This post is by John A. DeLaughter, a Lovecraft eZine contributor.
“Oh life, it’s bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me…
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion…
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try…
But that was just a dream…
Just a dream:
Just a dream, dream…” (1).
Religions and rules, rants and rackets. REM’s Losing My Religion often stirs up that line of thoughts and feelings.
However, when someone faces a crisis that upsets his or her psychic equilibrium, and the thinking person finds no solace in traditional religions, where does one turn?
Albert Camus, the French Existentialist, spoke of the philosophical dilemma posted by such a crisis of meaning:
“What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity…Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterward. These are games; one must first answer” (2).
Evolution has led humanity to a tipping point. Unlike other animals, there is a fundamental conflict between what human beings want from the universe (whether it be meaning, order, or reasonableness) and what they find in the universe (indifference and formless chaos).
We may never find in life the meaning we want. Evolution endowed us with the capacity to desire meaning and validation in the universe. But nowhere in the environment from which we arose, is there any to be found. Either we seek that meaning through a leap of faith, by placing our hopes in a God beyond reason.
Or we conclude that life is meaningless.
So when an inevitable crisis arrives – be it death, divorce, destitution or other dilemma – people react differently, and not always in a predictable, stereotypical way.
Some people do not really want truth. Instead, they want constant reassurance that what they believe is true.
Others, such as the Oxford Academician C.S. Lewis, resolved his existential crisis by turning from an early atheism – based on the death of his father and the horrors of World War I – to embrace the faith of J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis took a leap of faith, where a rational man embraced the irrational.
In contrast to such, “An Escape from Reason”, many twentieth-century intellectuals – among them, H.P. Lovecraft and Bertrand Russell – spurned the religion pedaled to them. Lovecraft scholars, such as S.T. Joshi, have detailed HPL’s atheism and its literary parallels in Cosmicism.
For instance, Lovecraft equated a belief in god with putting one’s faith in Santa Claus (3).
Further, Lovecraft argued against the notion of an afterlife:
“..It is easy to remove the mind from harping on the lost illusion of immortality. The disciplined intellect fears nothing and craves no sugar-plum at the day’s end, but is content to accept life and serve society as best it may. Personally I would not care for immortality in the least. There is nothing better than oblivion, since in oblivion there is no wish unfulfilled. We had it before we were born, yet did not complain…” (4).
Given HPL’s stand against religion, a belief in God, and the hereafter, can there be a Lovecraftian Spirituality?
Are Lovecraft and Spirituality mutually-exclusive terms?
Dr. Robert M. Price raised that question during the “Yog-Sothoth Spaghetti Dinner” at the 2014 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival (5).
In the same vein, did the trappings of religious traditions inhibit the creativity of other geniuses, such as Vincent Van Gogh? And if so, what process of liberation did Van Gogh go through, as he struggled against mental challenges, learning disabilities and social ineptness to develop his artistic vision?
Together we will examine similarities in each man’s background, explore the unknowns that alike stirred artist and author, and expose a spirituality that unleashed both man’s imaginations.
Parallels in their Words and Worlds:
First, neither man was successful at love.
Other than the lead up to, and brief marriage to Sonia Greene, Lovecraft’s letters are largely devoid of the obsessional overtones of love that dominate other men’s psyches.
Van Gogh’s love life was troubled by its extremes. He was attracted to women who, for one reason or another, did not return his love. For instance, Vincent forever obsessed over his first cousin Kee Vos. An older widow, she not only rejected his advances, but she also felt scandalized and stigmatized that Vincent contemplated marriage with her, his own cousin – a serious breach of an important taboo strongly held in 19th century Holland (6).
Another reason the widow Vos spurned Van Gogh was that she was still grieving over her deceased husband, and could not see herself ever loving another man.
Both Men were Starving Artists:
Second, neither man was successful at making a living. Other people supported each artisan most of their lives.
Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother and Dutch art dealer, financially supported the artist. Vincent was desperately poor, selling only one painting during his lifetime.
For example, listen to Vincent’s description of a normal meal:
“Thank Heaven! My digestion has so far recovered that I have been able to live on ships – biscuit, milk and eggs for three weeks. The beneficent heat is restoring my strength to me. It was wise of me to go South just now, when my bad state of health needed a cure. I am now as healthy as other people —a thing I have but seldom been able to say of myself— not since I was at Nuenen…(among ‘other’ people,’ I mean, the miners on strike, old Tanguy, old Millet, and the peasants). The healthy man should be able to live on a piece of bread and keep at work all day. He should also be able to bear a pipe of tobacco and a good drink; for without these things nothing can be done. And withal he ought to have some feeling for the stars and the infinite heavens. Then it is a joy to live!” (7).
Lovecraft also had a small income. He derived his living from three sources: 1) a trifling inheritance, 2) his meager ghostwriting, and 3) the occasional short-story sale. Other than a few instances – such as when he lived alone in New York, after his wife sought employment elsewhere – he pooled his income with others, as part of the household upkeep. First, with his mom, next his wife, then in later years, with his surviving aunts, Lillian Delora Phillips and Annie Emeline Phillips. Though HPL understood the cost of things – he ate meager meals, boasting of his frugality in his letters – often, the women in his life managed the household finances:
“…My aunt [Annie E. Phillips] has always been the family banker, but now that she is down I have charge of all papers and accounts, & can see in stark plainness the utter desperateness of our financial situation. With the bottom completely out of revision, & with no knack whatsoever for commercial fiction, I am certainly up against a stone wall as to how to get the cash to stay alive…” (8).
