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“Follow Me When I Try to Explain Something”

VINCENT VAN GOGH ONCE WROTE OF HIS FATHER with whom he had more than one verbal altercation while living under the same roof, “I seem to detect in Father proofs . . . of his really being unable to follow me when I try to explain something to him. He clings to a part of what I say, which becomes incorrect when one tears it from its context. This may have more than one cause, but assuredly it is largely the fault of old age” (CL 347).

Father, Theodorus van Gogh (1822-1885) – Version 2
Vincent’s Father, the Rev. Theodorus van Gogh

Old age aside, rather than decrying his father’s inability to follow what Vincent attempted to explain to him, suppose Vincent instead had inquired of his father: “What is it like for you when I’m conversing with you, and you with me?”

Had Vincent posed such a question without accusation or rejoinder, his father might have taken pause, even pleasure, in reflecting with Vincent about his son’s wish to be better understood. By entering his father’s frame of reference, Vincent may have learned something important about his father as well as about himself.

Vincent’s retorts were often if not always rigid, forceful, and argumentative, thus hard to bear, especially when his precipitous outbursts of rage interrupted the flow of communication, as happened in relation to his father, his brother Theo, and others who kept his company.

The devilish truth was that neither father nor son knew how best to attune emotionally to the other’s presence and thereby offer sufficient mutual affirmation and validation to avoid struggling so intensely with each other’s spirit. It was less demanding yet far less productive for them to remain outwardly defensive by shadowboxing rather than moving inwardly with empathy and sensitivity toward each other’s experienced reality. But, then, how to begin?

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Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Seeking meaningful engagement with a wounded soul who is in pain and suffering warrants close observation of the sufferer’s face, eyes, and voice. For in the visage one can “follow” the contours of distress or, conversely, the expressions of relief that emerge from within.

Affect is key. By analogy, affect is to speech as music is to the lyrics of a song, either concordant or discordant with the content of the words. In human relationships “empathic attunement”* is essential for discerning in the moment of encounter the other person’s state of mind, heart, and soul.

When a ray of light suddenly breaks forth from a person’s prison of gloom, darkness, or distress, thanks to feeling profoundly understood, that ray appears in the face, the eyes and the tone of voice. What frequently occasions it is the very thing that Vincent craved most of all for himself yet found inordinately difficult to grant to his father. In Vincent’s own words: “to follow me when I try to explain something.” That is, to offer powers of undivided attention, of careful observation and deep listening.

The face, the eyes, and the tone of voice comprise the canvas upon which the soul paints its pictures of what is essential for a personal acknowledgment to result in the feeling of being genuinely understood.

Especially is this true, as it was between Vincent and his father, when things heated up to the point where Vincent summarily declared to his father: “Pa, here I am faced by your self-righteousness, which was and is fatal, for you as well as for me.” Whereupon his father instantly retorted: “Do you expect me to kneel before you?”

That was clearly a point at which the train of empathy — “follow me when I try to explain something” — had fallen off the track.

—Which serves to underscore the fact that one of the profoundest gifts a person can give another is to attend with undivided attention, careful observation, and deep listening for the sake of reaching the moment of real understanding.

*A concept employed by the late psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut

© Copyright, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

“From Warriors to Saints, Saints to Lovers, Lovers to Tigers, Tigers to Flowers”

VINCENT VAN GOGH LEARNED VOLUMES from his fellow artists by the study of countless numbers of their drawings and paintings, some old, some new. Not only did he visit many museums and exhibitions. He also lined the walls of his room with copies of others’ works, including the great masters who preceded him.

Vincent once wrote to his brother Theo: “I must ask you something: Are there any cheap Daumier prints to be had, and, if so, which ones? I always found him very clever, but it is only recently that I have begun to have the impression that he is more important than I thought. If you know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I remember we spoke about it last year on the road to Prinsenhage, and you said then that you like Daumier better than Gavarni, and I took Gavarni’s part, and told you about the book I had read about Gavarni which you have now. But I must say that since then, though I have not come to like Gavarni less, I begin to suspect that I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know” (CL 239).

Are there any parallels to us?

All learning takes place at the intersection of what we already know and what we do not yet know. An artist can interpret only what the artist presently sees. The same is true for the therapist conducting therapy, the surgeon performing surgery, or the politician crafting legislation. To that end, personal and professional consultation offers fresh eyes with which to see and novel ears with which to hear.

Vincent’s Perspective Frame, The Hague, August 5 or 6, 1882

A patient and a therapist, just the two of them, working collaboratively may generate what is called an “analytic third”*—an additional and potentially transformative reality emerging from the juxtaposition of their two separate realities. Or again, the patient has one perspective, the therapist a second, and the consultant or supervisor a third, which coming together potentially produces yet a fourth perspective with elements of all three, and more.

