhood is part of almost all her works. Arnau said that the nostalgia for a lost childhood is always contrasted with adult hypocrisy and corruption.

Her own childhood paradise came abrupt to an end when she was 20. After her grandfather’s death, evidently her uncle, her mother’s brother, who had been in the Americas to make his fortune, sent stipends to her family to keep it afloat. When he returned, he married Mercè. A year later she had a son. Her marriage and domestic life made her miserable. She chose to escape the life she seemed destined for by means of journalism and then through novels.By 1936 she had published her fourth novel. The the Civil War came. Barcelona, which had already been a center of great intellectual and artistic activity under the Second Republic, as well as one vastly more liberal when it came to the place of women in society, became one of the strongest centers of loyalist resistance to Franco. The eventual victory of fascism in Spain was a calamity of historic proportions, not only putting the resisters in physical danger but also bringing about a spiritual and cultural disaster much like the Saints experienced when Charles II was restored, or the proletariat in Paris in 1849 or the partisans in France only a few years after the defeat of the Spanish Republic.

When the civil war began the great liberal experiment of the Second Republic with its benefits for intellectual women, for Catalans and for many others came to an end with the victory of Franco’s fascist army. Catalonia, one of the centers of loyalist defense of the Republic (and more significantly from the rightist point of view, one of the most advance workers’ movements ever undertaken), felt the heel of repression. Though not technically banned, the local forces suppressed Catalan in many ways, including signs that said: “Don’t bark, speak Spanish!”

Rodoreda and Armand Obiols in 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Rodoreda and Armand Obiols in 1939. (Photo Source: La Fundació Mercè Rodoreda.)

Rodoreda escaped repression and her family in well fell swoop. She left behind her son as well as her husband. She lived from 1939 to the Nazi occupation in Roissy-en-Brie, a small commune in the Île-de-France region east of Paris. She was doubly exiled: away from her country, but also because of the suppression of Catalan by the Falangists, exiled from her native tongue, and therefore from writing. In 1938 she had written Aloma, according to Pope dealt with “the violence of society, the degrading routine of marriage, the dangers of romantic delusions, the repression of the body, and the exploitation and abuse of women.” In France Rodoreda would meet writer Armand Obiols, with whom she would live until his death in 1971.

Obiols would offer extensive editorial advice to Rodoreda and her work thereafter became what made her internationally famous: objective, dispassionate, sparse and concrete. Pope showed, for example, how the influence of Obiols changed the narrative tone of Aloma between the time it was first published (before he knew her) and the 1969 edition. For years there were rumors that Obiols wrote her books, a charge that she told Castellet was “stupidity” (una bestiesa). As proof she said that most of her books were “women’s books” and men know nothing about women.

Untitled by Mercè Rodoreda. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1950? Institut s'Estudis de Catalan.

Untitled by Mercè Rodoreda. Watercolor on paper. ca. 1950? Institut d’Estudis Catalans.

In France Rodoreda did not complete any writing. She supported herself by sewing. When she fled the Nazi she moved to Switzerland. There she took up painting. Over 80 of her watercolors, gouaches and collages are held by the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 30 of which were exhibited at Barcelona’s La Pedrera in 2008 during the centenary of her birth. They were stark portraits of women (mostly) with expressions of wonderment and silence.This would become a characteristic of her narrators when she took up writing in earnest again in 1958.

Her Writing, Briefly

Rodoreda’s writing spanned the styles of the twentieth century beginning with psychological realism, to modernist interior explorations to a unique form of fantastic realism. But in all these styles the narrative approach was much the same. The protagonist/narrator was usually a women of lower socio-economic status. José Ortega says that this helps contribute to her ingenuísmo. The nature of the narrative voice is unique, and the effect at first is hard to pinpoint. Scarlett points out that unlike most first person narrators the narration is almost exclusively testimonial and not confessional. Moreover, Restina says that by shutting off the “intellectual function” the narration achieves a descriptive power making the things observed more “real” and “concrete.”

Because there is no “intellectual filter” between the narrator and the reader the narration gives the effect of the kind of writing André Breton described as “pure psychic automatism.” The surrealist techniques of Rodoreda are anything but subliminal. Her “disorientation, random association and misogyny” in The Time of the Doves (as Everly points out) have specific and quite precise narrative functions. But beyond the surrealistic technique, the oddities that permeate her stories (especially the later ones) create what Garcia Marquez called an  “atmosphere”  from which her revelations take place. And the last novel, War, So Much War is the culmination of her experiments in this regard.

In 1973, with Franco turning over his role as head of government to Carrero Blanco, Rodereda returned to Catalonia where she would live until her death in 1983. Franco was in ill health for much of the time after her return, and he died in 1975.  Perhaps his death made partisanship reside in her last novel, published in 1980, because no sides are expressly identified. (It is possible to surmise, however, that the narrator belongs to the loyalist militia, given how the enemy has airplanes and repeatedly bombs civilians.) The novel is not so much about a war, as it is that the war is the thing that makes everything else the way it is.

War, So Much War

war, so much warRodoreda’s last novel is a story told (or experienced for the most part) by Adrià Guinart, a young man who goes to war to escape his mother and see the world. But he soon regrets his decision to fight and he runs away when he can. Although unlike almost all other works by Rodoreda the narrator is male, his youth (he is barely past puberty) and his conduct make his gender ambiguous. When he was young and taken to school for the first time, Father Sebastià told his mother that they did not admit girls. The priest soon found him to be a “veritable archangel” and had his desk placed next to his own.

We know very little about his childhood but what we are told is told lyrically and so we seem to get a full sense of him. He evidently loved his father dearly, and his time with him is described tenderly: “On the Sundays when my father wasn’t of a mind to visit his cousins, he would take me for a walk. We spent hours sitting by the side of the road, and sometimes the air winnowed threads from the hearts of stunted flowers, and some would catch in my clothes.” His father, a railroad engineer, was haunted by a ghost—a man who would walk on the tracks, causing his father to screech the train to a halt, but in the examination later, no trace of the man would be found, and he received criticism. On the third time, he closed his eyes when the man refused to leave the tracks, and he felt bones being crushed when the train passed over him. The father died shortly after that experience, when Adrià was 11.

Adrià had a birthmark on his forehead, and when angry his mother told him it he reminded her of Cain. She raised carnations for sale near the train line, where trains could be heard all night from the house. The house had a yellow rose bush growing up its side. He grew to find the house suffocating, and began escaping from night to dawn. Then when he was 15, the war gave him an excuse to leave, and he went with his friend Rossend to join the fighting.

Adrià was not meant to fight, and they put him to work in the kitchen. Still he deserts. He can’t defend himself even when forced to fight and suffers severe beatings as a result. Even when they attempt to teach him to first a rifle, he refuses to learn, purposely aiming wide, because he had no interest in killing. (In fact the only two people he strikes are women: the miller’s wife, when she tries to seduce him and the old woman in the woods, when she discloses her vile acts.) His escapes are often fortuitous, often by deus ex machina. But his story is not about war directly. In fact, Rodoreda says in the prologue that the novel is not an account of war in terms of weapons but rather an internalized ordeal of disruption displacement and dead bodies. And most of the takes place outside the war zone but still where the state of war has untethered all bonds of normal morality and traditional attachments. The people Adrià meets live solipsistically in a world that offers nothing beyond their self-interest.

It is unfortunate that the Open Letter edition does not contain Rodoreda’s prologue, because it gives a good perspective on what she was trying to achieve. She says that the story was inspired by the 1965 Polish movie The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie), a movie directed by Wojciech Has and released in 1965. The film is based on a novel of the same title (and subtitled “A Collection of Weird Tales”) by Count Jon Potocki published a century and a half previously (and released by Orion Press in 1960 in an English translation by Elizabeth Abbot). Both the movie and book begin with a battle in Saragossa, Spain, where an invading soldier, entering an abandoned building discovers and becomes engrossed by a manuscript and while reading it is captured by Spanish soldiers. He gets his captures to translate the story and the film proceeds mis en abîme fashion with the captive and the soldiers playing out the scenes in the manuscript. The main character (the prisoner) becomes the captain of the Walloon guards under the King of Spain, and he sets off on various adventures to prove his courage and worthiness to during his travels through Spain. This 19th century Don Juan must pass numerous tests to prove his courage and worthiness. The witty and intricate interlocking of the stories influenced none other than Spanish director Luis Buñuel. The Polish novel it was based on may have had an equally distinguished literary influence. Rodoreda  says that her motivation was to create a story that experiences the world as poets do, “surprised at everything seen.” And while the novel and the film contain several symbolic images in common (eyes, hanged men, sleeping next to dead bodies) and while the protagonist in both is more a witness than actor, the novel is unlike the film. While the film is the unfolding of a gothic story, Rodoreda’s novel is a metaphysical exploration undertaken by one who has no experience in the world or in philosophy and therefore learns as he goes along.

The world Adrià wanders is fantastical, nightmarish and insubstantial, and his deep unconscious soul reverberates with what he sees. His experiences are sometimes no more than fleeting encounters, such as when, shortly after his first desertion he sees a boy in this distance about is age while artillery is being fired. The boy points to the direction of the cannon sound and shouts “Go home,” then disappears. Other encounters amount to complete episodes with conflict and resolution and then the need for Adria to move on. All of the encounters seem at first unrelated, except by subtly related symbols. For example a girl he falls in love with asks “out of the blue” whether he liked soap bubbles. She said: “The best thing about them was that, after one has waited so patiently to see them emerge from the tip of the reed and admire their iridescence, they burst while floating away as if they had been pricked.” He love her because she is unafraid, because she is independent, because it pained her to think of him dead and because she wants no one to follow her. Rather than have her reject him, he lets her go. Once gone, however, he decides he needs her and sets out to find her. Along the way the symbol returns. One night he fell asleep with uncommon peace and dreamed: “a boy who looked like me was blowing soap bubbles with a cane he periodically dipped in a tin can; the bubbles hovered over a drowned girl whose body was being swept in and out by the waves. … Many of the bubbles turned into human heads  that floated upward gazing at the sky. … Death, with green teeth, sat on the belly of a cloud. Seven women with feet of gold huddled together blowing seven long trumpets that spewed bubbles into the sea, while death’s scythe awaited th order to begin reaping the floating heads …” His encounter at last with the girl provides the climax of the novel, it follows with the most fantastical elaboration on the symbol.

Despite the disorder, the horror and the fantastic of an unrecognizable world Adrià is constantly befriended by strangers who offer him unsolicited charity at crucial moments. Perhaps it is because he is young, or has blond hair, or looks like a girl or, as old woman who feeds him says, “those helpless creature eyes of yours.” Or maybe they recognize as disoriented by the world being out of joint as they are. Even nature reflects the disorder of the times. When Adria sees a meteor shower for the first time, the old man watching with him says: “The stars are weeping because we are at war.”

Even when war is far distant, the people Adria meets seemed hollowed out, or maybe it is just that with everyone looking after himself those who would be hollowed out whether or not there was war are now understandable. In the longest episode in the book Adria lives with a man who has a house, income and books. Unlike most, he doesn’t need to scramble for food, or indeed to do anything but contemplate. He goes to the sea at night to think quietly.  His library is filled with mystical philosophy, which he practices by means of a mirror. When he dies Adri¡a reads his papers and learns of his discovery, one that involves a vision that haunts Adrià and a discovery that earns him nothing but hostility in the future.

The adventures that Adrià experiences are enough to earn the description “weird tales” but they are not gothic like Potocki’s are. In fact, their weirdness stems from their surreal nature in the literal sense of the term as above real or extra real. Everything that happens is strange only when we think of the world as normal and ordinary. But it is only ordinary when we stop examining the strangeness of it, the incompatibility of everyone’s selfish motives. Perhaps war is simply the metaphor for that incompatibility. And even those who want nothing more than to be ordinary (like the bricklayer whose house and wife are destroyed by the lone airplane on dropping a single bomb or the mother who amid all the corpses refuses to believe her baby is dead) can’t escape the immense incompatibility of others. Adrià’s travels, his quest, when he is forced to articulate it, is an expression of his need to see all the oddity in the world, to express his own selfish interests: “[T]he only thing I have is my own life. If I speak about it, it escapes, I lose it.” The generous man who wants him to quit his journeys, to stay and be his son, understands and pats him on his back: “… but the moment will come when you have a false life on your hands. You, what do you have inside? A garden or an inferno?” They discuss what it means to be Cain and the old man says: “… whenever you want to go, just go. Don’t say anything. I don’t like goodbyes.”

The novel races to its end. It is not a picaresque with a satisfying moral. Rather, like all great literature it ends with hard truth about the disparity between our desires and our possible attainments. It woud be almost unbearable but for the poetic telling, lyrical enough to soften the blow.


Carme Arnau, Introducció a la narrativa de Mercè Rodoreda: El mite de la infantesa (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1976).

Emelie L. Bergmann, “Flowers at the North Pole: Mercè Rodoreda and the Female Imagination in Exile,” Catalan Review 2:83-99 (1987).

J.M. Castellet, “Mercè Rodoreda,” Êls escenaris de la memòria (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1988).

Kathryn A. Everly, Catalan Women Writers and Artists: Revisionist Views from a Feminist Space (Lewisburg, [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press, ©2003).

Josefina Gonzalez, “Verbal Absences and Visual Silences in Quanta, quanta guerra …La mort i la primavera, and Isabel i Maria,” in Voices and Visions: The Words and Works of Mercè Rodoreda edited by Kathleen McNerney (Selinsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1999).

José Ortega, “Mujer, guerra, y neurosis in dos novelas de M. Rodoreda (La plaza de Diamante y La calle de las Camelias“) in Novelistas femeninas de la postguerra española, ed. Janet W. Perez (Madrid: Porrúa, 1983).

Randolph D. Pope, “Aloma‘s Two Faces and the Chacter of Her True Nature,’ in The Garden across the Border: Mercè Rodoreda’s Fiction ed. Kathleen McNerney & Mancy Vosburg (Selingsgrove [Pa.]: Susquehanna University Press, 1994).

Joan Ramon Resina, “The Link in Consciousness: Time and Community in Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant,” Catalan Review 2:22-46 (1987).

Elizabeth A. Scarlett, Under Construction: The Body in Spanish Novels (Charlottesville [Va.]: University Press of Virginia, 1994).

Human blood is salty and sweet

Two Films on the Indonesian Crimes Against Humanity
by Joshua Oppenheimer

Adi Rukun speaks to his mother about his brother's killing in The Look of Silence

Adi Rukun speaks to his mother Rohani about his brother’s killing in The Look of Silence

This past week Cinestudio at Trinity College showed The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion to The Act of Killing which I saw at the Montclair [N.J.] Film Festival in 2012. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand what an existential threat we pose to ourselves to see these films, preferably together. They both investigate the same question: What happens when immense crimes go unpunished? It is hardly a pleasant lesson to learn, and given that the crimes took place a half century ago, it is convenient to avoid these films as of antiquarian interest only and involving only people very much unlike us. That would be a mistake, for it is not just the victims and their families who suffer. These films make the case that all of society is distorted when fundamental human values are violated with impunity for the benefit of the powerful. The crimes that took place there continue to haunt that land, which is still ruled by the criminals. And Western, particularly US, fingerprints are all over the military coup, and, more importantly, the rationale for the crimes remain motivators of public policy, not only in Indonesia, but also in the West. The plutocracy-centered, change-resistant, capital-oriented reasons for clamping down on human aspirations not only still exist, they seem to have created a society here no less than there in which no alternative is possible.