Third, both men wrote large volumes of letters.
Over one thousand letters, primarily between Theo and Vincent Van Gogh, have been preserved for prosperity. As one researcher noted, “The letters are the window to Van Gogh’s universe” (9).
Likewise, one Lovecraft biographer, L. Sprague de Camp estimated that Lovecraft wrote nearly 100,000 letters in his lifetime. Of those, S.T. Joshi estimates that roughly 20,000 letters survive (10).
In the missives, we gain a day-to-day feel for the triumphs and tragedies, the heights and the depths that beset each man.
Both Men were Estranged from Life:
Fourth, at times, both men felt alienated from life.
Lovecraft, for much of his life, saw himself as an outsider. On some level, Lovecraft felt out-of-step with life. He sensed himself a stranger in his own world.
HPL’s feelings grew out of the early disillusionment he felt:
1. Surrounding the premature deaths of significant people in his life;
2. In face of the financial disaster that turned his youthful world upside down.
In some sense, the desperation that first seized many Americans during the 1930s Great Depression struck the Lovecraft household decades before that National malaise.
In turn, Lovecraft faced periods of physical and psychological isolation. For instance, between 1908-1914, Howard withdrew from life due to a reported nervous breakdown. Given his predisposition to depression, among other factors, HPL spoke of himself in the third person, which is often a sign of feeling distanced from life:
“Yet I can assure you that this point of view is joined to one of the plainest, naivest, and most unobtrusively old-fashioned of personalities—a retiring old hermit and ascetic who does not even know what your contemporary round of activities and ‘parties’ is like, and who during the coming winter will probably not address two consecutive sentences to any living person—tradesmen apart—save a pair of elderly aunts!” (11).
L. Sprague de Camp’s autobiography of HPL reinforced that “Outsider” stereotype as the author’s life-long preoccupation. De Camp saw in Lovecraft’s short story The Outsider, a fictional account of HPL’s own feelings of estrangement towards himself.
However, events in Lovecraft’s later years cast doubt on whether feelings of personal alienation continually dominated his life. As Lovecraft spread his literary wings through the budding amateur press movement, the dark, outsider-tone that colored his earlier letters changed. Also, despite the “Outsider” label, Howard engaged life through his large circle of literary pen-pals, his frequent trips to visit them, and his desire to travel.
HPL’s love for Victorian architecture also spurred on his tourism. As his meager funds allowed, he sought the cheapest means possible to gratify those passions. When the narrator of The Shadow Over Innsmouth penned the words:
“…I was celebrating my coming of age by a tour of New England – sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical – and had planned to go directly from ancient Newburyport to Arkham, whence my mother’s family was derived. I had no car, but was travelling by train, trolley and motor-coach, always seeking the cheapest possible route…” (12).
they echoed in fiction Lovecraft’s practical desire for low-cost transportation. One wonders whether HPL skipped meals to save money for his travel.
Did Lovecraft sacrifice his health for his passions? Did the malnutrition from his meager meals, which some believe led to his intestinal cancer, arise from the need to satisfy the longings of his soul?
Despite his commitment to life, Lovecraft often felt different from others, due to his financial straits and his inability to better his circumstances. Though philosophically Lovecraft remained disengaged from life, experientially he embraced it, though in his own fashion.
Let us turn briefly now to Vincent Van Gogh.
Part of Vincent Van Gogh’s anguish grew out the neglect he felt growing up. Often, a person’s outlook on life is shaped by whether his or her mother nurtured or neglected them. In this initial stage of development, Erik Erikson proposes that a child learns whether they can trust the world. The care they receive from caregivers is critical to the formation of trust:
“…If a child successfully develops trust, he or she will feel safe and secure in the world. Caregivers who are inconsistent, emotionally unavailable or rejecting contribute to feelings of mistrust in the children they care for. Failure to develop trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable…” (13).
Vincent Van Gogh lived as a ghost most of his life. He walked in the shadow of his dead namesake elder brother, who died one year before Vincent’s birth. One theory has it that Vincent felt unloved by his mother, who continued to grieve over her idealized, lost son (14).
Note how Van Gogh’s later outlook may echo the early neglect he suffered:
“Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all!” (15).
Both Men were Known for their Flaws:
Fifth, there is an oddness to both Van Gogh and Lovecraft.
Being offbeat does not afflict all authors and artists. But it seems to be multiplied in famous ones.
What first comes to mind when you think of Van Gogh? His art or his eccentricities?
Some believe Vincent would have remained unknown, were it not for his social awkwardness and self-mutilation:
“…audiences have always been attracted to creative talents suffering from physical or psychological flaws…After a lifetime of neglect Gauguin enjoyed posthumous popularity when it was learned he abandoned his bourgeois family and ran off to Tahiti where he dabbled in debauchery as well as oils. Vincent Van Gogh’s painting were lent added luster when posterity discovered he had cut off his ear and presented it to a prostitute. It was ever thus; Achilles is remembered not for his deeds but for his heel…” (16).
