Of Rooms and Starry Nights by Lasya Shashimohan

Contrary to popular notions, the electronic media can trigger intellectual processes of thought and reflections. It played an instrumental role in introducing two legends in my life- Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh. Virginia Woolf- a prolific writer among other things, and Vincent Van Gogh- an artist par excellence. What struck me powerfully about these two individuals was a common strand running leitmotif through their lives-a tendency towards mental disturbance, and the amazing repertoire of work they produced in their lifetime, in spite of their suffering. Soon, I was sucked into the bittersweet whirlpool of Virginiaand Vincent’s world and developed an insatiable need to delve into the vortex of their life and consciousness.

Virginia was a phantasmal name in my mind until I watched the well crafted ‘The Hours’ It depicts a slice in Virginia’s life which is shown simultaneously along with that of two other women- Clarissa Vaughan and Laura Brown. Virginia, (portrayed by an able Nicole Kidman, prosthetic nose and all) grappling with her mental illness, bombarded with medications and doctors, is still diligently working on her book Mrs. Dalloway (Originally titled ‘The Hours’). The movie inconspicuously cuts across time periods; from 21st centuryEngland flits to 1952 where a disconcerted homemaker, Laura reads ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ in the solitude of her hotel room. We also get more than a glimpse of Clarissa Vaughan who isVirginia’s fictitious visionary’s Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia and her muse Richard who is also the creator/poet write about the life of a woman, Clarissa in a single day as she bustles about organizing a party with feigned enthusiasm. An unimaginable development in the story is Laura Brown, a reader of ‘Mrs. Dalloway, stepping into the book as a character. The concept is so novel that it gives one goose bumps. The movie sans any morbidity or melodrama, ends with both the literal and the metaphorical visionaries-Virginia and the figment of her imagination; Richard Brown-committing suicide.

The critically acclaimed 1971 song ‘Vincent’ (Starry starry nights) with its picturesque- poignant lyrics and touching rendition by American singer, Don McClean depicts the life of the tragically misunderstood artist, Vincent Van Gogh and forces the listener to reflect on Vincent’s beautiful soul rather than on his much hyped infamous overt behaviour (especially the incident where he lopped off his left ear lobe in a fit of temper). ‘Vincent’ is a well-deserved tribute aptly paid.

Creativity and mental disturbance/ a tendency towards reclusiveness:

There is a wide-spread tendency to fondly refer to as ‘eccentric’ artistes, scientists, writers and many others whose mental and social conventions do not synchronize with those adopted by the laity. These attributions are made in a flippant manner, more often than than not, wouldn’t be the result of any involved thought process. Nevertheless, there may be a grain of truth in it. Creativity, mood disorders and a disposition towards reclusivenesss (all three aspects may be mutually inclusive or exclusive) have been the hallmark of many a person of eminence. Reticent artistes have been many- Harper Lee, Emily Dickinson, J.D Salinger, Georgette Heyer to illustrate a few (though recent researches made on J.D Salinger, particularly those made after his demise, present evidence to the contrary). Michelangelo and Earnest Hemmingway are said to have been harrowed by mood-swings.

There have been definite indications in research, which reveal a link between creativity and certain mood-disorders. Creativity is most particularly said to be associated with manic-depressive disorder (also known as the Bi-polar disorder) that both Virginia and Vincent seemed to have suffered from, in all probability.

Startling similarities, few contrasts between Virginia and Vincent:

There are a series of other startling similarities between the two maestros which one just cannot lackadaisically dismiss as sheer coincidence. Both the virtuosos, whose extensively used Christian names begin with alphabet ‘V’, were adept at another skill apart from the one they were renowned for. A miniscule minority may have the knowledge thatVirginiawas a splendid artist as well. Her sister Vanessa was a professional artist who later married another artist Clive Bell of the famous (or more likely, infamous, as many Victorians may have thought) Bloomsbury Society of which evenVirginiawas a part. The couple’s inclination towards unconventional art apparently influencedVirginia’s evolution as a writer. During a heady phase of her life Vanessa had taken to creating works with abstruse or no facial features which apparently spurred Virginia on to apply the same stratagem to her writings.

Vincent, the artist, was also a man intimately affiliated with words. During his lifetime he wrote multitudinous letters to family and friends, most notably to his dear brother Theo. These letters were compiled and published later by Theo’s widow, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger because she apparently wanted to banish all disrepute surrounding the artist and wanted him portrayed in a manner in keeping in character with his art.

Virginia and Vincent believed that frequent letter-writing was a fine way of self-expression and maintaining connectivity.Virginiawas a staunch believer of the notion that nothing had actually occurred until it had been described. She wrote vividly descriptive letters to her acquaintances.