The Historical Background

Suspects rounded up by the Army around Jakarta in 1965. (Photo: Bettman/Corbis/AP.)

Suspects rounded up by the Army around Jakarta in 1965. (Photo: Bettman/Corbis/AP.)

In 1965 Sukarno, a nationalist leader who led the struggle for independence from the Dutch (which involved collaborating with the Japanese during the war and the British after), was president- for-life of Indonesia. He had adroitly parlayed the relatively powerless office of president (Indonesia began as a parliamentary republic and executive power was lodged in the prime minister) into one fit for a strongman, and he moved the country away from the West, first helping to found the policy of non-alliance together with Egypt and India and then moving Indonesia into closer relations with China and the Soviet Union. The political power behind his “guided democracy” was threefold: the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI), the Islamic party and the Army. When the PKI urged the creation of a fifth security force separate from the established armed services, senior army officials acted with alarm. On October 1 members of the Presidential guard, calling themselves the September 30 Movement, kidnapped and then killed seven senior generals and they claimed that by doing so they had forestalled at CIA-backed army coup. Major General Suharto, reacting quickly, gained control of the capital and proclaimed that the September 30 Movement was actually a counter-revolutionary attempt on Sukarno’s life. Assembling the army under him, he spearheaded a purge of the communists. Top officials were rounded up and summarily executed. Under the still unclear supervision of the Army, paramilitary groups and death squad arose across the country and began the systematic murder of claimed communist sympathizers. The usual suspects were butchered as “communists”: union leaders, peasants, intellectuals, progressives and the like. From 1965 to 1967 over 500,000, perhaps over a million, and some have claimed 2.5 million Indonesians were massacred. Suharto replaced Sukarno as president, an office he would hold until 1998. No proceedings were ever brought against any of the killers, many of whom profited from their role either monetarily or with political power, or both. In addition to the political dimensions of the crime, there was ethnic cleansing of the Chinese population, who had been legally barred from conducting businesses outside certain urban areas.

Time celebrates the New Order with a July 15, 1966, cover story entitled

Time celebrates the New Order with a July 15, 1966, cover story entitled “Vengeance with a Smile.”

All of this took place at a time that the United States was becoming hopelessly ensnared in Vietnam under the dogmatic belief that the existence of communism anywhere was a threat to democracy everywhere. No differences were seen in socialist movements in different nations, all of which was lumped under a monolithic communism led from Moscow. The purge of communists in Indonesia was therefore praised in the West, whose economic interests were enhanced when unions at strategic industries (like rubber production) were broken. (An NBC News report seen in The Look of Silence shows how union members at a rubber plant were arrested and then forced to work there as prison laborers.)

The New Order presided over by President Suharto for 32 years was characterized by corruption, cronyism and above all iron-fisted capitalism. Unions were prohibited, farmers were moved off farms which were replaced by plantations to produce crops for export. (The farmers would then be “hired” under onerous long-term contracts to work for the plantation owners for subsistence or less compensation.) Above all the story of communist treachery was enforced and a nationalist mythology promulgated. The national myth was known as Pancasila, the “Five Principles” on which the New Order was to be based: (1) belief in one and only one God (symbol: star), (2) civilized society (symbol: chain (!)), (3) unity of the Indonesian state (symbol: tree), (4) “Guided democracy” (symbol: buffalo), and (5) social justice (symbol: rice and cotton).

The Sumur Maut at Lubang Buaya. (Photo: Chris Woodrich; CC license via Wikimedia.) The marker says

The Sumur Maut at Lubang Buaya. (Photo: Chris Woodrich; CC license via Wikimedia.) The marker says “It is not possible that the aspirations of our struggle to uphold the purity of Pancasila will be defeated by merely burying us in this well. Lubang Buaya 1 October 1965.”

A Sacred Pancasila monument (with the “martyred” generals whose kidnapping launched the coup) and in 1990 a museum (glorifying nationalistic militarism and called the “Museum of PKI Treason”) were constructed near the Lubang Buaya in Jakarta, which is tended like a holy site. The Lubang Buaya, or “crocodile pit,” was where the corpses of the generals were deposited. (Death squads around the country would visit the same fate on “communists” with interest)  The pit is located outside the former PKI headquarters where today visitors can see mechanized dummies re-enact the official version of the supposed communists’ torture of the kidnapped generals, complete with spurting blood. Suharto also commissioned cinematographer Arifin C. Noera to make a film in 1984, the bloody and violent Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (“The Betrayal Movement of September 30/PKI”), which needless to say follows the official version. Each year until 1997 all Indonesian television stations were required to air the movie on September 30. Even the end of Suharto’s reign did not let in sunshine. In March 2007 Abdul Rahman Saleh, Indonesia’s Attorney General, proscribed and ordered burned 14 school textbooks because they failed to adequately blame communists for a “rebellion” in 1948 and for the events which justified the army coup in 1965.

Only recently has there been any attempt to officially and formally examine the massacres. After a three-year investigation, the Indonesia National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) issued a report in June 2012 concluding that massive human rights violations were sanctioned by government in 1965-66 and local purges continued into the 1970s. It recommended criminal investigation by the attorney general, but no such proceeding has been instituted. According to Amnesty International in “late May 2015, the Attorney General stated that President Joko Widodo’s administration would resolve past human rights violations, including the 1965-66 violations.” There is widespread doubt, however, that any such investigation would produce anything other than amnesty for the perpetrators. It is these crimes that the two films by Texas-born but Danish-based and financed film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer address. They are not investigations of the crimes themselves but are rather about the twenty-first century resonance of those crimes in the criminals, the families of the victims and society at large.

The Act of Killing (2o12)

A member if the film crew comments to Herman Koto, one of the gangsters, how bizarre making a film with these killers is. Koto is about to film a scene in drag.

A member if the film crew comments to Herman Koto, one of the gangsters, how bizarre making a film with these killers is. Koto is about to film a scene in drag.

It is a considerable understatement to say that The Act of Killing is an unconventional documentary. In fact, it wanders so far beyond the boundaries of the what we think of as a  documentary that it might be called post-documentary filmmaking. The concept is this: While working on a documentary concerning plantation workers in North Sumatra, Indonesia, Oppenheimer came to know paramilitary members who openly bragged of their roles in the 1965-67 killings.* One of the killers in particular, Anwar Congo, agreed to Oppenheimer’s suggestion that he and others film their own account the killings. Scenes for a proposed movie were written, directed and acted in by the killers themselves.

The idea is of course stunningly bizarre. But it did not turn into a reality-TV episode. The film is both deeper and more true-to-life but also more surreal. Nor is it a papering over of the responsibility (or even existence) of the massacres. Perhaps because those at the helm of the project were thugs, and not politicians, they made no effort to shape the story to make themselves sympathetic to viewers or to render their cause apparently just. It doesn’t even occur to them at the beginning. Or perhaps by permitting these crimes, over such a scale and perpetrated so openly and notoriously, to go without redress, and in fact condoning them, Indonesian society had become so morally warped that no one weighs such events in a moral scale. It is the latter possibility that ought to concern us, because we seem headed in the same direction. (Widespread official exonerations of police who kill unarmed black men and children seem to partake of this same phenomenon, for instance.)

Act of Killing-2

Anwar Congo (l) and Herman Koto (r) discuss why their film should be more popular than Nazi films: because they can make theirs more sadistic.

The film begins with Herman Koto, a fat, brusque, coarse-featured gangster, attempting to recruit women and children to play the part of victims of a paramilitary attack on a village. Koto hectors and cajoles and eventually affects a falsetto to show how he expects them to plead for mercy. (In later scenes we see that Koto enjoys acting in drag. In one scene he plays a “communist” woman about to be raped by paramilitary ruffians.) In the background stands Anwar Congo, once a death squad executioner, but now a thin, white-haired, handsome man who is soft-spoken and often charming. He is later shown to be a doting grandfather. Congo will become the central character of the film, with Soto as his oafish side-kick and toady.

Congo (r) demonstrate the method of garotting he invented to reduce bloodshed.

Congo (r) demonstrates, on the very rooftop that he conducted executions, the method of garotting he invented to reduce bloodshed.

We become aware that whatever crimes Soto committed, he is a buffoon compared to Congo. Syamsul Arifim, governor of Northern Sumatra and a child during the massacres, says that “Everyone was afraid of [Congo].” Years of being shown respect out of fear (by the people) and gratitude (by the powers that be) have given Congo a sense of self that he wears gracefully. From his ordinary demeanor it’s hard to believe that he ever contemplated any crime, let alone killed hundreds with his own hands. And yet he demonstrates for the camera an innovation he came up with to reduce them amount of blood the killings caused (which created unpleasant odors). It involved fastening a wire to an anchor on the wall, wrapping it around the victim’s neck and pulling the wire to effect a quick and efficient asphyxiation. The demonstration used a playacting victim whose hands were tied behind his back. (Throughout the film “victims” seem to acquiesce in permitting the killers to brandish weapons and death contraptions without wincing.) After the demonstration Congo explains, in the very rooftop of “ghosts” where so many died, how he “tried to forget all this”: “with good music . . . Dancing . . . Feeling happy . . . A little alcohol . . . A little marijuana .  .  . A little . . . what do you call it? . . . Ecstasy . . . Once I’d get drunk I’d fly and get real happy.” He then begins to cha cha with his “victim” commenting on what a happy man he is.

Anwar Congo (l) demonstrates

Anwar Congo (l) demonstrates “feeling good” after killings and drugs.

Amid scenes in which Congo and Koto plan their movie, we are given glimpses at how Indonesian society is still shaped by the fascist-like putsch of the 1960s. Gangsters are shown shaking down Chinese shop-keepers. Governor Arifim muses that children of the “communists” will not prevail in overturning pro-government sentiment: “Communism will never be  accepted here,:” ha says, “because we have so many gangsters. And that’s a good thing.” Newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik openly boasts about his role in the massacres: ” … my job was to make them [the ‘communists’] look bad” and so he would change their answers to his questions. He then turned them over to the executioners. The army did not want to be involved (either for deniability reasons or because it would have taken too much personnel for so many bodies) and told him to “just dump [their corpses] in the river.” A chilling contemporary rally by Pancasila Youth is shown. This paramilitary group (claiming 3 million members today) performs a rousing martial exercise with women cheerleaders and flag majors. The group’s leader Yapto Soerjosoemarno does a remarkable il duce speech in which he proclaims himself the chief gangster. At a formal meeting the country’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla dons the jacket of the Pancasila and gives a speech extolling their lack of connection with the government (otherwise they would be bureaucrats he cracks), agrees that sometimes people need beaten up and extols the concept of gangsters as “free men.” But probably the most darkly comedic part of the film is the episode in which Koto runs for a seat in Parliament on the absurdly named Businessmen and Workers Party. Koto is unable to remember the remarks he is to deliver by megaphone while being driven, but he spends his time musing how, if elected and appointed to the building committee, he can shakedown owners for bribes. He estimates that he can make $100,000 for every 10 buildings. But Koto was too bungling to be elected even when sponsored for the seat.

Anwar Congo (l) and Herman Koto (r) discuss why their film should be more popular than Nazi films: because they can make theirs more sadistic.

Congo and Koto discuss the good old days when they were carefree gangsters at the cinema and happy killers at the newspaper office.

As we see more and more of the gangsters’ behavior, we realize how cogent the movie-within-a-movie is as a device for understanding their behavior. Congo and Koto, standing beside the former cinema in Medan (the capital of North Sumatra), tell us how as young, unemployed gangsters they scalped tickets to make money. It was here they were recruited to become killers in the newspaper building across the street. Congo in particular had a strong affinity for American films and popular culture, which made his decision to oppose the “communists” that much easier, since, he says, they tried to ban Hollywood films.

In an interrogation scene out of a Hollywood gangster movie, Koto (l) confronts

In an interrogation scene out of a Hollywood gangster movie, Koto (l) confronts “communist” Congo: “Trying to ban American films in Indonesia?”

The scenes they film come right from the golden age of Hollywood: Gangster movies, of course, but also the dance-musical, westerns, noirs, horror movies and an interrogation scene with the killers outfitted in American combat helmets à la World War II movies. Congo tells of his admiration of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, John Wayne, all things Elvis (except when on killing business) and American casual wear.

It is at the combat-helmeted interrogation scene that we are introduced to the third of the killers, Adi Zulkadry, executioner from the old days. Together with Koto and Congo there are now a triad of personal responses to their ancient crimes. Koto, of course, is completely apathetic to questions of personal morality. A brutish amoral thug, it perplexes him that anyone would concern himself with issues of right or wrong; he is concerned only with self-interest. When it’s pointed out that showing what they did would cast them in a bad light, he says: “But why should we always hide our history if that’s the truth?”

Ali Zulkadry (l) states a moral truth that has so far been missing, as he and Congo are being made up for the combat-helmeted interrogation scene.

Ali Zulkadry (l) states a moral truth that has so far been missing, as he and Congo are being made up for the combat-helmeted interrogation scene.

Zulkadry, unlike Koto, fully understands and admits that they acted immorally. He also dismisses all equivocation and states that the death squads acted more cruelly than the “communists.” When he sees the movie they are making he understands the implications:

“It’s not about fear [of criminal prosecution]. It’s about image. The whole society will say ‘We always suspected it. They lied about the communists being cruel.’ It’s not a problem for us. It’s a problem for history. The whole story will be reversed. Not 180 degrees … 360 degrees.”

The entire scene is stunning and pivotal. Congo’s neighbor, who agreed to play the victim, tells the group of killers the story of how when he was 11 or 12 his step-father (a Chinese) was taken away from the house at 3 a.m. and how he was discovered under an oil drum. “We buried him like a goat, next to the main road. Just me and my grandfather.” He assures them he is not criticizing them, only offering the story to complete the history. Congo tells him that they will use it to motivate the actors.

Act of Killing-8

Congo peers into the abyss.

Congo is the third and most ambiguous of the killers. At first he gives no thought to the consequences of filming, more interested in appearing young for the camera (so he dyes his hair). But he does not deny the fact that he has had recurring nightmares since the events. In fact, the gangster-film-makers make his night fears part of their movie by staging an elaborately costumed ghost scene. Congo later talks to Zulkadry about his nightmres privately (on camera), and the latter advises he see a nerve doctor to get nerve vitamins. At night, staring from a pier into the dark ocean, Congo contemplates Karma, a law “direct from God.” But he sees only nothingness.

Zulkady ultimately comes up with his final rationalization strollikng through a mall with his wife and daughter. In the end what the killers achieved was a society that imported Western values: materialistic, driven by international commrcial trends, culturally homogenous and spiritually dead.