And what of Lovecraft? Is HPL’s principled person overshadowed by plush Cthulhu? Or have stereotypes of Howard’s purple prose dwarfed the genius of his later writings?
In recent years, HPL’s racism has dominated the dialogue that surrounds the author, both inside and outside Lovecraft Circles.
There is no denial of Lovecraft’s racism. Each person who follows Lovecraft has to come to his or her own terms with that fact.
However, HPL was not a monomaniac on the subject – it colored but did not dominate his universe.
For one, Lovecraft corresponded with intellectuals, like James Ferdinand Morton (1870-1941), author of the pamphlet, The Curse of Racial Prejudice, (1906). Morton often argued for racial equality with HPL. Though Lovecraft remained unpersuaded, they found other common ground and interests to correspond over until the end of HPL’s life.
Today, polite discourse between people who hold diametrically-opposed opinions is a lost art or viewed as a sign of weakness.
Two, a simple reading of HPL’s letters displays a breadth of subject matters that have nothing to do with his racial views.
For instance, earlier we touched on part of Lovecraft’s arguments for his atheism. Those ideas arose in one of HPL’s thousands of letters.
Are Lovecraft’s arguments for atheism as relevant today, as the day he penned them? What if HPL’s discourse on the subject was more thorough than many of today’s philosophers?
Practically, some people will never study Lovecraft because political-correctness has labeled him a “racist”. In turn, the richness of his arguments for atheism – as well as his thoughts on other subjects – are lost to the public-at-large.
His works are intellectually “fenced-off” from the public like Area 51.
Therefore, one-dimensional caricatures grew up around each man – Van Gogh, with his severed-ear, and Lovecraft, with his stern-racism. Lost in that sea of memes resides a truer picture of the complex artist – Vincent Van Gogh – and the complicated author – Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Lovecraft, Van Gogh, Darkness and the Unknown:
Sixth, the night sky, and the vast emptiness it represented, fascinated both Lovecraft and Van Gogh.
People find different ways to come to terms with the unknown.
Primitive man used the language of religion to describe the unknown painted in midnight hues up there.
Others, such as Native Americans, when confronted with the starry expanse above their camps, called it the Great Mystery – an essence of the eternals they beheld out there, beyond explanation or understanding. The infinity that exists beyond the archetypes. They sought intimacy with the infinite.
Lovecraft also felt the extreme otherness of the night, teeming with the unknown, swarming with the undefined. Of that numinous, HPL wrote:
“I felt myself on the edge of the world; peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night.” (17).
Lovecraft felt the power of his pen unleashed at night. In the twilight hours, he wrote of things and places he might not conceive of during daylight hours:
“…At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night…” (18).
Modern men, like Lovecraft, used the language of fiction to describe the things beyond science that lay in the outer expanse. Lovecraft explored the gaps in man’s knowledge, to create a mood, a sense of the multiplied unknowns that hover in the dark, ready to seize us.
That otherness touches on the primitive in man. It ignites the fear of the dark, when a ravenous predator, such as a saber-tooth tiger, might reach out of the shadows, to drag and then devour us beyond the circle of firelight.
Likewise, Van Gogh felt the night sky held unexplored depths. Vincent observed a little-known spectrum of colors beyond the stereotypical depiction of the starry expanse:
“…At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky…” (19).
Of that hidden spectrum, Lovecraft once wrote:
“…The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen…” (20).
Lovecraft and Van Gogh documented, one in prose and the other in paints, what they saw in the spaces in-between, the dazzling world of absolute light and absolute shadows beyond our five senses. Physicists now define the invisible realms, once described as spiritual worlds by priests, as spatial dimensions.
The Wild Math behind Van Gogh Weird World:
“…Vincent Van Gogh has all the hallmarks of a traditional Lovecraftian protagonist. Brilliant and tortured, he perceived a world beyond the view of most men and brought it to life with his art. Like…many before him that vision would bring him to the edge of madness…eventually resulting in his voluntary commitment to the asylum at Saint-Remy. While there he would paint his most famous creation – The Starry Night…” (21).
Many of their dizzying displays – Lovecraft’s spellbinding words and Van Gogh’s shimmering landscapes – represent art founded in the “here-and-now”. That work outshines traditional displays of the “hereafter”.
Wherein lies their allurement to the modern mind?
One, Lovecraft often wove the latest scientific findings into the fabric of his stories.
For instance, in Dreams in the Witch House, the idea of using the higher mathematics of non-Euclidean space as short cuts through normal space can be traced to A. S. Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World – a work that Lovecraft alludes to having read (22). Also, the solar satellite Pluto, first discovered in 1930, became in Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, the distant planet Yuggoth – an outpost of the fungoid creatures known as the Mi-Go, on the outer edge of the solar system.
In a similar vein, as Van Gogh struggled to capture the essence of the evening skies, he chanced upon a mathematical enigma that has eluded scientists until our day.