Imagine what growth might not have taken place for Vincent as an artist if, among other endeavors, he had not studied Japanese art and French Impressionist paintings. What if he had never made his way to Paris and subsequently the south of France where the sun shone brighter than it did back home in the Netherlands?

One of the most dramatic transformations of Vincent’s artistic style and subject matter came about with his turn to the use of vivid colors as a consequence of his modified geographic perspective. Likewise, when he studied the art of those with whom he was unfamiliar, he further opened himself to the possibility for substantive change. It is just so with persons who become absorbed in Vincent’s art. They stand to encounter an “artistic third” bearing an altered perception—not only of Vincent’s reality but more so of their own.

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Honoré Daumier, c. 1850

Consider again what Vincent said about the French painter Honoré Daumier while Vincent was still living and painting in the Netherlands in 1882.

“If you [Theo] know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know.”

Whether we are therapists or surgeons or politicians, or anything else by virtue of our craft or trade—whether we are the ones seeking “counsel” or the ones rendering it—what if we were to receive each new encounter as the creative and promising juxtaposition of what we already know with what we do not yet know? What might happen?

Vincent mentioned Daumier in sixty-two of his letters. Three years after having asked Theo to tell him more about Daumier, Vincent wrote his friend Emile Bernard to say of yet another artist, in the words of the French writer, Théophile Silvestre: “’Thus died—almost smiling—Eugène Delacroix, a painter of high breeding—who had a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart—who went from warriors to saints—from saints to lovers—from lovers to tigers—and from tigers to flowers.’” Then Vincent added: “Daumier is also a great genius” (CL B13).

What if Vincent had failed to ask Theo to tell him more about Daumier? On the other hand, what if we, like Vincent, were to ask those around us to help us gain a new perspective upon our present reality so that we might move beyond it to something more significant?

the-starry-night-over-the-rhone copy
Starry Night over the Rhone Vincent van Gogh 1888

What if we were to attain that “artistic” or “analytic third” offering us the potential to paint life differently?

What if the person with whom we are currently engaged in conversation says to us: “Have you considered this? Have you considered that?

What if, thereby, we are no longer limited to “the world according to Gavarni” or the world according to “Gutenough,” as good as those worlds may be?

What if we were to see the world and paint it as did, say, Jesus of Nazareth? or the Buddha? or Mahatma Gandhi? or Mohammed? or Julian of Norwich? or Mother Teresa? or Martin Luther King, Jr.? or Rosa Parks? or Vincent van Gogh?

One can confidently conclude in the case of Van Gogh that his psychotic “breakdown,” which took place within the presence of Paul Gauguin just before Christmas 1888, bore elements of an “artistic third.” Such an experience, painful and debilitating though it was, eventually precipitated a “breakthrough” of such stellar proportion that in the final year of his life, with searing new eyes, he was able to depict on canvas his vision of the new Heaven and new Earth he had contemplated as a young man during frequent and studious encounters with the Jesus of the Gospels.

Whom, then, did Vincent have reason to thank for the epiphany? Theo? Gavarni? Daumier? Delacroix? Gauguin? All of the above and many others besides? Yet, what if he had never so much as once encountered Jesus—or worse—in doing so failed to take the Nazarene seriously?

What if, from the perspective of the persons seated next to us, with whom we have momentarily cast our lot, we unexpectedly discover brand new takes on reality? Might we then no longer be exactly the same persons today we were yesterday?

Can you imagine an artist painting canvas after canvas without ever changing visual perspective? What kind of art would such constraint produce? Yet, when we look around, and all too often when we look within, we realize just how stuck we are in the same old hardened perspectives and patterns, time and again. It’s true of therapists, patients, surgeons, and politicians.

On the contrary—can you imagine shifting “from warrior to saint, from saint to lover, from lover to tiger, from tiger to flower,” with each transmutation bearing the novel perspective of “a sun in the head, and a thunderstorm in the heart”?

The Sower, Vincent van Gogh, Auvers, 1888

And to what end? That our darkened and crazed souls might be awakened to a radically new way of perceiving, being, and acting in the world.

Yes, even to the extent that at the hour of our death, with the curtain pulled back from the face of death itself and with our mortal remains reposing in astonishment like those of Delacroix, we might jolly well appear “almost smiling”!

Therefore—when imprisoned within those calcified perspectives that impede warriors from becoming saints, saints lovers, lovers tigers, and tigers flowers—for Heaven’s sake why would we not welcome unfamiliar vistas that we do not yet know?

∗ The “analytic third” is a concept employed by psychoanalyst Thomas H. Ogden, M.D.
© Copyright, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).