Zulkadry comes up with his final rationalization strolling through a mall with his wife and daughter. But in the end what the killers achieved was a society that imported Western values: materialistic, driven by international commercial trends, culturally homogenous and spiritually dead.

From this point on the mindscapes of Zulkadry and Congo part ways. Zulkadry restates the same arguments of all victorious war criminals: The winners define the rules. But with clear hindsight he claims he is untroubled. Strolling through a modern upscale mall with his wife and daughter, he recounts:

We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished.”

The climax of the killers' movie makes us realize we have nothing in common with that mindset. Here a

The climax of the killers’ movie makes us realize we have nothing in common with that mindset. Here a “victim” thanks his killer.

Congo’s journey is more complicated and also strangely pat. Observing the conventions of film discussions (which would never be applied to literary discussions), I will not reveal “spoilers.” But needless to say the movie-within-a-movie reaches its absurd conclusion, in which Congo is beatified in a fascist-secular way, all to the tune of “Born Free.” (Throughout the film characters keep telling us that in English gangster means “free man,” an etymology I cannot find in any reputable source.) And that same device also causes him to take a journey of moral discovery. That journey is both simple and complex. Among the questions that occur to us are: Is Congo’s discovery true or is it an “act.” After all, the final shot could easily dissolve with the music from The Sweet Smell of Success, and I’m sure Congo would have been proud of that. But even assuming it is true, is it enough? And what next?

Koto, again in drag, this time as an avenging angel of nightmares, confronts Congo, who plays the victim he beheaded.

Koto, again in drag, this time as an avenging angel of nightmares, confronts Congo, who plays the victim he beheaded.

In the end, we come to several conclusions. Above all Act of Killing, it’s a remarkably complex and oddly beautiful film. It is neither history nor real documentary, but rather a work of art. It therefore has both the attributes and deficits of art. It is a historical artifact that attempts a psychological and moral analysis of men who committed unfathomable crimes. In that it is destined to fail as all anecdotal accounts of evil are incapable of coming to a general truth. Nevertheless it uses art to undermine the false claims made by the killers, and maybe that is all that can be expected.

Suryono, victim himself, agrees to play victim in the killers' movie. Here he listens as Zulkadry makes the case for not making the movie at all.

Suryono, victim himself, agrees to play victim in the killers’ movie. Here he listens as Zulkadry makes the case for not making the movie at all.

But art itself is another way of distorting, “interpreting,” historical truth, and perhaps in a way less self-analytical that the killers’ own movie. Watching the film, nagging questions are raised the nature of the narrative device. For example, all the shots in this film are complex, disturbing, and increasingly brutal, but ultimately beautifully staged. This is not something we expect from documentaries. How can intimate conversations be captured in perfectly framed shots without prior direction (especially when more than one camera is used)? And does that prior direction pollute the “truth” of the conversation? And what about the killers’ movie? Does it express what they wanted? Does it matter? These questions addresses a smaller part of the question that the movie embodies as a whole. Oppenheimer was an essential collaborator in the movie-within-a-movie as well as the scenes surrounding it. Does that contaminate the film? I suppose the answer has to depend on whether the content comports with your own view of how humans behave. There can be no other assurance. Maybe in the end all history follows a version of the uncertainty principle: If we try to learn something we disturb the very thing we are investigating and therefore can only know part.

As for the rest, it is hard to contemplate a more visually beautiful movie on such a morally debased subject. And the ambient sound, something that is normally smothered by music, is a marvel in its own right. That is something that becomes even more evident in the second film.

The Look of Silence (2014)

This second film, which is just now making its way around American art houses, offers both a simpler and more profound experience than Act of Killing. This is because it focuses not on multitudes of victims but just one and because it is seen not through the eyes of the criminals but those of the victim’s family.

Adi's mother has lived with a half century of memory amid silence and practiced forgetfulness.

Adi’s mother has lived with a half century of memory amid silence and practiced forgetfulness.

Early on in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera makes the observation that the history of atrocities has become so accelerated that we cannot remember: The massacre in Bangladesh replaced the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, which was covered over by Allende’s assassination, which was followed by the Sinai war, the Cambodian massacre, in a series without end. And so we remember nothing. Which is why Indonesia of 1965 has no power to hold us. Even if it happened in recent memory, hasn’t the recent civil wars in Congo killed five times as many? (Not that we follow that crisis either.) Our minds simply are not designed to understand, in any way that makes a difference, mass killings, which is why they occur so frequently and are so rarely punished.

But we are able to examine in minute particulars the unjust destruction of one life, the one thing we are given and the one thing we cherish above all else. And that is what The Look of Silence is about.

The other thing that makes this film more accessible is that the villains act in ways we understand—suspicious, wary of inquiry into their conduct and willing to threaten and maybe commit further crimes to keep the past hidden. It is reassuring that even in a land that celebrates paramilitary exercises and death squads, most criminals prefer to hide their crimes. And these circumstances provide the context for one of our favorite story-types: the intrepid searcher for truth who threatens to expose the dangerous and powerful. Except in this case, the story is true.

Like the first movie, this one deals with the killings in North Sumatra. These take place, not in the city as in Act of Killing, but in the rural countryside where the population consists of peasant farmers or plantation workers. International capital at the time wanted to move the population from subsistence farms to plantations harvesting valuable exports: rubber, palm oil, cocoa. So there already existed a substratum of thugs used to muscling the population, unlike the city where the killers were recruited among the unemployed urban gangsters. The organization that orchestrated the killings (and the forced plantation work) was the Kommando Aksi, a group, from the sample in this movie, that had none of the seemingly light-hearted frivolity of the urban gangsters. But this movie (just like the first) does not dwell on the particulars a traditional historian would be interested in: the dates, places, circumstances and social context of the events. We know only that it takes place in or near Aceh at a place called Snake River.

Adi Rikun watching video of his brothers' killers describing the deed.

Adi Rikun watching video of his brothers’ killers describing the deed.

At the center of the story is Adi Rukun, a 44 year old optometrist whose brother, Ramli, was murdered in a particularly gruesome way by the local death squad two years before Adi was born. Adi is shown to be a quiet and gentle family man. He has none of the swagger or boastfulness of the killers in the first movie, but he has a sustained intensity that can be seen in his eyes, an intensity that propels the movie along its tense and dangerous course.

Both of Oppenheimer’s titles have wordplays built into them. In this movie the “look” has multiple meanings. Facing the men complicit in his brother’s death, Adi’s only weapon is his fixed gaze, which betrays a determined, an unsubtle, moral clarity. It is fitting that he is an optometrist, and he uses this profession on two occasions to gain access to those he wants to interview, bringing with him a portable phoropter, a device designed to improve vision, continuing the central metaphor of the movie. His own eyes look deeply into the souls of the killers and also make the accusation that his soft voice never does. His eyes (and the camera) linger on the criminal long after he has stopped talking, and the stress this causes the accused is visible in his face. His eyes are like the eyes that haunted Anwar Congo in the first film, eyes of the man he beheaded which he failed to close and which come to him in his sleep.

Adi's ancient father bathing. Like society around him he is losing his memory and his sight.

Adi’s ancient father bathing. Like society around him the old man is losing his memory and his sight.

By contrast, his own father, now over 100, is nearly blind and losing his memory. His mother bathes him and puts him to bed. She doesn’t sleep with him any longer “because he smells of pee.” But she tenderly cares for him. She has not lost her memory. She clearly remembers the details of the night when her son came home, nearly disemboweled, begging for coffee and how the men hunted him down. They told her they were taking him to the hospital, but she knew better. They refused to let her come with him.

There is no doubt how Ramli died. Oppenheimer had filmed the killers themselves, walking down the same riverbank toward the Snake River, describe and even demonstrate dragging Ramli and the other victims, hacking him and cutting off his penis to finally let him bleed to death. His body seems to have been thrown into a well (a lubang buaya), although the bodies of thousands were tossed in the Snake River. (The corpses so polluted the river, we are told by a villager, that no one would buy fish any longer, fish that had eaten humans.) The incident was even recorded for posterity by a leader of the death squad who wrote and illustrated a book about the bodies thrown into the well. Oppenheimer films the man describing the killing and showing his book. His wife stands beside him, worshipping the hero. Adi would return late in the film with the book to the family of this man.

Securing the future by changing the past, always most effectively done with children.

Securing the future by changing the past, always most effectively done with children.

The film begins not with silence, but with a noisy elementary school. A male teacher is instructing the class in the elimination of the “communists,” eliciting responses as though it were a catechism. He drills them with propositions that the communists were cruel (he tells the children that they would slash people’s faces with razors and gouge their eyes out), that they denied God and were libertines. He explained that it was necessary to take them to prison and to keep their children from working for the government or becoming a policeman. When the students are asked what the heroes achieved, in one voice they should “Democracy!”

Adi’s first task in this movie is to undo this teaching to his son. In a quiet conversation he tells his son that the communists were not cruel, they did not deny the existence of God. His son is quiet and respectful, but how is he to resolve the conflict between his loyalty to his father and the authority of his teacher? Adi has no first hand knowledge; he was not even born when the killings took place. Adi believes in family. as something you learn from and something you pass on. And while we see him adore his children, especially his young daughter, his idea of family is much more complex than that held by his wife. When she discovers that he embarked on the dangerous path of confronting his brother’s killers, she told him she would not have let him. Didn’t he think of the children? she asked. He has no answer. How could he? There is always a reason to be silent.

Adi’s wife is not the only one to counsel silence. An elderly lady tells him to forget the past. She said she knew that the communists were taken to the river but didn’t learn any details. Even Kemat, who had been one of those taken from prison on the trip with Ramli to be hacked to death and who made his escape and miraculously eluded recapture, even Kemat counseled forgetting: “It’s already covered up. It’s up to God to punish those who hurt our family and friends.”

The optical frames allows Adi to bore into Inong's soul.

The optical frames allow Adi (and us) to bore into Inong’s soul. It is a frightening place.

We meet the first killer in his forest property, an old man, named Inong, with his pet monkey on a leash. Adi begins examining him, adjusting the lenses to determine his prescription. Adi then begins asking questions quietly: Are your neighbors afraid of you? Inong answers in a matter of fact manner that they are and with good reason given his deeds in the old days. Inong needs little prompting to describe the killings.  He tells of his work with a machete. He says that a woman’s breast when cut off looks like the inside of a coconut with all the fibers to filter milk. The woman was brought to him by her brother who was unable to kill her himself. It was tough business. One killer, he tells us, lost his mind in all the slaughter and would climb a palm tree to call for prayers. Fortunately, he took the precaution of drinking his victims’ blood and was able to retain his senses. It is he who explains the taste of human blood. When Adi, surprised by his description asks him what he said, Inong repeats that human blood tastes salty and sweet.

It took only a few gentle questions to unravel him. Adi accused him of hacking his victims, but he said that he only used one blow per victim. Adi asked him how he was able to cut the woman’s breast off and then kill her with one blow. Inong was flustered. When Adi began asking tougher questions Inong complained to Oppenheimer. It was “too deep”; it was all politics, which he didn’t want to discuss. (It has perhaps become commonplace that it is easier to motivate men to take up a cause that requires killing than it is for them to understand the nature of the cause.) The camera peered into his face for an uncomfortable length of time, but he did not blink.

The confrontations continue up the chain of responsibility and they become increasingly ominous. In a confronting with a local Kommando Aksi leader Adi points out that he became rich from his actions. When he tells him that his brother had been killed under his command, the killer asks for Adi’s address. Realizing the danger, Adi refuses, his resolve momentarily broken. At the local legislature, he confronts the leader of the regional Kommando Aksi, who claims his repeated re-elections showed the esteem he was held in. When Adi presses him further, he menacingly asserts: “If we keep asking the same questions, it will happen again, sooner or later.”

Interlaced with these confrontations, we see Adi’s father decline. In his dotage he says that he is 16. His wife asks him if he remembers his son’s name, but he keeps asking, “Whose son?” Finally, we see him, blind, pulling his useless legs across a patio unable to find his way out, crying that he had been put in a stranger’s house and begging for release. Forgetting gave him no relief.

In a pivotal scene Adi visits his uncle. Adi discovers that he had guarded the prison that Ramli was in and watched as the paramilitary group took them away by truck. He claimed he did not know what was to be done with them. In any event, he says, he was in the army and what could he do. He cannot even answer Adi’s question whether he “regretted” his role. He asks Adi to leave.

The final two confrontations involve the families of two killers. One, now senile, is with his daughter. The other (the one who had written the book containing Ramli’s death) is dead, and we see his wife and two sons. The reaction of relatives is intensely interesting. Not invested with the crimes, they make no excuses, except that they themselves didn’t know (however implausible that excuse was); they only want to avoid the subject. The pain inflicted when Adi reveals that he is Ramli’s brother is palpable. There is no escape from the consequences for the relatives of the victims or of the killers. Perhaps that is why the Israelites believed that God visited vengeance to the third and fourth generation.

Adi's children play with the larvae of butterflies, a metaphor with significance.

Adi’s children play with the larvae of butterflies, a metaphor with significance.

Like The Act of KillingThe Look of Silence is visually beautiful as well as suggestive. Danish cinematographer Lars Skree who shot both films is well-known for his personal courage and his ability to use filters. light, colors and post-production effects to create scenes that have almost mythological auras to them. He was director of photography for the Danish documentary Armadillo, which followed a Danish regiment into the Helmand Province of Southern Afghanistan. The scenes he achieved were mesmerizing, dangerous and intimate. (He won the Danish Roos Award for his work.) In The Look of Silence the framing, color, focus and extreme close-ups gives the audience a closeness that makes it hang on every word spoken.

Mother and son have a bond that goes beyond words over the son Rohani lost 50 years ago and the brother that Adi never had.

Mother and son have a bond that goes beyond words over the son Rohani lost 50 years ago and the brother that Adi never had.

The sound, once again, is remarkable. No musical tracks interfere, and nothing intrudes on the private, painful and deeply significant conversations that the characters have with each other. But the sound space is filled with quiet noises, forest sounds, animals, surrounding ambiance, which has the effect of putting the conversations in a three-dimensional world, of highlighting them and of making us quiet for fear of missing a nuance. The scene in which Adi tells his mother that he has been confronting the killers is tense, slow and emotional, filled with pauses. She alone does not discourage him. She only advises him to be careful, to go armed and if necessary deliver a blow right behind the neck to fell an assailant. (The scene quickly cuts to killers explaining how they beheaded by striking in just such a place. Where murder is riot, everyone knows technique.) The close up shows that Adi and his mother understood each other, that they shared the belief in the need to end the silence.

When the film ends the very real danger, the fact that this nation still remains a place of darkness, is quietly proved by the credits: position after position is noted with only “anonymous.” Adi and his family were relocated after the filming for their own safety.

The Act of Killing is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and can be streamed from Amazon’s video serviceThe Look of Silence was released in the US in July and is making its way among art houses around the country.


*That film was The Globilisation Tapes, made by the members of the international plantation workers union PERBBUNI, as an organization tool. Among other things it shows the inhuman working conditions forced on palm oil plantation workers today. It is currently hosted on YouTube and can be seen by following this link. The film is didactic and somewhat naive in its aims, but it shows what Suharto’s New Order brought about. Oppenheimer first saw the unabashed ways in which the killers described their participation filming this movie and early on you can see another killer describe his participation, egged on by a proud wife.