In particular, Vincent’s Starry Night of 1889 had an unbeknownst scientific byproduct. As Van Gogh’s circular brushstrokes created a night sky filled with swirling clouds and eddies of stars – he also captured the mathematical quality of turbulence. Later, in 1949, Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov furthered our mathematical understanding of turbulence:
“A turbulent flow is self-similar if there is an energy cascade — in other words, big eddies transfer their energy to smaller eddies, which do likewise at other scales. Examples of this include Jupiter’s great red spot, cloud formations and interstellar dust particles.” (23).
In 2004, using the Hubble Telescope, an international team of scientists saw in the vortexes of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, images reminiscence of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The researchers digitized Vincent’s paintings, and discovered distinct patterns of turbulent fluid structures that closely approximated Kolmogorov’s equations (24).
Thus, Van Gogh unknowingly captured in pigments what the ancient Greek Mathematician Pythagoras called the music of the spheres:
“There is geometry in the humming of the strings…there is music in the spacing of the spheres.” (25).
The Great Corrector of Human Philosophies:
“Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy” (26).
What led Lovecraft and Van Gogh to become interpreters of the marvelous spheres beyond our mundane world? And what steered them to abandon traditional accounts of those invisible worlds in favor of their own?
First, Lovecraft – beyond the intellectual reasons we touched on earlier – walked away from religion, like Russell, based on his passion for astronomy.
There is a great big cosmos out there.
Beyond our earth hovers the moon. Just past the moon hangs our next nearest neighbors, Venus and Mars. Beyond Venus lies the dwarf Mercury and our colossal Sun. In the outer celestial circles, we find the asteroid belt and the great bodies of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Confusion reigns as to what lies beyond those celestial giants – is Pluto a planet, a wandering moon, a shadowy satellite, a dwarf whatever?
Outside our solar system, what then? Other solar systems, the delta quadrant of the Milky Way, to Andromeda and beyond?
Should we concern ourselves about bodies further out?
And what if, despite all of NASA’s prestidigitations and our cleverness as a species, we do not surpass the speed of light? Or suppose we cannot worm our way through one of the cosmic shortcuts that science fiction uses to make interstellar travel reasonable?
The Ever-Expanding Universe and the Incredible-Shrinking Deity:
Movement of the heavenly bodies, and questions posed by astronomy fascinated Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Lovecraft grew up during an era, where established scientific facts and emerging, avant-garde theories forever challenged man’s understanding of himself.
First, the importance of the earth, as man’s residence in the cosmos, diminished. Philosophically, Geocentrism – the belief that the earth resided at the center of the universe – originated not with the church, but first with the Greek Philosopher Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) and later cataloged by Ptolemy (150 AD). The philosopher-theologians of the Medieval Church, such as Thomas Aquinas, created the synergistic idea where:
“The Prime Mover of Aristotle’s universe became the God of Christian theology, the outermost sphere of the Prime Mover became identified with the Christian Heaven, and the position of the Earth at the center of it all was understood in terms of the concern that the Christian God had for the affairs of mankind” (27).
As scientific observation blossomed, renaissance thought struggled to escape the intellectual confines of the church. The ideas of Nicolai Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) moved the earth from the noble center of the universe to its ignoble periphery. Humanity’s importance, once bolstered by the presumed position of its birthplace in the universe, was diminished.
Second, humanity’s birthright was no longer unique. Human beings stood at the pinnacle of a god’s loving creation and continuing interest. Charles Darwin’s (1802-1882) avant-garde ideas about human origins challenged that notion. Evolution needed no guiding hand of a creator. Instead, Darwin raised the novel-idea that chance and survival of the fittest were the guiding mechanisms that led to the emergence of man as the earth’s dominant species. Kings did not rule by divine right, but by demonic ruthlessness. People possessed no divine right over the earth or divine destiny to live out.
If the Cosmicistic ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin were not enough, Lovecraft’s amateur exploits as an astronomer cemented his views on religion. Beginning with observations Lovecraft made with:
1. his own 2½ inch astronomical telescope, owned as early as 1916 (28);
2. his later 3-inch Bardon refractor (29);
3. and also the 13-inch refractor telescope at the Ladd Observatory, Brown University;
the size of the universe grew in HPL’s eyes. The Cosmos swelled from one roughly the size of the Milky Way and 100 million stars in the 1890s to:
“At the time of Lovecraft’s death in 1937, the universe was…vastly larger than it had been at the time of his birth; with over a hundred million stars in our own galaxy, and many tens or hundreds of millions of other galaxies estimated…the universe had expanded by two orders of magnitude in age and nine orders of magnitude in size (as measured by the number of stars) during Lovecraft’s life. That’s eleven orders of magnitude in just over four decades” (30).
The pioneering work of astronomer Edwin Hubble settled the issue in 1925. His research made it clear that there were numerous (billions) of galaxies in the universe. His observations also led to the formulation of the later Big Bang theory.
Had Lovecraft developed a knack for the mathematics of astronomy, he might have become a renowned professor of astronomy in some Eastern University. As it was, Lovecraft possessed a life-long devotion to astronomy:
“…I wonder if you care for the science of Astronomy? This has been a source of fascination to me for twelve years—just half my life…” (31).
