Vincent Van Gogh


Yet another theory on Vincent Van Gogh, this time from an astrophysicist. Van Gogh’s Turbulent Mind Captured Turbulence. “The painter’s creations during his blue period mirrored nature’s turbulent flows, as if his mind somehow tapped into a universal archetype, says astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser.” OK. Some sort of astrophysical mysticism. But while tapping into the universal archetype is cool, Van Gogh was very epileptic, and a lot of his technique was simply his painting the visual effects of his epilepsy. The auras around light (like the moon and stars in Starry Night), which can vibrate or pulsate, and the flattening effect, with objects appearing to be separated from the things behind them, as in the tree in the painting. To an epileptic, objects close up will appear three dimensional, objects further back will have less depth and objects further back appear flat, like a backdrop. It’s like a crowd scene shot on a soundstage in old film, with real people up front, cut outs of people behind them, and paintings of people on the backdrop furthest back. It’s actually a pretty cool effect. The first time I ever stood right in front of a Van Gogh–Irises, at the Getty–that is what I saw. The gradations of dimension. Vividly three dimensional in front. Less depth behind. And further back little or no depth at all. I was startled at how epileptic it was. It was like I’d missed a dose of my meds. Pretty cool.

On evenings that I have nothing to do, if the effect creeps up on me I’ll sit out on the deck and the view goes very Van Gogh–not like Starry Night, but earlier, before his temporal lobe seizures got out of control. It’s the most gorgeous thing, one of the symptoms of epilepsy that I love. I’ll sit out there and just look at all the beauty of it for an hour or so, and wait a bit before taking my pills. Once they hit the bloodstream it all goes three dimensional again, a shame, but it’s better that way. But you all don’t know what you’re missing. If you ever dropped acid you’ve seen some of the same effect, though you thought you were a Greek god at the time.

Sometimes I’ll take advantage of that state to write. Push off taking those pills a bit. It’s an old epileptic writer’s trick. There’s an intensity to writing epileptic. You get lost in it. Hours can pass. Sometimes it can get out of control and the writing comes out like Neil Cassidy on speed, unusable. Sometimes it’ll take me so close to the bone I’ll begin trembling and feel physically ill. I don’t like to let that happen. And sometimes it comes out just right. A little edgy, maybe, a little weird even, but just right. Still, I don’t recommend it as a writing technique. But it does give me a glimpse into Dostoevsky’s muse. Or what Van Gogh might have been seeing.

You hear a lot about Van Gogh’s use of absinthe. As if absinthe was some crazy elixir, like LSD. But it’s basically alcohol, a very high octane alcohol, like white lightning or Rumplemintz. You drink enough of that kind of stuff you’ll be messed up, epileptic or not. Of course, it would likely have very deleterious effects on epilepsy, exacerbating it severely. Our wiring is thinly sheathed, our neurons very susceptible to firing out of sync, or too often, or firing when they shouldn’t be firing. Doesn’t take much too short us out. Any stimulus is a potential risk. And in Van Gogh’s case, uncontrolled by medication as it was, any booze in excess probably messed him up badly. Caffeine could have too. Or any drugs he was doing. Even cigars. Because stimulants–any stimulants–can exacerbate epilepsy. And Van Gogh’s main problem was he was very epileptic. That’s what he was diagnosed as during his lifetime, that is what he was being treated for, that is what he was being medicated for, though the meds at the time were only partially effective. There’s a terrific chapter on him in the book Seized by Eve LaPlante. Van Gogh was classically epileptic, with a classically epileptic inter-ictal personality. That is, he was different even between seizures. And he had a lot of seizures. Not big seizures, so much, but lots and lots of lesser seizures. What are commonly called petit mals. You have a lot of those and they will mess you up. I’ve been there. It’s not easy. I can’t imagine living that way without effective medication. I’d be in a 24/7 epileptic world. I’d be unmanageable, full of rage and inspiration and moments of brilliance and many more of embarrassment. I’d be writing every conscious moment. I’d be falling madly in love incessantly. I’d drive people nuts with chatter. I wouldn’t want to sit next to me on a bus. I’d be a lot like the descriptions you read of Vincent Van Gogh. I don’t mean the talent, obviously, or the genius or any of that. I mean the personality. The epileptic personality. Temporal lobe epileptics (or frontal lobe epileptics whose seizure activity extends into the temporal lobe) are all remarkably similar. Do a lot of the same crazy things. And Vincent Van Gogh was as epileptic as they come. Textbook. He wasn’t crazy, or delusional, or mad. He was just really tore up by his virtually uncontrolled temporal lobe epilepsy. You look at his paintings chronologically, you can it increasing. Something was making it worse. The visual effects he recorded are intense. Obviously the concentration required in painting is bad for him–ideally, an epileptic should do as little as possible–and his frustration is palpable. He would have known what the problem was. Suicide is not an uncommon cure.

I’m not sure why art historians refuse to label Van Gogh’s malady as epilepsy. I guess there’s a deeply rooted stigma about epilepsy and a romance to madness. Whatever. But Van Gogh was as messed up as Dostoevsky who was also classically epileptic. Yet today, neither would ever have been the artists they were, as their distinctive art was so based on badly controlled temporal/frontal lobe seizure activity. Pills would ruin that. They would have been much happier, written shorter books, painted fewer paintings. But the live wire creativity that goes with uncontrolled epilepsy, that would never have happened. We might have Irises, but no Starry Night. Maybe a Crime and Punishment, but no Brothers Karamazov. I think about Van Gogh and Dostoevsky often, and I pity them, a little. They were  messed up. Tragically so. Yet being messed up is what turned them into such extraordinary figures. An extraordinary painter, and astonishing novelist. There’s a bizarre tendency in modern western civilization to disprove anyone famous was epileptic. There is scarcely an epileptic of note for whom experts haven’t tried to erase the shame of the falling sickness. They’re forever looking for some other explanation. Dostoevsky made that impossible in his case with his vivid descriptions of seizures throughout his novels. Van Gogh, though, has been the victim of quite literally dozens of theories of his “madness”. Some are feasible, others unlikely. Sometimes very unlikely. And now a scientist has him metaphysically in tune with the mathematics of the universe. How this works, who knows. Is there any science behind this? Absolutely not. It is complete fantasy. The truth is that Vincent Van Gogh had epilepsy, and his art was an epileptic’s eye view of the world.

Starry Night--the sky.

Detail from Starry Night.