People in Sorrow

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

Art Ensemble of Chicagoin France in 1969 with

Lester Bowie, on brass and percussion.
Joseph Jarman, on reeds and percussion.
Roscoe Mitchell, on reeds and percussion.
Malachi Favors, bass, percussions.

The extended twin part theme with improvised variations is perhaps the group’s most important performance. The composition (or the framework for the improvisations) involves a series of variations (sometimes overlapping) and repetitions of a mournful theme, initially stated by bells or a celeste. The bass line provides the rhythmic propulsion and a ground line with harmonic support, while the woodwinds, brass and various tuned percussion instruments (as well as Malachi Favors’ vocals) supply variations. Throughout the whole piece various other percussion sounds create aural space and architecture around which the instruments navigate.

The experiments of the Art Ensemble of Chicago represent a departure from the free jazz advances of Ornette Coleman (which was based on harmonic improvisations) on the one hand and Cecil Taylor (whose work largely involved complex rhythmic patters and percussive effects). The Art Ensemble of Chicago by contrast always retained accessible melodies, even while bending notes and providing percussive commentary.

Gabriela Mistral’s “Death Sonnets”

Chile’s Mother Buries Her Lover

The frontispiece to Mistral's first collection, Desolacion.

The frontispiece to Mistral’s first collection, Desolación (1922).

Outside of Latin America, Pablo Neruda is the face Chilean poetry. But Chile had a national poet before him, one who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in fact the first one awarded to a Latin American), one after whom streets, plazas, schools throughout the country and even a university are named: Gabriela Mistral, mythologized as the Mother of her Country.

Neruda’s fame in the North is understandable: His lyrical poetry is filled with graceful expression, usually delivered in a soothing tone, easily set to music (and it has been, repeatedly, by, for example Samuel Barber, Peter Lieberson, Mikis Theodorakis, Ezequiel Viñao, and even more recently by heavy metal groups and rappers). There are no hard symbols or obscure references. His usual topic, erotic heterosexual love, is the central literary interest of the bourgeoisie of developed countries. And perhaps most crucially he was a Communist, an ambassador under Allende, who died under the regime that crushed the hopes of all intellectuals in Chile. The lost cause is the most romantic of all causes for intellectuals.

Mistral (woodcut) by Carlos Hermosilla. (Woodcut on paper. Date? ESCALA, Essex Collection of Art from Latin America, Colchester, U.K.)

Mistral by Carlos Hermosilla. (Woodcut on paper. Date unknown ESCALA, Essex Collection of Art from Latin America, Colchester, U.K. on loan from Ruby Reid Thompson.)

Mistral’s work has none of those advantages. None of it fits neatly within conventional Latin American traditions. From early on she often portrayed a troubled narrator, melancholic and inconsolable. Her early (pseudonymous) published works in rural Chilean newspapers gave voice to such unhappiness that newspapers subscribers wrote letters filled with concern with her state of mind. In early journalistic essays she denigrated marriage (los repugnantes matrimonios modernos, “repugnant modern marriages”) and doubted the concept of long-term mutual love (to her it was simply la venta indigna de su honra, “the indignant sale of her honor”). She did not shun depicting desire, but the object of that desire is frequently abstract or metaphorical. She never wrote conventional paeans to love. In the rare case she dealt with love in her poetry, it was often thwarted or necessarily hidden or complicated by obscure circumstances. Mistral explored damaged psyches and extreme emotions. One of her last sets of poetry was entitled Locas mujeres (“Mad Women”), which featured women encountering catastrophic loss. Moreover, she disregarded conventional prosody (even in conventional forms like sonnets) and dispensed discordant images. And especially in her early poetry she hinted at actions, often violent, not described and seemed to only half describe a world known only to her. She was not, in short, a poet for the middlebrow.

Mistral at the Nobel ceremonies on December 10, 1945. (Photographer unknown.)

Mistral at the Nobel ceremonies on December 10, 1945. (Photographer unknown.)

Notwithstanding what seems her intentional solipsism (or at least her frequent targeting of only like-minded melancholic “hearts” as she called them), Mistral longed for popular acceptance in Chile and even molded her public persona to court it. She lamented in her diary of her lack of appreciation. She even regretted that Neruda seemed to have eclipsed her. This must have been especially difficult since she early encouraged him (before he was even a teen) and later championed him.

It is true Mistral was not much celebrated in Chile during her lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t until 1951, six years after she won the Nobel Prize that she received the Premio Nacional de Literatura, Chile’s official literary prize which accompanies a monetary award and a life-time monthly stipend. (It was Pablo Neruda who won the National Prize in 1945, the year Mistral received the Nobel Prize.)

And yet despite this (and some other things that we will see momentarily) Gabriela Mistral’s death began a process of national beatification that was quite remarkable. And this process began with abrupt energy as soon as Mistral died in Hempstead, Long island, where she had lived for several years. Despite the fact that Mistral had made only two short visits to Chile in the last three and a half decades of her life, the Chilean Foreign Ministry arranged to transport her body (after her funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan), from New York to Lima. From there the Chilean Air Force brought her body to Santiago, where it met with a full military honor guard. Professor Elizabeth Horan continues:

President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo with First Lady Rosa Quiroz de Ávila Graciela Letelier Velasco (to his left) view the body of Gabriela Mistral (photo: El Mercurio.)

President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo with First Lady Rosa Quiroz de Ávila
Graciela Letelier Velasco (to his left) view the body of Gabriela Mistral (photo: El Mercurio.)

The Ministry of Education (Mistral’s employer for the first half of her life) presided over the wake, which celebrated Mistral as a beloved maestro. For the three days of official mourning the corpse lay in state at the University of Chile. The pallbearers, chosen from the Consejo Universitario, were led by the University Rector. Documentation of the mourning constituted a “Who’s Who” of national citizenship: newspaper photo spreads record the presence of then-President Carlos Ibañez with his wife, prominent churchmen, bureaucrats and university officials alongside the coffin. Recorded with equal care, although on separate pages, are long lines of thousands of Chilean citizens, including children (some barefoot, others in their school uniforms) who lined up for hours, in the scorching January sun, to file past the one casket, which lay in the University’s Salon de Honor. With numerous close-ups of the open casket from sundry angles, an inventory of its effects, lengthy excerpts from the speeches of dignitaries, press coverage embraced the hagiographic discourse that has subsequently dominated Gabriela Mistral’s reputation.” (Horan, 1997, p. 22.)

Mistral StampWithin months a museum was opened in her hometown of Vicuña, a rural town about 240 miles north of Santiago. It was not much of an affair—it was a reconstruction of the one-room school she first taught at near her (now demolished) house. It wouldn’t be until 1971 before an architect was retained to put together a museum for displaying items associated with Mistral. And it wouldn’t be until 2010 before the collection of Doris Dana, Mistral’s last secretary and (presumed) long time lover, was donated to the museum by her executor. But the museum was only a start. The government began a long project of making Mistral into a national figure, and specifically to fashion her image into the modern political equivalent of the Virgin Mother. Her work as a teacher and education writer was emphasized. And it was portrayed as though it were a divine mission. The two stamp issues that carried her image have her close eyed as though meditating or receiving an epiphany.

Mistral with Duhamel and Manuel Unamuno. (Date and photographer unknown.)

Mistral with Duhamel and Manuel Unamuno. (Date and photographer unknown.)

The greatest boost to her renown in Chile came (after she was long dead) from Pinochet, who pushed her as the anti-Neruda. She was promoted as a poet of tradition, of patriotism, of matronly submission, as (in the words of novelist Diamela Eltit): “una especie de útero que ha partido hijos para la patria” (a sort of uterus that has birthed children for the fatherland).

Mistral’s image today is a testament to the effectiveness of the effortless (and often trivial) lies of the Pinochet regime. Almost nothing about the “official” version of Mistral’s life resembles her. She was not a fascist or a traditionalist in any way. Mistral (whose real name was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga) grew up in poverty and was able to claw out a bourgeois life only because she followed the profession of her older sister (and the father that abandoned her early on)—she became a school teacher. And although she put much effort into teaching, and school administration and thinking about how education should be accomplished, it is unlikely that she would have chosen the profession had she not needed to support herself and her mother. When she was young, she aspired to be an avant-garde writer, a modernists, heavily influenced by the French Symbolists as transferred to Latin culture by Rubén Darío.

Juan Miguel Godoy Mendonza (

Juan Miguel Godoy Mendonza (“Yin-Yin”). Photograph ca. 1926-30. Collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

Mistral was not much of a patriotic uterus either. She never bore any children; she never even married. She did adopt a boy named Juan Miguel Godoy, a nephew on her father’s side, whom she called Yin-Yin. She took him to Europe with her, but with the outbreak of war, she travelled with him to Petrópolis, Brazil to live. There Stefan Zweig and his wife also lived in exile, but in 1942, overcome by despair for Europe, they jointly committed suicide with barbiturate overdose. The next year Yin-Yin committed suicide at 17 by swallowing arsenic, an event Mistral took responsibility for, telling her diary, “I killed my son.”

Mistral was in all probability lesbian, despite her denial (even in her secret diary) and despite the efforts that she made to conform to the typically Latin patriarchal view of her poetry as odes to romantic heterosexual love. The evidence for her sexual orientation is indirect, possibly inappropriately culture-bound (her appearance, her dowdy clothes, her chain-smoking), and precarious inferences, supposedly autobiographical, taken from her literary work. As for deriving biography from literary works, suffice it to say that it was the same procedure (perhaps less self-consciously) that led to the conclusion that the Death Sonnets (below) were her threnody on her dead male lover.

Mathieu and Miss Gabriela Mistral. (Print from Glass Negative in possession of Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The description is from notes on the negative sleeve. The date of the photographs is noted as May 14, {19}24.)

Mathieu and Miss Gabriela Mistral. (Print from Glass Negative in possession of Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The description is from notes on the negative sleeve. The date of the photographs is noted as May 14, {19}24.)

Finally Mistral was hardly an ardent patriot. She complained in her diary over the lack of respect she received from Chileans. She was resentful, or at least hurt, over the adulation showered on Neruda (whom she encountered as a teacher when he was a student and whose writing she encouraged) and not her. Although her rise as an educational administrator in Chile was quite rapid, it was also complicated by the need for mentors and the contingencies of politics. So in 1922, she accepted the offer by the new revolutionary government of Mexico to assist in the reform of public education. Even though the Obregón government made strides in effecting civil rights for women, Mistral must have bristled at the vision the nation had for education of girls, which, revolution or not, still conceived women as domestic workers rather than equal citizens.

After two years in Mexico Mistral travelled the United States and Europe, before returning to Chile briefly in 1925. By mid-year she had accepted a position in France in connection with the League of Nations. And the rest of her life was spent almost exclusively in Europe, with occasional teaching positions in the United States. She lived her last years on Long Island, where she died.

*     *     *

The “Death Sonnets” come not from the end of her life, but from the beginning. It was the first work of any note published by Mistral. In fact, it won the 1914 Juegos Florales, a national literary competition modeled on similar competitions in Spain, which trace their origin to rewards given to medieval Occitan troubadours in Catalonia. Mistral, 25 at the time,  was so shy that she had the work read by a man. One of the three judges, as the story goes, was incensed after the vote in finding out the poem was written by a woman. Either the story is fictitious or the judge was not paying attention because there is at least one clue that the narrator’s love is a man. In any event, it did not take long for another myth to develop around the poems; namely, that it was a paean to a lover who had committed suicide. Romelio Ureta, a railway worker who killed himself in 1909, was long claimed (and usually still is) to be the object of the poem. But that is almost certainly a falsehood. Mistral denied it and her diaries make no mention of him. Her close friends, later asked about it, said that Mistral never mentioned him. Mistral, however, never contradicted the association, possibly because the truth would have scandalized the country. The received story became part of Mistral’s popular public persona, so it was not expedient to correct it. But likely she never made much effort to correct the record because she never interpreted any of her poetry. In fact, the poems themselves are frequently obtuse, and often it seems Mistral attempts to mislead the reader. The poems below on the surface appear unequivocal, but they are capable of several interpretations and their details are ultimately unknowable. Before looking at the details, here are the poems:

Los Sonetos de la Muerte

by Gabriela Mistral

From Desolación (New York: Instituto de las Españas del los Estados Unidos, 1922)


Del nicho helado en que los hombres te pusieron,
te bajaré a la tierra humilde y soleada.
Que he de dormirme en ella los hombres no supieron,
y que hemos de soñar sobre la misma almohada.

Te acostaré en la tierra soleada, con una
dulcedumbre de madre para el hijo dormido,
y la tierra ha de hacerse suavidades de cuna
al recibir tu cuerpo de niño dolorido.

Luego iré espolvoreando tierra y polvo de rosas,
y en la azulada y leve polvareda de luna,
los despojos livianos irán quedando presos.

Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas
¡porque a ese hondor recóndito la mano de ninguna
bajará a disputarme tu puñado de huesos!


Este largo cansancio se hará mayor un día,
y el alma dirá al cuerpo que no quiere seguir
arrastrando su masa por la rosada vía,
por donde van los hombres, contentos de vivir.

Sentirás que a tu lado cavan briosamente,
que otra dormida llega a la quieta cuidad.
Esperaré que me hayan cubierto totalmente . . .
¡y después hablaremos por una eternidad!

Sólo entonces sabrás el porqué, no madura
para las hondas huesas tu carne todavía,
tuviste que bajar, sin fatiga, a dormir.

Se hará luz en la zona de los sinos, oscura;
sabrás que en nuestra alianza signo de astros había
y, roto el pacto enorme, tenías que morir . . .


Malos manos tomaron tu vida, desde el día
en que, a una señal de astros, dejara su plantel
nevado de azucenas. En gozo florecía.
Malas manos entraron trágicamente en él . . .

Y yo dije al Señor: “Por las sendas mortales
le llevan. ¡Sombra amada que no saben guiar!
Arráncalo, Señor, a esas manos fatales
o le hundes en el largo sueño que sabes dar!

¡No le puedo gritar, no le puedo seguir!
Su barca empuja un negro viento de tempestad.
Retórnalo a mis brazos o le siegas en flor.”

Se detuvo la barca rosa de su vivir . . .
¿Que no sé del amor, que no tuve piedad?
¡Tú, que vas a juzgarme, lo comprendes, Señor!

Death Sonnets

by Gabriela Mistral

(translated by DK Fennell)


From out of the frozen vault where men had placed you,
I will lower you into the earth, both humble and sun-blest.
Those men did not know that I needed to sleep in it too,
and that we must always dream upon the same headrest.

I will put you to bed in the sun-blest ground, with the sweetness
and care that a mother betrays towards her child who is sleeping,
and the earth will spread itself into a cradle of softness
to receive the corpse of your youth in pain and weeping.

Then I’ll go scattering earth and roses’ dust,
And in the flimsy flecks of bluish moonlight,
Your slight remains will never flee its cell.