Lovecraft’s first-hand knowledge of astronomy reinforced his cosmology and his early intellectual stance against religion. As Lovecraft noted to Maurice Moe, his pious friend and correspondent:
“…I have seen nothing which could…give me the notion that cosmic force is the manifestation of a mind…like my own infinitely magnified; a potent and purposeful consciousness which deals individually and directly with the: miserable denizens of a wretched little fly speck on the back door of a microscopic universe, and which singles this putrid excrescence out as the one spot whereto to send an only-begotten Son, whose mission is to redeem those accursed fly speck-inhabiting lice which we call human beings—bah!!…” (32).
Vincent Van Gogh: His Tangles with Traditional Religion:
“…What am I in most people’s eyes? A nonentity, or an eccentric and disagreeable man – somebody who has no position in life and never will have, in short the lowest of the low. Very well, even if this were true, then I should want my work to show what is in the heart of an eccentric and such a nobody…” (33).
Vincent Van Gogh’s opinion of his place in the universe mirrors the Cosmicistic sentiments, Lovecraft articulated in the title of his autobiography Some Notes on a Nonentity.
Plagued by bouts of demonic melancholy most of his adult life, Van Gogh hoped to lose himself in religious service. Often, those feelings arose in Vincent due to the rejection of his romantic advances, by his cousin Vos and by Eugenie Loyer – the daughter of his landlady, while he worked in London (34).
Van Gogh turned to religion for some of the same reasons people join the Navy or other Armed Forces – to forget someone.
It was only natural that Van Gogh’s mind turned to religion for relief. Vincent’s father, Theodorus Van Gogh (1857-1891), was a Protestant Minister, as were many of his relatives and ancestors:
“Someone in our family has always been a minister of the gospel…it is my prayer and innermost desire that the spirit of my father and grandfather may also rest upon me” (35).
Passionate, headstrong, and impulsive Van Gogh dove into the idea of becoming a minister of the gospel with characteristic fervor. But along the way, Vincent’s own limitations and the expectations of others thwarted his vocational choice.
Vincent’s poor study habits and lack of stick-to-itiveness prevented him from completing the courses and examinations needed to follow in his Father’s footsteps. He saw no point in studying dead languages – Latin and Greek – held up as prerequisites for any worthwhile Divinity student. Sensing no practical application in learning those languages made their mastery an impossible task. His original purpose – to anesthetize himself in a Christ-like service to others, and thus forget his troubled life – seemed all but lost.
Failure seemed his only option.
Therefore, when Vincent discovered a shorter path to that religious pathos – becoming a denominational evangelist by the completion of a three-month practicum and evaluation of his internship – his prayers seemed answered.
He volunteered to serve as a minister to a poor coal-mining hamlet in the Borinage district of southern Belgium (36).
But, there were difficulties from the start.
Van Gogh took words ascribed to Christ:
“… [to] sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me…” (37).
too literally for the coal miners’ and his supervisors’ tastes. Van Gogh gave away all his middle-class possessions and lived humbly, adopting the lifestyle of a beggar. He also assumed the façade of an Old Testament Prophet, clothing himself poorly, and neglecting his personal appearance, to look like one of the coal-dust coated miners.
Such behavior, when combined with Vincent’s other eccentricities, lack of interpersonal skills and rambling Bible lessons, alienated him from those he longed to serve.
However, that was not the only source of Van Gogh’s troubles.
Vincent’s observation of coal-workers’ poor working and living conditions stirred his sense of right and wrong. He urged the miners to strike – a move that vexed the mine owners and brought protests to the ears of his bourgeoisie ministerial supervisors. His overseers’ lavish lifestyles – already challenged by Van Gogh’s vows of poverty – were threatened by the loss of their wealthy parishioners’ financial support.
The inevitable verdict: the upstart Van Gogh had to go. When Vincent’s ministerial supervisors failed to endorse him, his hoped escape in religious service was over.
The transition from priest to painter was hard on Vincent. His health shattered, having no income, and humbled by a series of vocational failures – Van Gogh returned home. Later Vincent wrote of his experience:
“…Oh, my dear boy, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life – the power to create…” (38).
The seeds of Van Gogh disenchantment with God grew out of his disappointment with those practiced “The Faith”, especially his Father:
“…Besides, as I told you before, I hate not to be quite free . . . Father cannot sympathize with, or understand me and I cannot be reconciled to father’s system – it oppresses me – it would choke me . . . all that rubbish about good and evil, morality and immortality, I care so very little for it. For indeed it is impossible always to know what is good and what is bad, what is moral and what is immoral…” (39).
In addition, Vincent further expressed his disheartenment with his Dad:
“…On Christmas I had a violent scene with father and it went so far that father told me I had better leave the house. Well, he said it so decidedly that I actually left it the same day. The real reason…I did not go to church, and also said that if going to church was compulsory and if I was forced to go, I certainly should never go again out of consideration, as I had done rather regularly all the time I was in Etten. I was in such a passion as I do not remember having ever been in my life, and I frankly said that I thought their whole system of religion horrible…” (40).