Another parallel is that both of them seem to have been beneficiaries of certain influences in home ambience which might have fashioned and fine-tuned the aptitude already inherent in them.Virginia’s father Sir Leslie Stephen was a famous writer and critic, therefore, many litterateurs and upper-middle-class intelligentsia, frequented their house and youngVirginialived in an atmosphere charged with top-class literary influences. She and her sister Vanessa were given an education rich in English literature and the classics. She also had access to the verdant well-stocked Stephen’s library. The Van Gogh family likewise, showed a deep inclination towards art and religion. These subjects were discussed at home constantly which is why a fledgling Vincent oscillated  between theology and art quite unto more mature years, finally settling down to be an artist of exhaustive reserves which he drew richly from and which brought him well-earned fame- even if posthumously.Virginiawas definitely acclaimed during her life-time but she was acknowledged as even more of a serious writer, than what critics had given her credit for, only after her demise.

It is a known fact that both these people took their own lives.Virginiafilled her overcoat with stones and walked into River Ouse in 1941 at the age of 59. The illness which she had been plagued by had re-surfaced in such a monstrous manner, that the gritty lady felt it was all over. She felt an overwhelming certainty this time that she wouldn’t recover-not even temporarily. The possible reason for her incapacitating depression is surmised as the onset of World War II which resulted in the destruction of herLondonhome during the Blitzkrieg. It is also stated that the couple was on the Nazi Hit list because they wrote and published political writings and also because Leonard Woolf was a Jew.

Vincent shot himself in the chest after a heated argument with another artist. He passed away two days later.

A steady, supportive and understanding soul-mate appear to have been a constant in both the pen-lady and the brush-wielder’s lives, a presence which may have made it possible for them to proceed with their respective arts despite their ailments.Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf is said to have been a happy one because he provided her a life and an atmosphere, conducive for her to write. She is quoted as having said, “….you see it is an enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete.” Before her final dip, she addressed a letter to him in which she says that no two people could have been happier than they have been and that he has always been patient with her. Leonard seems to have made life-style adjustments to accommodateVirginia’s condition and seems to have done so stoically- in fact nearly as stoically as Virginia herself bore her nightmarish illness. In Stephen Daldry’s interpretation, the Woolfs move from the excitement and aggressive social life inLondonto the countryside (Richmond) at the behest ofVirginia’s doctors. Ironically, the silence ofRichmondtormentsVirginiaand the couple return toLondonatVirginia’s insistence. One is left wondering what happens to the Hogarths press the two had established inRichmond. Probably, the couples moved back and forth between the capital and the countryside as and when whichever was suited toVirginia.

Vincent’s consistent source of devoted support, from early life until he breathed his last, has been his younger-brother Theo Van Gogh. Theo, an art dealer by profession, is said to have stood beside Vincent in a steadfast manner; giving his life and career primary significance at the expense of having made his own priorities secondary. He has been an unwavering source of financial and more importantly emotional support for his talented-disturbed brother. With Theo’s ceaseless financial support, Vincent was able to freely apply himself to his art, working amidst grim mental and physical circumstances life seems to have thrown at him. Theo is said to have done his utmost to market and sell Vincent’s paintings. He is said to have been the only one who seems to have understood Vincent. His love for his brother was such that, he died of heart break about six months after Vincent expired (there is some discrepancy surrounding this theory- one school of thought maintains that he died of advanced stage of syphilis) . His exhumed body was reburied along with that of his brother’s at Auvers-Sur-Oise.

Most touchingly, the people they were closest to- Leonard and Theo respectively, were the ones addressed beforeVirginiaand Vincent succumbed. One poignant line addressed to Leonard byVirginiais “Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.” The dying Vincent told Theo in French- “La tristesse durera toujours”, meaning- “The sadness will last forever.”

Manic-depressive tendencies are not always ushered in by negative or distorted thought-processes; but can also be the result of genetic predisposition or vulnerability, body chemistry, bio-chemical imbalances, hormonal imbalances, abnormalities in the brain-structure, one’s childhood environment and experiences and so on. Vincent has been described by many as silent and introspective in his childhood. His later comment on his early years was, “My youth was gloomy and cold and sterile”.Virginia’s breakdowns began with the passing away of her close kin-her mother, her half-sister, Stella and her father. Sexual abuse she and her sister Vanessa were subjected to by their half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth in her formative years is quoted as one of the reasons responsible for her mental illness.

Yet one strongly believes (various evidences support this view) that both Virginia and Vincent were propelled by strong undercurrents of optimism beneath their depressive tendencies.Virginia, in spite of her problems, tried to experience life to the fullest and became a fruitful novelist, essayist, diarist and feminist. A famous quote from one of her autobiographical work goes- “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Vincent Van Gogh, in spite of a tendency to romanticize his illness, didn’t give in to it. He fought for clarity and precision of mind to flourish in his work.

This is probably why these to phenomenal people kept the show going despite tremendous suffering, until their last breath.

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