I’ll leave singing of beautiful vengeance so just
for no hand will reach so low to claim my right
in that hidden depth to your earthy shell!


This growing tiredness will culminate some day,
and the soul will tell the body of its craving to desist
from dragging its heavy weight though that rosy way,
where men continue going, simply to exist.

You will feel at your side men digging urgently,
and another slumberer arrive at your noiseless door.
I will wait until I am covered totally . . .
And afterward we shall talk forevermore!

Only then will you know the reason, though immature
your flesh yet remains for such abysmal shrine,
you had to go down to sleep, with open eye.

Where fates are fixed there will be light, obscure;
you will learn that our connection bore an astral sign
and, with the vast pack broken, you had to die.


Wicked hands took your life that day
when, at a signal from the stars, I went from
his snowy bed of lilies, joyous in display.
Wicked hands, and tragedy with them, had come . . .

And I said to the Lord, “Over deathly hopeless pathway
he is led. Beloved shadow without guide!
Snatch him, O Lord, away from these hands that slay
or bury him in the slumber you provide!

I cannot shout to him, much less attend!
A stormy wind impels his bark in blindness.
Return him to my arms or harvest him florescent.”

His rosy bark of life is at its end . . .
Did I not know love? Or even kindness?
Know this Lord when you pronounce my judgment!

The first thing to note is that these poems violate the unwritten rules about sonnets. Sonnets, especially in traditional Spanish poetry, are a very conservative form. They require certain rhyme schemes, a particular meter and of course 14 lines. But they are supposed to be stand-alone poems, as they had been since Petrarch and Shakespeare. These three poems obviously interconnect. Each contain allusions that require references to one or both of the other poems for explanation. Moreover, although Spanish poets writing sonnets did not confine themselves (as did Petrarch and Shakespeare) to love apostrophes, the sonnet was never used for the kind of threnody that it is here—a trilogy of reactions to a loved one’s death: first, a planned memorial; second, an imagined reconciliation after death; and, third, a lamentation over the loss. The poems turn the sonnet inside out. In the guise of a love poem, each is a separate reaction to the loss of love.

Mistral does not only undermine  Spanish sonnets usually have the following rhyme scheme: abba abba cdc dcd. Lines are usually made up of ten syllables. By contrast, the rhyme scheme here is: abab cdcd efg efg. The lines scan irregularly, from thirteen to fifteen syllables. E.g.:

Del/ ni/cho he/la/do en/ que/ los/ hom/bres/ te/ pu/sie/ron,/
= 13 [Line 1 of first sonnet]

y/ que he/mos/ de/ so/ñar/ so/bre/ la/ mis/ma al/mo/ha/da./
= 14 [line 4 of first sonnet]

Lue/go i/ré es/pol/vo/re/an/do/ tie/rra y/ pol/vo/ de/ ro/sas,/
= 15 [Line 9 of first sonnet].

To show there is no overall structure to the scansion, here is the list:

13 syllables: I:1, 2, 14; II:5,6,9,11; III:5, 6, 7, 9, 13
14 syllables: I: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13; II: 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14; III: 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14
15 syllables: I: 9, 13

But the subversion of the traditional sonnet is mainly accomplished by use of extravagant diction and quirky grammar.

The traditional sonnet usually is the development of one conceit or image. Whatever elaboration is made of the central concept is usually quite straight-forward given the limited space and the limits imposed by the rhyme scheme.  Mistral’s early work was written at a time when contemporaneous Chilean verse was filled with emotions nearly operatic with language as excessive. Combine that with the literary spell cast by Rubén Darío, who combined the French symbolism avant-garde with a view of Latin American literary independence, and the mix was likely to be much more irregular than the measured and stately rendering of verse from the Siglo de Oro that conservative critics still maintained as the standard.

The unexpected word choices and images begin with “vengeance” in the first sonnet. Why does the narrator sing of vengeance and against whom? In the second sonnet, what astrological “pact” was broken and by whom? Why did this mean that the lover had to die?  In the third sonnet, what is the significance of the flower nursery (plantel) and whose were the “evil hands” and what did they do?

The bigger problem has to do with the pronouns/possessive adjectives in the third sonnet. The first line begins with evil hands taking thy life (2nd person singular familiar). The nursery/flower bed (plantel) has the possessive adjective his/her/its [or “yours” formal]. The person leaving this nursery is either “I” or “he, she, it” [or “you” formal]. In other words, the person whose “life” was taken by the evil hands is neither the possessor of the nursery nor the person who departed from it. The “he” in the sixth line of the third sonnet might also be “it” (perhaps the plantel). The reason that this collection of pronouns without clear referents matters is that there are only two pronouns unambiguously referring to “him” (presumably the lover) in the entire poem, both in the third sonnet: arrancalo and retornalo. (Only in the accusative is there a definitive distinction between male and female personal pronouns.) 

There are two ways to view the poem in light of the ambiguity of these pronouns beginning with the second sonnet. The first, the traditional interpretation (minus the fiction of the lover who committed suicide) holds that there are three “characters” in the poems: the narrator, the lover and the hands, which are simply Death. This has the advantage of this interpretation is that it is congruent with her portray of death as her adversary for her lover in the 1911 short story El Rival. The confusion of the pronous at the beginning of the second sonnet can be explained away as either the result of Symbolism’s personal (and therefore secret) references or to the indecipherable esotericism of Theosophy, which Mistral was heavily engaged in at the time and which suffuses El Rival

A second analysis of the problem is offered by Karen Peña, who starts from the proposition that aside from tow –los in the third sonnet, the gender of the lover is ambiguous. (In later poems Mistral often finesses the issue by means of apostrophe, where tu has no gender.) If we start from the proposition that the (deceased) object of desire is same sex, then the obscurity of the pronouns can be seen as intentional. There is additional evidence for this view in the use of floral images in association with the lover.

That Mistral was attempting to intentionally obscure her meaning might be supported by another observation. Nelson Rojas notes how the verbs used by the narrator carry the narrative obliquely. In the first sonnet the narrator tells what she will do, but the burden of the narrative is what was done to the lover in the past by uncaring, unnamed others (“the men”). In the second sonnet the narrator tells what will soon happen as a result of the tiredness that envelops her. It will bring about their reunification, where they will dream and the narrator will explain why, as a result of things gone by, the lover had to die. In the third sonnet, the narrator tries to explain what happened when the lover was lost and is reduced to an imprecation that the divine intervene to either restore the lover or provide another reward (to have the lover bloom in some way).

After spending time with the Locas mujeres poems I have come round to Peña’s view, at least tentatively. Another possibility occurs to me, however, Perhaps the confusion and ambiguity of diction is the result of the natural progression of the grieving lover. At first, she gathers her strength to do the necessaries—put her lover in a better resting place. Then she fantasizes about their reuniting in a mythical spiritual future where they will dream and chat together forever. The third sonnet, however, describes the collapse of that fantasy. The narrator realizes the cruelty of fate (the “evil hands”) and calls out to God for remedy. But really there is no remedy, only the hope that all of this will be made right by the universe in some future time.


Licia Fiol-Matta, A Queer Mother for the Nation: The State and Gabriela Mistral (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, ©2002).

Mary Green, Diamela Eltit: Reading the Mother (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Tamesis Books, 2007).

Elizabeth Rosa Horan, “Santa Maestra Muerta Body and Nation in Portraits of Gabriela Mistral,” 25 Taller de Letras 21-43 (1997).

_________, “Alternative Identities of Gabriel(a) Mistral, 1906-1920,” in Susana Chávez-Silverman & Librada Hernández (eds.), Reading and Writing the Ambiente: Queer Sexualities in Latino, Latin American, and Spanish Culture (pp. 147-177) (Madison, Wisc: University of Wisconsin Press, ©2000).

Elizabeth A. Marchant, Critical Acts: Latin American Women and Cultural Criticism (Gainesville, Fla: University Press of Florida, ©1999).

Gabriela Mistral, Desolación: Poemas de Gabriela Mistral (New York: Institto de las Españas en los Estados Unidos, 1922).

Miguel Munizaga Iribarren, “Vida y confesiones de Gabriela Mistral,” Familia (October 2, 1935), pp. 28-29, 75-76.

Karen Peña, “Violence and Difference in Gabriela Mistral’s Short Stories (1904-1911),” Latin American Research Review 68-96 (2005).

_________, “Hecate’s Delightful Revenge or Gabriela Mistral’s ‘Sonetos-lésbicos’: Refashioning Amorous Discourse in Los sonetos de la muerte (1914),” 8 Del. Rev. Latin American Studies No 1 (Aug. 30, 2007) (online).

Larry Rohter, “‘Mother of the Nation,’ Poet and Lesbian?; Gabriela Mistral of Chile Re-Examined,” New York Times, June 4, 2003 (online).

Nelson Rojas, “Eje Temporal y Estrategia Discursiva en ‘Los Sonetos de la Muerte,’” 49 Revista Chilena de Literatura 27-46 (Nov. 1996).

Grínor Rojo, Dirán que está en la gloria (Mistral) (Santiago: Fondo de Cultura Económica: 1997).

What Nature Meant to Van Gogh

1. Studies of a Dead Sparrow. 1889-90. Chalk on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

1. Studies of a Dead Sparrow. 1889-90. Chalk on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The numbered illustrations to this post were each part of the exhibition and can be enlarged by clicking on them.

The surest bet in the museum world (other than, I suppose, animatronics dinosaurs) would be to mount a show of four dozen or so of the major works of Vincent van Gogh. This summer the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts cashed in on such a bet with its “Van Gogh and Nature” exhibition. The two weekdays that I visited the exhibit saw the museum overflowing with visitors, the fields around the museum crammed with cars like a state fair, and the single country road that leads to the museum lined with parked cars for a half mile or so in each direction.

2. The lawns surrounding the sprawling campus of the Clark Institute were unable to accommodate the parking needs of visitors this summer.

The lawns surrounding the sprawling campus of the Clark Institute were unable to accommodate the parking needs of visitors this summer. (Photo: Jonas Dovydenas.)

What was remarkable about the crowds is that Williamstown is far from any major urban center: more than three hours from Boston and New York by car, two from Hartford and an hour from Albany. And the trip is not particularly easy. The last half hour has to be driven on narrow single lane (in each direction) country roads with no passing the tractors or slow delivery trucks that also have to use the roads. (This is at least my conclusion relying on my GPS and google maps. I was unable to find a limited access highway anywhere near Williamstown.) I suppose that vacationers in the Berkshire resorts made up a good number of the visitors, but they could hardly provide the immense crowds that the event attracted. Many families brought (clearly bored) children, and not a few of the adults walked about aimlessly with glazed eyes. So many must have come with a sense of duty. What is it about van Gogh that produces this response?

The Attraction of van Gogh

3. Hospital at Saint-Rémy. 1889. Oil on Canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

2. Hospital at Saint-Rémy. 1889. Oil on Canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Van Gogh’s powerful attraction to the modern mind, not just those interested in art history, is such that even children know of him. On a superficial level many of his well-known oils are easily remembered owing to their idiosyncratic design, their bold colors and their dramatic brush work. But it is van Gogh’s struggle with his circumstances and with his personal demons that most strongly engages us. Van Gogh endured grinding poverty almost all his adult life. He had only one adult relationship and that was with Sien Hoornik, a prostitute who was pregnant when he began living with her.

9. Wheatfield with Reaper, Auvres. 1890. Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art.

3. Wheat Fields with Reaper, Auvers. 1890. Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art.

She proved to be less mentally stable than he was, which brought their relationship to an end, but her threats of suicide proved prophetic (she drowned herself just as she claimed she would die). Van Gogh himself showed symptoms of a variety of mental disorders and spent much time in severe depressions. He was even involuntarily committed to an asylum, which proved to be relatively enlightened (in one of the few breaks fortune dealt him). And when he finally achieved the artistic breakthrough that he alone thought himself capable of, he killed himself, following a logic that was personal to himself alone. Legends surround romantic geniuses that shared only one of those afflictions. Van Gogh carried them all on his back and forged a new art all within ten years of his beginning to study to the very end. If that weren’t enough his new art emphasized yellow fields, open skies and the light of the sun, so the myth of van Gogh follows that of Icarus, but van Gogh populated his own journey with reapers. If van Gogh had not existed, modernity would have had to invent him.

Van Gogh as his Best Interpreter

Marsh with Water Lillies, Etten. Ink on paper. 1881. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.

4. Marsh with Water Lillies, Etten. June 1881. Ink on paper. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.

Van Gogh, however, was something other than merely a tortured artist. He was also an obsessive self-analyst, and he recorded his attempts to understand his inner driving impulses and their obstacles. His letters were revelatory, especially those to his younger brother Theo. Theo was not only Vincent’s confident, but also an art dealer. For many years Theo was an employee of a major art trading house Goupil & Cie with offices in many cities, which both Theo and Vincent worked for at the recommendation of an uncle who had an interest in the firm. It was that uncle who had helped transform Goupil & Cie from a firm that mainly dealt in prints of artworks to one that also sold paintings and drawings. Theo was also, perhaps most importantly, Vincent’s chief (and often only) patron, supplying him with funds to live on, money for oils and canvases and other equipment. Theo’s funds were also a psychological prop for the increasingly unstable Vincent. All told, we would not have the great works of Vincent van Gogh without Theo. From Theo’s point of view, his support of his older bother was probably the most significant thing in his life. He died at 33, six month’s after Vincent’s suicide, from (syphilitic?) dementia, ruled to have been caused, in part, by sadness.Thanks to the Van Gogh Museum, the Huygens Institute and the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, English readers have access to van Gogh’s letters in English translation with scholarly annotations and the sketches he enclosed (and much other material) on the web-hosted Van Gogh Letters Project.* The letters are the are the best companion to any showing of van Gogh’s works.

Works in the Clark Institute Exhibition

5. Montmartre: Windmills and Alotments. 1887. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

5. Montmartre: Windmills and Allotments. 1887. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

The pieces in the Clark exhibition were arranged in nearly strict chronological order and separated into rooms for each of the locations where the works were produced (Holland (1881-1885), Paris (1886–1888), Arles (1888–1889), Saint-Rémy (1889–May 1890), Auvers (May–July 1890)). Selection was guided by a notion of how the work revealed or was influenced by van Gogh’s sense of Nature. The notion of Nature in the show (and to a lesser extent also in van Gogh’s letters) is expansive. It included not only

6. The Sower. 1888. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.

6. The Sower. June 1888. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

landscapes and several studies of bird life and insects, but also still lifes (although none of the famous sunflower or iris works), pictures of parks, gardens and farm lands, as well as buildings in rural settings. In most of the pieces humans are part of the landscape. In one, van Gogh’s homage to Millet (#6) the figure not only occupies central place, he is in fact the “subject” of the work, although a distant one. The show did not include the night skyscapes, and the selection principles excluded the formal portraits, including the self-portraits, which in retrospect are the major direct pictorial depiction of van Gogh’s inner life.