Afterwards, Vincent had little place left in his heart for the God his Father preached. Yet, Van Gogh still expressed admiration for the man called Jesus:
“…Oh, I am no friend of the present Christianity, though its Founder was sublime, the present Christianity I know but too well. That icy coldness bewitched even me in my youth…” (41).
Disillusioned as Vincent was, he felt the need for something greater in his life. Unlike Lovecraft, Vincent was more prone to follow his intuition than his intellect.
He sought a balance between the chaos that was his life and the creativity that gave him life.
The Sensitive Artist and the Sensible Author:
What elements unite the Sensitive Artist and the Sensible Author? One blogger notes:
“There are certain artists whose underlying sensitivity, vulnerability, instability allow them to access certain ideas in a particularly direct way. I think of Van Gogh and Lovecraft, different as they are, as both being in this category. Paradoxically, it’s the art that also helps them deal with those particular aspects of their personality. So the temperament of the artist poses a problem that the art itself helps with. There is something in Van Gogh, Lovecraft, Pollock: their work seems to expose an underlying darkness, and a dark order, at the center of the universe. Even Van Gogh’s sunflowers are touched by that darkness. It’s as though these artists intuited something. In Lovecraft it comes out as shuggoths, which can seem silly. But the sense he has of the universe, of the way it works, the way it’s founded on a sort of chaotic order – I relate that to Pollock’s paintings.
Again, not all artists are like this. Many of them are perfectly sensible, cheerful, productive people. But there is a place, for certain artists I think, where art both causes the pain and is a rescue from pain. It’s profoundly paradoxical, and difficult to deal with I would imagine. Because I can only imagine myself a little way into Pollock’s world, or Van Gogh’s world” (42).
The bizarre color interactions in Vincent Van Gogh’s work mimic the indescribable colors interactions in The Colour Out of Space. Reading Lovecraft’s language is like looking at a Van Gogh painting – overwhelming
We see pain in their pigments and prose.
Art is a cannibalistic act. Art eats away at the artist who creates it. Art also sucks the life out of the artist. In the end, the artist dies so that the art might live.
So Lovecraft and Van Gogh – theirs is the art of pain, the prose of loss. That pain unites them like co-jointed twins.
Religion can no more soothe their angst, than gasoline douse fire.
The Starry Night Stirs Primitive Recollections:
Once Lovecraft and Van Gogh were stripped of their religious trappings, both men gazed into the night sky for inspiration.
Both were stirred on a primitive level when they looked into the night sky:
“…The effect is caused by luminance, the intensity of the light in the colors on the canvas. The more primitive part of our visual cortex, which sees light contrast and motion, but not color will blend to differently colored areas together if they have the same luminance. But our brains primate subdivision will see the contrasting colors without blending. With these two interpretations happening at once, the light in many Impressionist works seems to pulse, flicker and radiate oddly. That’s how this and other impressionist works use quickly executed prominent brushstrokes to capture something strikingly real about how light moves…” (43).
As each man stared into the deep heavens, the sights aroused the same sense of wonder that moved our primitive forbearers. Aldous Huxley summarized the mystical experience:
“…as a special kind of feeling or intuition — a sense of the oneness of all…The ordinary waking consciousness is a very useful…but it is by no means the only form of consciousness…Insofar as he transcends his ordinary self and his ordinary mode of awareness, the mystic is able to enlarge his vision, to look more deeply into the unfathomable miracle of existence.
The mystical experience is doubly valuable; it is valuable because it gives the experiencer a better understanding of himself and the world and because it may help him to lead a less self-centered and more creative life…” (44).
For Van Gogh, the mystical experience released his creativity, and lent a sense of nobility to his otherwise ignoble existence:
“…Man is not on this earth only to be happy, he is not only there to be simply honest, he is there to realize great things for humanity, to attain nobility and to surpass the vulgarity in which the existence of almost all individuals drags on…” (45).
Lovecraft’s sense of awe propelled him to poetic ecstasies. Hence, the inspiration for HPL’s poetry in Fungi from Yuggoth. In that work, Dr. Robert M. Price traces the effect of primitive emotions on the intellectual HPL:
“…Long ago, Fritz Leiber made the essential observation about Lovecraft and his Mythos. He correctly pegged Lovecraft’s vision of cosmic horror as synonymous with what Rudolf Otto called the numinous experience, the urgency of uncanny fear, holy terror, prompted by the ripping away of the worldly veil (which is the literal meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’). We cower in terror at the Wholly Other thus revealed. And yet we do not flee, because we sense that the Other, being infinite, possesses all that we, as finite creatures, lack. And thus we are at once both terrified and enthralled. Even if we perish like moths, we must fly to the flames, for, once we encounter that fulfilling knowledge, we will become one with it, even in the moment we are consumed. And that is the obsessive quest of Lovecraft’s protagonists. And it is the quest of the mystic, of the Sufi, the Non-dualist, the Taoist, of Meister Eckhart…” (46).
One definition of religion is belief in someone else’s experiences. On the other hand, spirituality is having your own experience.
While Van Gogh and Lovecraft either lost their religion, or never had one to begin with, they both embraced the awe that enthralled their primitive ancestors. In that sense, they each possessed a spirituality.
The ancients ascribed to a god or gods, bewilderment at their sense of smallness in face of the immense universe. On the other hand, Lovecraft accepted the cosmos as it was – a mystery that defies theistic explanations. Out of that sense of mystery – of an expanse greater than himself – grew Lovecraft’s Cosmicism. And HPL, captivated by the unknown he saw among the stars, populated his fictional universe with aliens, who otherworldly existences, framed them as gods in the collective memory of mankind.
To put it another way, Lovecraft blurred the line between his fictional Old Ones and the undefined shadows that haunt humanity’s racial unconsciousness.
Van Gogh: Living the Madness:
Van Gogh inflamed his paintings with increasing fiery colors, until he himself burnt out – his mind a scorched wasteland, his body decimated by years of hunger.
Observe how Vincent described the smoldering inferno that burned inside him:
“…I feel a power in me which I must develop, a fire that I may not quench, but must keep ablaze, though I do not know to what result it will lead me, and shouldn’t wonder if it were a gloomy one…” (47).
As Van Gogh peered beyond the veil, he struggled to capture the splendor of what he saw. In the Lovecraft literary tradition, Vincent went mad and died at his own hand in the process.
In the brief years between the time Vincent finally chose life of an artist, and his premature death, he felt truly alive. He tried desperately to fill those moments with the elation that birthing art stirred in his person.
Don Mclean, famed for his Magnus-Opus American Pie, wrote another hit called Vincent, after reading about the artist’s troubled life. The haunting song captures a sense of the price Van Gogh paid for handling the lightning his canvases captured.
In closing, here is an excerpt from that song:
“Vincent (Starry, Starry Night):
Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land
Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free…
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now…” (48).
1) “Losing my Religion”, Artist: REM, Album: Out of Time, Label: Warner Bros., Release Date, February 19, 1991.
2) The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus, 1942.
3) “A Confession of Unfaith”, by H.P. Lovecraft, The Liberal, February 1922.
4) H.P. Lovecraft, In Defense of Dagon, 1921.
5) “The Meaning of Life According to H.P. Lovecraft and Robert M. Price”, by Mike Davis, The Lovecraft eZine, April 18, 2014.
6) “Vincent: The Troubled Life of Vincent Van Gogh”, by Bonnie Butterfield, 2011.
7) The Letters of a Post-Impressionist Being the Familiar Correspondence of Vincent Van Gogh, by Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony M. Ludovici (1912 Translation), Kindle Edition, Location 855.
8) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Alfred Galpin, June 24, 1933.
9) Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters, Edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke
10) “Lovecraft Letters”, hplovecraft.com.
11) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to August Derleth: November 21, 1930.
12) The Shadow Over Innsmouth, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1931.
13) “Trust Versus Mistrust: Stage One of Psychosocial Development,” by Kendra Cherry, psychology.about.com, October 22, 2015.
14) “Alternative Explanations of Life Events”, Handbook of Psychobiography, edited by
William Todd Schultz, 2005, pp. 96-102.
15) Vincent Van Gogh’s Letter to Theo Van Gogh, July 1880.
16) “Introduction,” by Robert Bloch, Strange Shadows: The Uncollected Fiction and Essays of Clark Ashton Smith, editors: Steve Behrends, Donald Sydney-Fryer & Rah Hoffman, 1989, xvii.
17) Dagon, by H.P. Lovecraft, July 1917.
18) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Lillian D. Clark, September 1, 1925.
19) Vincent Van Gogh’s Letter to Emile Bernard, June 18, 1888.
20) The Dunwich Horror, by H.P. Lovecraft, Summer 1928.
21) “The Starry Stars are Right”, by Propnomicon, propnomicon.blogspot.com, May 18,
22) “Dispatches from the Providence Observatory: Astronomical Motifs and Sources in the Writings of H.P. Lovecraft”, by T.R. Livesey, Lovecraft Annual, New York: Hippocampus Press, pp. 71-73.
23) “The Fluid Dynamics of ‘The Starry Night’: How Vincent Van Gogh Explains the
Scientific Mysteries of Movement and Light”, by Maria Popova, brainpickings.org.
24) “The Unexpected Math Behind Van Gogh’s Starry Night”, by Merce Cardus,
February 19, 2015, mercecardus.com.
25) “Pythagoras & Music of the Spheres”, dartmouth.edu.
26) “What I Believe”, an Essay by Bertrand Russell, 1925.
27) “The Old Astronomy: The Universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy”, Astronomy 161, source: csep10.phys.utk.edu.
28) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Rheinhart Kleiner, November 16, 1916.
29) “Silver Spoon”, The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe, by Donald Tyson, 2010, p. 28.
30) “What scared H.P. Lovecraft”, by Charles Stross, antipope.org, November 27,
31) H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Maurice W. Moe, December 8, 1914.
32) _________________________________, May 15, 1918.
33) Vincent Van Gogh’s Letter to Theo Van Gogh, July 21, 1882.
34) “Chronology”, Van Gogh’s Women: Vincent’s Love Affairs and Journey into Madness, by Derek Fell, 2004, p. 254.