Nature and Van Gogh’s Early Spiritual Views of Nature

9. Winter Gardens. 1883. Ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

7. Winter Garden. 1883. Ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Van Gogh’s landscape also reveals his inner life, but one that is deeper, older and less articulate; van Gogh’s superego to the portraits’ id. When he first begins to draw, the landscapes appear dreamlike, perhaps allegorical. People, when present, are generally dominated by the natural surroundings, and they usually have almost ritual functions. When they are not simply traveling (as in ##8, 11, 15, 21), they are toiling (e.g., harvesting in #3, gathering wood in #7) and occasionally grieving (as, e.g., in the 1883 drawing Melancholy). Traveling and toiling are what people do, according to van Gogh’s deepest beliefs, for he was raised as a pietistic Dutch Reformed evangelical. His father and grandfather, both ministers, sprang from the so-called Groningen movement, a back-to-fundamentals version of experiential fundamentalism which emphasized modeling one’s behavior after the conduct of Christ rather than dogma. It was, according to a contemporary observer,

8. Winter Garden. 1884. Pencil and ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

8. Winter Garden. 1884. Pencil and ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The work is not part of the Clark show.

“a living, progressive movement, striving for a new development, which is to rest on a Christian basis, mingling the interests of church and science, treating the doctrines, which lie at the foundation of the Christian life, with spirit and learning; while, by means of evangelical freedom which it has strenuously defended, it seeks to clothe these doctrines in new, higher and more vital forms.”†

Chief among the doctrines of this school “was that God had revealed himself in all of creation and supremely in Jesus Christ so that humankind may be conformed to his image.”‡ Our natural surroundings were an important clue to the creator and our purpose.

It would be difficult enough to judge one’s life against the model of Jesus of the Gospels, but the van Goghs were something of an island. The Groningen movement was a faction within the Dutch Reformed Church (one that rejected much of the dogma of the church), and the Dutch Reformed Church itself was a minority among the Catholics of the Brabant province of southern Netherlands where the van Goghs lived. And as evangelists, they were expected to spread the faith. All of this could be calculated to impose a burdensome responsibility on a sensitive youth, and Vincent was uncommonly sensitive.

9. The Parsonage Garden in the Snow. 1884-85. Oil on canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

9. The Parsonage Garden in the Snow. 1884-85. Oil on canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Whatever combination of disorders, syndromes, awkwardness and social maladjustments van Gogh experienced as a child (his sister-in-law later described him as “of a difficult temper, often troublesome and self-willed”),  his mind proved a fertile plot for the seeds of this theology which would later flower in grotesquely exaggerated conduct. Pietism and asceticism seemed to grow rapidly when he was away from home. In England in his early twenties he discovered Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which became a central metaphor for him, and he warmly recommended it to his brother (to Theo, November 25, 1876). In his first stay in London he also discovered George Henry Boughton, whose Pilgrims Going to Church, which he admired and led him to the pilgrim poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Courtship of Miles Standish and Evangeline, which he considered “beautiful” (to Theo, July 20, 1773; to Willem and Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek, sometime around October 16-31. 1873). His identification with English sectarian dissenters became his defense against worldly commerce: When he was later installed as a clerk in a bookstore in Dordrecht, he dressed in Quaker garb and affected asceticism. That position lasted only a few months, and from thence he was able to launch his desired career as a pastor-missionary. This embarrassing, failed and ultimately degrading detour in van Gogh’s career, famous enough that it need not be picked over again, is noteworthy here, mainly for the first sermon he gave on October 29, 1876, in which he expands on his pilgrimage metaphor, relates it to a painting and reveals other aspects of his personality, such as alienation, grim determination, a mystical view of life, and other features that help explain his art. Even those casually interested in van Gogh ought to read it. It goes a long way to explain why the people in his landscapes are traveling or toiling. Vincent thought so highly of the sentiments that he sent it to his brother (to Theo, November 3, 1876).

Going to Church for the Last Time (The Funeral in the Cornfield) by Jacob Jan van der Maaten. 1862. Lithograph. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Going to Church for the Last Time (The Funeral in the Cornfield) by Jacob Jan van der Maaten. 1862. Lithograph. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

“Heard the Rev. Laurillard on Sunday morning in the early sermon on ‘Jesus went through the cornfields’. He made a deep impression on me–he also spoke in that sermon about the parable of the sower and about the man who cast seed into the ground, and he should sleep, and rise day and night, and the seed should spring and increase and grow up, he knoweth not how, he also spoke about the funeral in the cornfield by Van der Maaten. The sun shone through the windows—there weren’t that many people in the church, mostly labourers and women” (to Theo, June 12, 1877).

Van Gogh’s Christianity was not simply contemplative; it drove van Gogh to minister to miners in the Borinage in Belgium because of the social conscience it instilled in him.  His sense of empathy drove him to live in abject poverty, an eccentricity which led them to reject him as their minister. Despite the snub, van Gogh never lost his empathy for the poor.

10. Giant Peacock Moth. 1889. Chalk and ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

10. Giant Peacock Moth. 1889. Chalk and ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

But van Gogh would eventually abandon his primitive religious obsessions (or rather the gate-keepers to his desired profession barred him and he stopped following it). Less than a decade after he was dismissed as a missionary in the Borinage, he endorses the sentiment that his friend Émile Bernard wrote in a sonnet, but van Gogh restates it so firmly that he comes across nearly as clear-thinking as a Camus or, maybe, as wise as a Sophocles:

“Now for idea and sentiment it’s perhaps the last one that I prefer: ‘For hope has poured its neurosis into my breast,’ but it seems to me that what you want to evoke isn’t stated clearly enough: the certainty that we seem to have and which anyway we can prove, of nothingness, of emptiness, of the treachery of desirable, good or beautiful things, and despite this knowledge we forever allow ourselves to be deceived by the spell that external life, things outside ourselves, cast over our 6 senses, as though we knew nothing, and especially not the difference between objective and subjective. And fortunately for us, in that way we remain ignorant and hopeful” (to Émile Bernard, April 19, 1888).

11. Pine Trees at Sunset. 1889. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

11. Pine Trees at Sunset. December 1889. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Van Gogh, however, was never able to uproot entirely his religious instincts and whatever fears, longings and half-understood meanings they held for him welled up, more extreme, a year later, in the midst of the mental crisis that lead to his hospitalization. He confided to his brother:

“I’m astonished that with the modern ideas I have, I being such an ardent admirer of Zola, of De Goncourt and of artistic things which I feel so much, I have crises like a superstitious person would have, and that mixed-up, atrocious religious ideas come to me such as I never had in my head in the north” (to Theo, September 20, 1889).

For van Gogh, life would remain a struggle, a pilgrimage, not, however, “to the very end,” as the Angel of God said in his sermon, but until he could no longer force himself to go on.

Landscape vs. the Human Form

Detail of Man Digging and a Landscape with Cypresses. February-March 1890. Pencil on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Not included in Clark show.

Detail of Man Digging and a Landscape with Cypresses. February-March 1890. Pencil on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Not included in Clark show.

Van Gogh’s subconscious, primitive metaphysics might explain what the human figures are doing in his natural landscape works, but they don’t explain how they look. After one walk-through of this chronological arrangement, one conclusion was inescapable to me:  Painting did not come easily to van Gogh; his career as an artist was propelled by intense drive and incremental improvement rather than natural talent and easy inspiration. Van Gogh essentially proclaimed as much to his brother at an early crisis:

“It’s precisely because I have a draughtsman’s fist that I can’t keep myself from drawing and, I ask you, have I ever doubted or hesitated or wavered since the day I began to draw? I think you know very well that I’ve hacked my way through and am obviously ever more keen to do battle” (to Theo, April 23, 1882).

12. Men Digging. 1882. Pencil on paper. Enclosed in letter to Theo van Gogh, ca. April 23, 1882.

Men Digging. April-May 1882. Pencil on paper. Enclosed in letter to Theo van Gogh, ca. April 23, 1882. Not included in Clark show.

Beginning fairly late in life (at 28) and without ever receiving much formal training, van Gogh throughout his short career struggled, especially, with the human figure. Not only are body parts out of proportion with each other, figures are often out of proportion with their surroundings (e.g., #5). His letters to Theo frequently enclose sketches of landscapes and buildings (where proper proportions are observed) (e.g., to Theo, May 31, 1876; to Theo, November 25, 1876; to Theo, ca. November 13, 1878). By contrast the sketches of people he sends to Theo look awkward, mechanical and stilted (e.g., to Theo, August 20, 1880; to Theo, January 1881; to Theo, September 1881; to Theo, April 6, 1882). Van Gogh’s draftsmanship, particularly of immoveable, large objects, improved once van Gogh obtained a perspective frame (thanks to a sum from his brother beyond the monthly stipend that supported the artist) (to Theo, August 5 and August 6, 1882). But this and other drafting equipment could not help with the drawing of the human figure, which requires detailed anatomy study, careful observation and above all models, an almost impossible expense for van Gogh, at least if van Gogh confined himself to respectable, bourgeois models as his instructors wanted.

Sorrow. 1882. Pencil and ink on paper. The New Art Gallery Walsall, England. The caption is a quotation from Michelet, translated as:

Sorrow. April 1882. Pencil and ink on paper. The New Art Gallery Walsall, England. The caption is a quotation from Michelet, translated as: “How can there be on earth a woman alone, deserted?” Not included in Clark show.

Van Gogh thought he hit on a solution to this by hiring models from the proletariat and living among them. This also finessed the problem that van Gogh’s antisocial behavior, ragged dress and crude impulsiveness made working with “proper” models impossible. It was by this way of employing models that van Gogh hired the prostitute Sien Hoornik, and through a combination of pity, loneliness and his own peculiar sentimentalism, he took her and her daughter in and later also supported her baby when she delivered. The scandal that ensued caused a break with his father and the termination of the lessons given to him by his idol (and second cousin), Anton Mauve. The story is told between the lines of his letter to Theo ca. May 7, 1882. (Van Gogh’s sister Lies has a different, and less plausible, explanation.**) The violation of bourgeois decorum was probably as much at the heart of the matter as the sin. (“You have a vicious character!” Mauve told van Gogh.) The breach deeply affected Vincent. But rather than discourage him (even though Hague Goupil dealer Tersteeg used the occasion to remind van Gogh that he had failed at everything he tried—school, commerce, the clergy—in his three decades of life), van Gogh promised his brother that he would persevere and even used his sketch of Men Digging (above right) as evidence that he was improving.

Roots or Study of a Tree. 1882. Pencil, chalk, ink, watercolor. Kröller-Müller Museum.

Roots or Study of a Tree. April 1882. Pencil, chalk, ink, watercolor. Kröller-Müller Museum. Not included in Clark show.

The fact of the matter, however, was that van Gogh was never going to attain the kind of romantic verisimilitude that Mauve perfected, such as in his Shepherdess with a Flock of Sheep, at the Rijksmuseum. Van Gogh was not attempting to portray something that could be seen, he was attempting to show what the thing meant. He described the approach to his brother in connection with two drawings: One of Sien, sitting in despair, titled Sorrow; the other a study of aerial roots in sandy soil, called Roots or Study of a Tree.

People Waiting for Ration Tickets in Paris by Edwin Buckman. From The Graphic, November 19, 1870. Van Gogh referred to the print as ≤i>In front of the shelter and seems to have gotten a reprint in an 1882 magazine (see to Theo,<a href=

People Waiting for Ration Tickets in Paris by Edwin Buckman. From The Graphic, November 19, 1870. Van Gogh referred to the print as In front of the shelter and seems to have gotten a reprint in an 1882 magazine (see to Theo, ca. October 24-27, 1882). Not included in Clark show.

Sorrow represents both a culmination and a path-not-taken for van Gogh. By far his most successful drawing, it was masterfully composed and executed. As for the subject matter, the work exudes the pathos that guided van Gogh’s life, revealed not only in his ministration to the coal miners in the Borinage (undertaken with abject humility) but also in his collection of prints, which included Buckman’s People Waiting for Ration Tickets in Paris (see to Theo, ca. October 24-27, 1882), Fildes’s Homeless and Hungry (see to Theo, January 9, 1882), Doré’s Exercise Yard at Newgate Goal (see to Theo, February 12, 1890), among others. Van Gogh’s own drawings, however, were so outside the English-French tradition (it was more German than anything else) that he could hardly have been encouraged to continue (and perhaps even learn engraving or etching). If he did, however, he might have pioneered the kind of socially-informed expressionism that Käthe Kollwitz turned into a powerful weapon. But Kollwitz grew up inside a radical tradition, whereas van Gogh’s compassion arose from his bourgeois liberal Christian roots and withered when he hacked off the limbs of that faith.

What van Gogh was attempting was neither a social revolution, nor the aesthetic one he in fact helped usher in. He explained to his brother that he was trying to portray the emotion or metaphysic he saw beneath the surface:

“I’ve tried to imbue the landscape with the same sentiment as the figure.

“Frantically and fervently rooting itself, as it were, in the earth, and yet being half torn up by the storm. I wanted to express something of life’s struggle, both in that white, slender female figure and in those gnarled black roots with their knots. Or rather, because I tried without any philosophizing to be true to nature, which I had before me, something of that great struggle has come into both of them almost inadvertently. At least it seemed to me that there was some sentiment in it, though I may be mistaken, anyway, you’ll have to see for yourself” (to Theo, May 1, 1882).

12. Birds' Nests, Late September-early October 1885. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

12. Birds’ Nests. Late September-early October 1885. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

It was at this time that Sien was expected to deliver, and van Gogh, though not fooling himself concerning her temperament, decided that he would marry her. He promises his brother what he will confine himself to if granted a small stipend:

“You know what I’m seeking, the barest essentials, but anything more rather leaves me cold. What I’d like to have is a weekly wage like any other labourer, for which I’d work with all my might and powers of reason. And being a labourer, I belong to the working class and shall live and put down roots in that sphere more and more. I can’t do anything else and I have no desire to do anything else, I can’t imagine anything else” (to Theo, May 10, 1882).

13. Vase with Honesty. 884-85. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

13. Vase with Honesty. 1884-85. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Somehow in the midst of this turmoil van Gogh began serious work. He took up painting for the first time, was pleased with the results and began to think in terms of color. “I feel that things with colour are becoming apparent in my painting that I didn’t use to have, things to do with breadth and strengths” (to Theo, August 14, 1882). Working with oils van Gogh began to see “colour effects which I only rarely see depicted in Dutch paintings” (to Theo, September 3, 1882). Van Gogh became obsessed with achieving exact colors:

“Yesterday evening I was occupied with an area of woodland with a slight upward slope covered in rotting and dead beech leaves. The ground was lighter and darker red-brown, all the more so because of the cast shadows of trees that threw bands across, weaker or stronger, half blotted out. The problem, and I found it to be most difficult, was to get the depth of colour — the enormous strength and fixity of that area—and yet it was only while painting that I noticed how much light there still was in that darkness. To keep it light and yet keep the glow, the depth of that rich colour, for there’s no carpet imaginable as splendid as that deep brown-red in the glow of an autumnal evening sun, although tempered by the wood” (to Theo, September 3, 1882).

Van Gogh would spend three more years in the Dutch provinces.†† During that time van Gogh thought deeply about both color and composition. His letters to Theo are filled with descriptions of his ventures into heaths and deciduous forests with the kind of detail that one expects from academic art critics. Oils presented a challenge to van Gogh, and he responded with meticulous attention to the appearance and physical characteristics of the paint. He even experimented with modeling oils squeezed directly onto the canvas (see Letter to Theo, September 3, 1882. His 1885 study Bird’s Nests (#12, above), also shows evidence of experiments in “molded” oils, direct from the tube.

14. The Swamp. 1881. Ink and pencil on paper. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.

14. The Swamp. 1881. Ink and pencil on paper. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.

Van Gogh seemed to have done most of his experimental self-teaching with landscape. The Clark show had two drawings of marshlands from his time in Etten in Brabant (##4 & 14). Both have natural water life in the foreground with signs of village life only on the far horizons. Both show that van Gogh took meticulous care to render the plant and bird life true to nature. Two drawings at the exhibition from van Gogh’s return from Antwerp, painted in Drenthe (although at the other end of the Netherlands, the area was considered by van Gogh to resemble the Brabant countryside) (##7 & 8). These two later drawings depict gardens in town, rather than wild lands far away. People work and move among the natural objects. But what is more striking is that the tree branches, stripped bare in winter time, seem formed to express a mood, perhaps the gloominess when natural life is reduced to its barren minimum.

Le départ du conscrit (

Le départ du conscrit (“The Conscript’s Departure”) by Charles Camille Auguste De Groux. ca. 1869 or 1870. Oil on canvas. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Not included in Clark show.

Van Gogh’s initial breakthroughs in color experiments, begun just before he left The Hague, also are part of this movement towards something like proto-expressionism in van Gogh’s view. The description to Theo in his September 3, 1882 letter (quoted above) of leaf mold and composted forest litter evoked in van Gogh a mood, one which he tells his brother is the same as that evoked by the Belgian artist Charles De Groux in his painting The Conscript’s Departure. Clearly van Gogh was saying that nature expressed anthropomorphic feelings in an artist’s hands. Van Gogh could feel, and wanted to express, the heart-break and tenderness in Nature.

14. Poplars near Nuenen, 1885. Oil on canvas. Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam.

15. Poplars near Nuenen, 1885. Oil on canvas. Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam.

And yet while landscapes were taking up most of his thinking about technique and expression, van Gogh still believed “the figure must remain the chief concern” (to Theo, July 28, 1882). He struggled on at The Hague with figure drawing, even though he believed application to landscapes might produce saleable works (to Theo, February 13, 1882).

When he returned to the Brabant to live with his parents in 1883 he began studies of local peasants and craftsmen. He managed to alienate these objects of his pity, just as he did the miners in the Borinage, but before he did he was able to create a figure composition which he believed expressed his understanding of their lot. Before painting the picture he sent a lithograph of The Potato Eaters to his brother as well as to fellow artist and friend Anthony van Rappard. Van Rappard’s evaluation was scathing (from van Rappard, May 24, 1885): “I myself was shocked by it,” wrote van Rappard, offering that “such work isn’t intended seriously.” He criticized van Gogh’s lack of conception of how figures move. He attacked the poses: the “coquettish little hand of that woman at the back” and the lack of connection between “the coffeepot, the table and the hand lying on top of the handle.” Most brutally he asks if the man on the right is missing “a knee or a belly or lungs? Or are they in his back? And why must his arm be a metre too short? And why must he lack half of his nose?” His conclusion cut deeply into van Gogh’s pretension as an artist: “Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so cavalierly,” he lectured van Gogh.

The Potato Eaters. April 1885. Lithograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

The Potato Eaters. April 1885. Lithograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Van Gogh responded defensively, claiming that modern art was more than technique (to Anton van Rappard, July 13, 1885), but the exchange damaged their friendship. Still van Gogh must have realized the justice of the remarks, inasmuch as he painted the final work in oil in a way to meet each of the criticisms. And he attempted no major painting on figures again, until a month before his death (and that was almost a portrait, its situation outside merely provided background). Figures would remain supporting characters in his landscapes. It was as though he had more understanding of natural landscapes than people in action. It seemed he needed to see people acting naturally through other artists’ eyes, and the works focusing on figures in action are more homages to other artists than original compositions (e.g., #6, after Millet; Raising of Lazarus, after Rembrandt; and Pietà, after Delacroix; even Young Girl in White was an homage to Puvis de Chavannes). Whatever its representation defects, The Potato Eaters also seems to me to fail in its purpose. It neither evokes empathy for the peasants nor shows their nobility.  Both of these qualities were far better evoked in the landscape of a peasant’s house which he painted two years before (#16).

15. Landscape with a Stack of Peat and Farmhouses. 1883. Watercolor on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

16. Landscape with a Stack of Peat and Farmhouses. 1883. Watercolor on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

17. Sheaves of Wheat. July-August 1885. Oil on Canvas. Króller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.

17. Sheaves of Wheat. July-August 1885. Oil on Canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.

What makes this watercolor so evocative is the subtle coloring of the sky and river which are made up of several shades of yellow, reddish-brown and blue, something that the illustration above does not capture adequately. Van Gogh’s ability to combine and mix watercolors in the way he was doing with oil is another example of his meticulous self-education through experiment, something he was able to do with color, but unable to do with the human form. It was for this reason he spent three months in Antwerp for instruction, before moving to Paris.

Until then Van Gogh responded to van Rappard’s criticisms by returning to landscapes exclusively. Sheaves of Wheat (#17), painted in the summer of 1885 when he returned to Brabant, completely lacks any figures. In fact the stacked sheaves seem to be a stand in for a figure in the work. The painting itself uses much brighter colors than he used in Drenthe. The lightening of his palette would continue in Paris and reach spectacular results when he left Paris for the south of France.

Color, Paris and the Impressionists

16. Tulip Fields at Sassenheim by Claude Monet. 1886. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

18. Tulip Fields at Sassenheim by Claude Monet. 1886. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Van Gogh arrived in Paris to live with his brother March 1885. His goal was to continue his studies, the Academy in Antwerp having decided that van Gogh was insufficiently talented to continue. Given that the two years in Paris separates his largely somber-toned works made up of related dark colors from the bright, light-filled paintings of often clashing colors which characterize his work in southern France, a justifiable hypothesis would be that van Gogh changed in response to his first serious encounter with the Impressionists.

18. The Hill of Montmartre with Stone Quarry. 1886. Oil on canvs. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

19. The Hill of Montmartre with Stone Quarry. 1886. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

After all, as late as April 1885, van Gogh admitted he didn’t “know much about” Impressionism (to Theo, April 21, 1885). He had earlier treated them dismissively; he said he liked the “bright fellows” (the Impressionists who sought maximal light) well enough, but “it goes too far,” paraphrasing French critic Paul Mantz that “those who are always dreaming of the maximum of bright colours everywhere will find [even] Mr Harpignies’ greens of a rather blackish intensity” (to Theo, June 28, 1885). Van Gogh would first see a full display of Impressionism some time in May-June 1886, during the Eighth (and last) Impressionist exhibition in Paris. He also viewed the Fifth International Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture at George Petit’s gallery. At the latter show he saw Monet’s striking Tulip Fields (#18) now part of the Clark Institute’s own permanent collection. One would have expected the Monet to have elicited some specific response from van Gogh. For not only is it a breath-taking (and very advanced) use of bright-colored oils which make seas of pastels overtop green fields, but also it was done in Holland. His only written reaction, however, was to English painter Horace Mann Livens (ca. September-October 1886): “In Antwerp I did not even know

19. Trees in a Field on a Sunny Day. Oil on Canvas. 1886. P. & N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam.

20. Trees in a Field on a Sunny Day. Oil on Canvas. 1887. P. & N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam.

what the Impressionists were, now I have seen them and though not being one of the club, yet I have much admired certain Impressionist pictures–DEGAS, nude figure–Claude Monet, landscape.” Van Gogh still had no funds to hire models so he could not show any influences from Degas, at least until he studied with Cormon, and even then his nudes did not show the influence of Degas. Monet was a different story. Van Gogh always appreciated him. Three years later (a year before he died) he  wrote: “Ah, to paint figures like Claude Monet paints landscapes. That’s what remains to be done despite everything, and before, of necessity, one sees only Monet among the Impressionists” (to Theo, May 3, 1899). But van Gogh always remained skeptical of the school as a whole (which he once called “the French Japanese”—to Theo, July 15, 1888), and while he would eventually grant certain credit for influencing positive developments to the school (“Certainly colour is making progress, precisely by the Impressionists, even when they go astray”), yet he withheld credit for the innovation (“But Delacroix was already more complete than they are,” to Theo, May 3, 1889). As van Gogh became more sure of his own approach, he was able to articulate what he found insubstantial in Impressionism. Van Gogh was not looking to reproduce a fleeting visual impression; his goal was to get to the essence of things, their meaning. As he wrote Bernard:

“I sometimes regret that I can’t decide to work more at home and from the imagination. Certainly — imagination is a capacity that must be developed, and only that enables us to create a more exalting and consoling nature than what just a glance at reality (which we perceive changing, passing quickly like lightning) allows us to perceive.

“A starry sky, for example, well—it’s a thing that I’d like to try to do, just as in the daytime I’ll try to paint a green meadow studded with dandelions” (to Émile Bernard, April 12, 1888).

Either because he was not much impressed by them, was slow to understand the implications of their experiments or already was set on pursuing his own course (and the last seems the most likely), van Gogh’s work in Paris showed very little influence of the Impressionists, especially at the beginning.

Van Gogh, Terrace in Luxembourg Gardens

21. Terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens. 1886. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

21. Undergrowth. 1887. Oil on canvas. Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

22. Undergrowth. 1887. Oil on canvas. Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

His landscape of the Luxembourg Gardens (#21), undertaken around the time he viewed the Impressionist shows, is not substantially different from a landscape in Nuenen a year before (#15). The earlier one is darker mainly owing to the time of day depicted. The treatment of the trees in both is nearly identical. The later work shows none of the brushwork techniques of Impressionists (notably the short strokes), nor uses any Impressionist treatment of light or movement. Perhaps the only influence of the Paris avant-garde was in the stylization of the figures, which are rendered long and thin, something like the figures in Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte). For the next year van Gogh would continue painting landscapes the same way (seee.g.Wheat Field with a Lark completed in the summer of 1887), whether of suburbs (##5 and 19) or of parks (##20 & 21). He even continued his interest in the undergrowth around tree trunks (#22).

Vase of Flowers by Adolphe Monticelli. ca. 1875. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Not included in Clark show.

Vase of Flowers by Adolphe Monticelli. ca. 1875. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Not included in Clark show.

Perhaps more surprising than the lack of immediate impact Impressionism had on his landscapes is that it had no influence on his choice of subject matter. Rather than streetscapes or high society or night life or riverscapes or flowered gardens, van Gogh took up with still lifes of floral vases. This was decidedly not the subject matter of any of the current leaders of the Parisian art scene. Van Gogh’s model in this study was Adolphe Monticelli, a painter of the previous generation (who died around the time that van Gogh first saw the Impressionists in Paris), worked in Marseille and was no longer in fashion in Paris (if he ever was, although the young Cézanne befriended him two decades before). Theo and Vincent (whose tastes were not swayed by prevailing fashions) purchased six of his works (including Vase of Flowers) and in 1890 Theo paid to have a book about him published. Van Gogh identified with Monticelli’s situation, under-appreciated, slandered as an alcoholic and uncouth, and affected by mood disorders. He even foresaw his own emotional collapse in how Monticelli “overtaxed his brain”
(seee.g., to Theo, ca. July 1, 1888). Monticelli himself had briefly dabbled in Impressionist experimentation but, like van Gogh, was repelled by the physicality of the emphasis at the expense of inspiration.

22. Still Life with Bouquet of Daisies. 1885. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

23. Still Life with Bouquet of Daisies. 1886. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

23. Still Life with Carnations and Other Flowers 1886. Oil on Canvas. The Kreeger Museum, Washington, D.C.

24. Still Life with Carnations and Other Flowers 1886. Oil on Canvas. The Kreeger Museum, Washington, D.C.

Van Gogh wrote extensively about Monticelli in his letters. In Paris he embarked on a series of still lifes with floral arrangements as part of the study of color he had been undertaking since his last stay in Brabant. These works show a progression from muted harmonious colors, punctuated by occasional bright flowers against a neutral background (#23) to one with a boldly colored vase and brightly colored flowers against bright background of several different colors (#24), to an arrangement with a metallic base on a boldly brushed table with an arrangement of a single type of flower against a boldly expressed, background wall painted with dashes and dots to break up the solid ground by flecking a bright colors against a deep green (#25). The Paris still lifes show a marked advance and confidence in the use of colors, compared, for example, with his still life with honesty (Lunaria annua) (#13). The earlier painting, from his time in Nuenen, is largely painted with analogous colors as fitting for the autumnal  mood and especially for the depiction of the plant’s seedpods. The picture of the vase of Fritillaries, by contrast, boldly uses complementary colors.

24. Impreial Crown Fritillaries in Copper Vase. 1887. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, ,Paris.

25. Impreial Crown Fritillaries in Copper Vase. 1887. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, ,Paris.

The second of the show’s three Paris still lifes of floral arrangements (van Gogh painted many others not shown at the Clark) (#24) shows a step closer to dramatic use of complementary colors with red against bluish green. Unlike the muted dark background of Monticelli’s still lifes, the carnations still life has a bright, lively background with an odd outline around the arrangement, possibly suggesting (although looking nothing like) a shadow. This outline or halo is an idiosyncrasy that will become somewhat frequent in his paintings from the south of France, especially around figures and occasionally around other objects like flowers (e.g., #28). The effect is that of a drawing and highlights the non-representational nature of the image.

It is the picture of the Fritillaries arrangement (#25) that fully shows treatment of colors and his new confidence. The setting of he orange against the bluish background is the same juxtaposition of complementary colors he used in self-portraits of slightly later (see the one of September 1889, with the orange of his hair set against a blue background; or the one just before leaving Paris in January 1888 where his orange beard is contrasted with his blue frock).  Van Gogh advised Livens that his flower paintings were designed to “seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet, seeking THE BROKEN AND NEUTRAL TONES to harmonise brutal extremes.” The purpose was “to render intense COLOUR and not a GREY harmony” (to Horace Mann Livens, ca, September-October 1886). As he became more comfortable with color composition his brushwork also became sure. The flowers are literally swept with a stroke of paint and the leaves are made by a single stroke.

The last still life (#25) brought van Gogh’s color studies as far as he felt he could go in the city. As early as his 1886 letter to Livens van Gogh revealed his plans to move south to “the land of the blue tones and gay colours.” Strain between the brothers, from Vincent’s refusal to charge for his portraits and from assorted bouts boorish behavior, made his departure inevitable but by February 1888 the time was right from Vincent’s point of view and he moved to Arles, near Marseille, where Monticelli had lived.

The South of France and the New Van Gogh

His move to Provence marks the beginning of his last period—he would die less than two and a half years later. But it released a burst in self-expression beyond what the work-driven artist had ever done before. It was not just the number of paintings, it was their daring and revelation. Van Gogh seems to have found his center in the south of France because not only is his art an outpouring of his imagination, so are his letters, which are filled with confident discussions about art, insights into literature and self-analysis, the mystical musings of a now thoroughly materialist-minded man. Away from Paris, he was now able to see flower gardens much as Monet did in Holland (seee.g.Garden in Bloom completed in July 1888). He even undertook a scene of night life, one of the Impressionists’ favorite subjects (see The Café Terrace at Arles at Night). And he painted figures enjoying a city park (#26).

26. Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles. 1888. Oil on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

26. Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles. 1888. Oil on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles seems vibrantly alive because van Gogh unleashes a variety of complementary colors much more freely than he did in Paris, and certainly something he wouldn’t have done when studying color instructions books in the Dutch provinces. The vanishing point of the picture plane is high on the canvas and together with the sky seen behind the tree foliage in front cuts the trees into two sections but their branches meet forming something of a tunnel for the park-goers. The trees themselves are sub-tropical, not the kind he had painted before. The figures are heavily outlined showing that van Gogh is making no effort at visual verisimilitude. The entire scene is bursting with life, but the park goers seem oblivious to it.

27. Farmhouse in Provence. 1888. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

27. Farmhouse in Provence. 1888. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The longer van Gogh lived in the south the brighter his canvases became, the livelier the impression the landscapes conveyed simply from classing colors. In Farmhouse in Provence (#27), the grasses, grains and flowers seem to burst from the canvas as stacks, houses and trees recede into a light blue sky that appears to slowly circulate the clouds. He became enamored with the sunshine and the yellow of the south, which ignited his imagination:

“Yesterday, at sunset, I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill, and wheat fields in the valley. It was romantic, it couldn’t be more so, à la Monticelli, the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold. And all the lines were beautiful, the whole scene had a charming nobility. You wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see knights and ladies suddenly appear, returning from hunting with hawks, or to hear the voice of an old Provençal troubadour. The fields seemed purple, the distances blue” (to Theo, July 5, 1888).

28. Dandelions. 1889. Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland.

28. Dandelions. 1889. Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland.

His wheat field pictures began darkly with a large sower (#6) and ended with bright fields and a small reaper (#3), much like the small reaper to the right of the procession of mourners in van der Maaten’s Going to Church for the Last Time (The Funeral in the Cornfield), above. Van Gogh himself was aware how his reaper related to his sower:

“I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. So if you like it’s the opposite of that Sower I tried before. But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold” (to Theo, September 5-6, 1889).

28. Olive Trees. 1889. Oil on canvas. Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh.

29. Olive Trees. 1889. Oil on canvas. Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh.

Behind his fields the sun keeps getting bigger. Preoccupied as he was by his own death, van Gogh became like the character in Leonid Andreyev’s “Lazarus.” who, having once been dead, obsessively chases the sun.

Van Gogh fixed on other physical features which he painted over and over. Irises and sunflowers are among his most well-known visual tropes. The olive tree resonated with van Gogh: “the murmur of an olive grove has something very intimate, immensely old about it”, while the oleander “speaks of love”, the olive tree is “something else, it is, if you want to compare it to something, like Delacroix” (to Theo,April 28, 1889). His 1889 Olive Trees also exhibited the swirling effects that he indulged in just at the time of his self-mutilation and commitment to the asylum in Saint-Rémy (see also #2).

29. Starry Night Over the Rhone. 1888. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Not included in the Clark show.

Starry Night Over the Rhone. 1888. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Not included in the Clark show.

And of course his most famous visual trope is the starry night, which welled up from van Gogh’s early fascination with the color of the sky before sunrise and after sunset. At Arles he painted outdoors at night, and, alone, he allowed his mind to wander back toward his early mystical yearnings, but this time transfigured by modern materialism. In a long letter to Émile Bernard in his first summer in the south, van Gogh unburdened himself on such topics as Jesus, the artist in words, and his own alienation. The Earth was so hostile to artists, he said quoting Jean Richepin, that “love of art makes one lose real love.” What was his consolation? He speculated that an artist is like a caterpillar on earth but destined to be a butterfly elsewhere. 

“That existence of painter as butterfly would have for its field of action one of the innumerable stars, which, after death, would perhaps be no more unapproachable, inaccessible to us than the black dots that symbolize towns and villages on the map in our earthly life. Science — scientific reasoning — seems to me to be an instrument that will go a very long way in the future.”

The Starry Night. 1889. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Not included in Clark show.

The Starry Night. 1889. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Not included in Clark show.

After all, he continued, the earth looks flat, but science has proved it round and nobody denies that now.

“Now at present, despite that, we’re still in the position of believing that life is flat and goes from birth to death.

“But life too is probably round, and far superior in extent and potentialities to the single hemisphere that’s known to us at present.

“Future generations—probably—will enlighten us on this subject that’s so interesting—and then science itself—could—with all due respect—reach conclusions more or less parallel to Christ’s words concerning the other half of existence” (June 26, 1888).

29. A Wheatfield with Cypresses. 1899. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London.

30. A Wheatfield with Cypresses. 1889. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London.

The Starry Night, painted from his asylum and swirling with the terrors of his illness, is nevertheless grounded by another visual trope—the cypress. Repeatedly painted by van Gogh in the south, it nevertheless is a reminder of the north and his childhood. In the fall of 1888 van Gogh painted a large canvas for his bedroom, Reminiscence of the Garden at Etten. He described it his sister Willemien and even sketched it for her (November 12, 1888).

Reminiscence of Garden at Etten. 1888. Oil on canvas. State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg. Not included in Clark show.

Reminiscence of Garden at Etten. 1888. Oil on canvas. State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg. Not included in Clark show.

The woman against whom “a bunch of dahlias, some lemon yellow, others variegated pink and white, explode” is his mother. Willemien is to her right. Both walk in front of a cypress, next to a maidservant tending flowers in front of an orange, winding sandy path, which is bordered on one side by cabbages behind the cypress and on the other by geraniums. “I know it isn’t perhaps much of a resemblance, but for me it conveys the poetic character and the style of the garden as I feel them.”

Memories would haunt him before, during and especially after his hospital stays. And although he medicated himself with alcohol and sought his own treatment in brothels, the cure he always wrote about was Nature. When Theo was experiencing lassitude (or worse) as dealer at Goupil & Cie in Paris, Vincent diagnosed his ailment as soul sickness: “Don’t take it amiss if I say now that your soul is sick at this moment—it really is—it isn’t good that you aren’t part of nature—and I think that No. 1 now is for you to make that normal again” (October 12, 1883). From his very first time away from home when he was 19, van Gogh prescribed himself walks in the woods or dale or hedge to restore his health and mental well-being. In retrospect, his many works showing small figures on journeys seem like meditations on this form of soul healing. In December 1889, half a year from his death, he painted Fir Trees at Sunset (#11). In the bottom right a small figure, probably a woman, travels in heavy wind, shown by her tilted parasol and the bending trees in the background. The towering trees in the foreground are all wind flagged 0n the left side by strong, persistent wind, likely the famed mistral of Provencal. (Paul Signac visited van Gogh in the hospital after his after his self-mutilation. Signac thought that the mistal had enervated him.) Three birds can be seen in the sky soaring on the wind beneath an orange sun whose light is emphasized by the orange strokes on the yellow sky. Seven years earlier when van Gogh was at The Hague (where Mauve and others remarked on his crudeness as an artist) he defended his manner of art to Theo: “[T]there are also people who, just as it is sometimes pleasant and invigorating for a healthy constitution to go for a walk when a strong wind is blowing, so there are also art lovers, I say, who aren’t afraid of the harsh” (June 3, 1882). Van Gogh, braced by that strong wind, had now gone all in on that bet.

30. ,i.Giant Peacock Moth. 1889. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

31. Giant Peacock Moth. 1889. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Although van Gogh seemed to have finally perfected his mature style in Provence, he took up an entirely new style, reminiscent of his days as a child in Brabant and later when he painted the nests (#12). It involved close studies of natural history objects—not to express a mood or their inner essence, but their actual physical appearance, the way they were illustrated in natural history journals. In Paris he had sketched certain birds after graphic representations he had seen, such as the barn owl and flying swifts. In Provence he drew dead birds (#1, probably from life) and moths (#10, possibly from a magazine or print), the weed known as tassel hyacinth (Leopoldia comosa), drawn, as was the moth, duirng his stay in the asylum (see to Theo, May 23, 1889). From these studies he made a painting of the peacock moth (#31) and another of butterflies among red poppies. Perhaps van Gogh was attempting something of an homage to Japanese art that was so much in vogue in those days. Perhaps he was intending to set off on a new direction. It would have been a radical departure, because aside from pairs of strokes to indicate birds far off in flight, van Gogh’s art is utterly devoid of animals. This could not be said of his models like Millet, Mauve, Delacroix and Monticelli. Even Puvis de Chavannes occasionally painted animals. If he planned a new departure, he never followed through (although he made many sketches of farm animals while institutionalized). Instead he continued in the same heightened proto-expressionistic style even when he moved to Auvers for the last months of his life (e.g., #3, 32 and 34).

Van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields

32. Green Wheat Fields, Auvers. 1890. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

32. Undergrowth. 1889. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

33. Undergrowth. 1889. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Most likely, his “naturalist” studies were exercises in nostalgia. Sister Lies recorded how the young Vincent would wander off alone to the streams, collect beetles, even the ones with “terribly long feelers” and equally long names, yet Vincent “knew them all.” He sought out “the woods and fields, watching and studying the life of the underbrush and the birds. The birds he knew intimately; knew where they all lived and had their being, and if he saw a pair of larks descend among the rye, he knew how to watch them closely, without even breaking one fine stalk of grain.” She summed up his childhood devotion to Nature lyrically: “With a thousand voices Nature spoke to him while he listened, but his time had not yet ripened into action.”‡‡ The nature studies in the asylum at Saint-Rémy may have been driven by his desire to return to the land of his youth. After all he confessed to Theo from there that “I have a terrible desire that comes to me to see my friends again and to see the northern countryside again” (September 10, 1889). As for “the life of the underbrush,” he once again painted Undergrowth (#33).

Cottages at Sunset (Reminiscene of Brabant). 1890. Oil on canvas on panel. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Cottages at Sunset (Reminiscence of Brabant). 1890. Oil on canvas on panel. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Van Gogh’s sketches in the asylum recalled the peasants of Brabant: Snow Covered Cottage with FiguresA Sketch of the Potato EatersDiggers and Other FiguresDiggers and Other FiguresPeasants Eating and Other FiguresSheet with a Figures at a Table, a Sower and ClogsSeveral Figures on a Road with TreesInterior of a Farm with Figures at the FiresideFour Men on a Road with Pine Trees and many more. The themes and shapes and atmosphere of Brabant all returned. And he painted three “Reminisces of Brabant” (e.g.Cottages at Sunset, right).

In May 1890 Van Gogh got part way to Brabant, transferring to Auvers, a north-eastern suburb of Paris. There he was treated by a sympathetic physician who also painted. But here he died in July. He did not make it to Brabant. The closest he got was one of his last paintings, Rain-Auvers (#34), where one bird, not a pair, and probably not a lark is seen to “descend among the rye” and as when he was a child, “he knew how to watch … closely, without even breaking one fine stalk of grain.”

33. Auvers-Rain. 1890. Oil on canvas. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

34. Auvers-Rain. 1890. Oil on canvas. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff.


*A printed version edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker is available in six volumes published by Thames & Hudson.

†B.B. Edward, “Condition of Theology in Holland, Especially in the Reformed Church,” 2 Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review 141 at 158 (1845). The article is essentially a translation of the observations of “Dr. Ullman of Heildelberg” and “Julius Wiggers of Rostock.”

‡”Groningen Theology” in Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology at 528 (2d ed.) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001).

**According to Elisabeth Huberta van Gogh, Vincent’s younger sister by 6 years and called “Lies,” attributed the end of her brother’s relationship to Mauve’s “nervous and excitable” disposition, with the decisive event Vincent’s tossing a cast to the floor in Mauve’s studio when Mauve suggested he paint it in artificial light. She claimed he “could never see anything but the humorous side” of this event, and “as often as he would tell it, he would laugh over it …” Elisabeth Huberta du Quesne-van Gogh, Personal Recollections of Vincent van Gogh (translated by Katharine S. Dreier) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), pp. 29-30 [“Personal Recollections“].

††In September 1883 van Gogh left the Hague (as well as Sien and her two children) for Drenthe Province. In December he moves to Nuenen in the Brabant, where his parents had moved. In November 1885 he moved to Antwerp where he stayed for three months until he moved to Paris in March 1886.

‡‡Personal Recollections (see note  **), pp. 5-6.

Other Sources

Charles Chetham, The Role of Vincent van Gogh’s Copies in the Development of his Art (NY: Garland Publishing, 1976).

Jane Clark, From Monet to Cézanne: Late 19th-Century French Artists (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

Abraham Marie Hammacher, Genius and Disaster: The Ten Creative Years of Vincent van Gogh (NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1968).

Abraham Marie and Renilde Hammacher, Van Gogh (NY: Thames and Hudson, 1990).

Richard Kendall, Sjraar van Heugten, Chris Stolwijk, Van Gogh and Nature (Williamstown, Mass.: Clark Art Institute, Distributed by Yale University Press (New Haven, Conn.), 2015).

Joseph Masheck (ed.), Van Gogh 100 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996).

Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (NY: Random House, 2011).

Cornelia Peres, Michael Hoyle, Louis van Tilborgh, A Closer look: Technical and art-historical studies on works by Van Gogh and Gauguin (Zwolle: Waanders, ©1991).

Ronald Pickvance, The English Influences on Vincent van Gogh (2nd ed.) (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974).

Wilhelm Uhde, Van Gogh (with notes by Griselda Pollock) (NY: Watson-Guptil Publications, 1990).

Evert van Uitert (ed.), Van Gogh in Brabant: Paintings and Drawings from Etten and Nuenen (translated by Patricia Wardle) (Zwolle: Waanders,©1987).

Sjraar van Heugten, Joachim Pissarro, and Chris Stolwijk, Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night (NY: Museum of Modern Art, 2008).

Lopatkina Live and On-Line at Yale Next Week

Uliana Lopatkina, prima ballerina of the Kirov Ballet, will be on stage at Yale University next week in three events that are free and open to the public. Perhaps more importantly all three events will be streamed live.

On Tuesday, October 13, at 4:30 p.m. (all times EDT) she will give a lecture and demonstration, and on Thursday, October 15, at 12:30 p.m. she will be interviewed by the director of dance studies as well as the dean of Yale School of Music.

On Wednesday, October 14, at 7:30 p.m. she will perform a tribute a tribute to three Russian ballet stars: Anna Pavlova (1881–1931), Galina Ulanova (1910–1998), and Maya Plisetskaya (1925–2015). Lopatkina and partner Andrey Ermakov will dance highlights of the repertory of these celebrated dancer and comment on videos of their performances.

For details on the programs and for ticket availability, visit the Yale School of Music Website. For the live stream follow this link.

Lopatkina performs Russian Dance:

Lopatkina as the Dying Swan (Anna Pavlova’s signature dance)


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