35) Vincent Van Gogh’s Letter to Theo Van Gogh, March 1877.
36) Van Gogh’s Women: Vincent’s Love Affairs and Journey into Madness, p. 255.
37) “Luke 18:22”, New American Standard Bible, 1995.
38) Vincent Van Gogh’s Letter to Theo Van Gogh, September 3, 1888.
39) ____________________________________, December 21, 1881.
40) ____________________________________, December 29, 1881.
41) ____________________________________, October 1884.
42) “Pollock’s Drawings”, by Theodora Goss, Dec 12, 2010, theodoragoss.com.
43) “The Unexpected Math Behind Van Gogh’s Starry Night”, by Merce Cardus,
February 19, 2015, mercecardus.com.
44) “The Mystical Experience”, by Aldous Huxley, mindpodnetwork.com.
45) Vincent Van Gogh’s Letter to Theo Van Gogh, May 8, 1875.
46) “’The Meaning of life’, According to H.P. Lovecraft and Robert M. Price”, by Mike Davis, The Lovecraft eZine, April 18, 2014.
47) Vincent Van Gogh’s Letter to Theo Van Gogh, November 5, 1882.
48) “Starry, Starry Night”, Artist: Don McLean, Album, American Pie, Label: United Artists Records, Release Date: June 17, 1971.
John DeLaughter M.S., is a Data Security Analyst and Lovecraft Essayist who lives in rural Pennsylvania with his wife Heidi, their family, two dog, two cats, and a chicken coop. He devoured Lovecraft, beginning with At the Mountains of Madness, in high school and is presently editing an original epic fantasy work, Dark Union Rising.
What an essay. I’d noted the Lovecraftian element to the Song Vincent and your essay makes a great point linking the two. Bravo.
Jared: Thank you for your kinds words. This article was one of those “back burner” projects that took awhile, before the themes in common between these two great men, Lovecraft and Van Gogh, began to appear. And the song “Vincent” has struck a chord with me, even from the days when I first heard it in High School. I’m glad the essay resonated with you, and thanks again!
Hey H.M., thanks for reading the essay and leaving a comment. I know from the letters of Lovecraft that I have access to, that HPL was intellectually interacting with Albert Einstein’s ideas, and that Einstein did postulate the existence of black holes. How far that study of Einstein went may be found in one of S.T. Joshi’s books. I’m sure HPL would have felt vindicated, one way or the other, for astronomy was his cosmic yardstick. Thank you again for commenting on the article!
I often wonder what Lovecraft would have made of the discoveries made about the universe after his death. He was, essentially, right about the cosmos being home to vast, unnamable horrors. Imagine what he would have thought of black holes or dark matter for example.
This is a fascinating essay–and it’s strange to think that my own experience has been completely opposite of Lovecraft’s, and that since returning to my religion I have written my finest books.
Wilum H. Pugmire, I really want to thank you for taking the time to read the essay and leave a comment. Finding one’s own creative voice and the form(s), through which that birthing process is expressed, is a very individualistic journey – no one follows the same path. Religion, in the case of this essay, was a means to bring together my thoughts on two creative individuals, whose life stories have deeply touched me. But as your own celebrated journey as an artist points out, no monolith statement, no one-size-fits-all angle dares claim to capture all the nuances that a creative individual goes through. I mentioned J.R.R. Tolkien in passing, because unlike Lovecraft, Tolkien’s creativity – which many, including myself, revere – was borne out of a faith, rather than apart from one. Again, thank you Wilum for your thoughtful comment!
Your comparisons between Van Gogh and Lovecraft succeed better than I would’ve imagined. I started this piece with much skepticism, but the points you make flow together beautifully and naturally. Well done.
Mike, I appreciate you reading the article, and taking the time comment on it! Intuitively, I felt for some time that there was some degree of connectivity between these two figures, who posthumously stand so tall in their given fields. The idea wouldn’t die, until assembling a list of their quotes side-by-side started to show similarities in their lives. Hey, this is Lovecraft and Van Gogh, two of the most interesting and creative people in the past few centuries, true forerunners in their fields. After the framework between the two grew, the rest of the information filled in the blanks. Again, thank you for your thoughtful comments!
BTW, if the “Van Gogh Alive” exhibit should come to your town, be sure to catch it. Imagine crystal-clear images of Van Gogh’s masterworks projected on floors, ceilings, and walls. It’s accompanied by biographical and interpretative texts, as well as actors portraying people who interacted with the artist. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Thanks for the info Mike. I believe from time-to-time on Facebook, that traveling Van Gogh exhibit comes up in my feed, as I have a few Van Gogh pages liked. Nothing like seeing such an exhibit in person, I hope I have the opportunity. I love the virtual visions of art that can often be found on YouTube, for example. I also found Van Gogh’s letters to really help get into his heart and his head.
Fantastic essay, bring together two of the most tortured souls of the late 19th/early 20th C. I particularly admired the ease with which the author moved between Van Gogh and Lovecraft, all the while weaving a most compelling narrative.
Hey Joe, thank you for taking the time to respond to this essay. I have sought a means in the few years to find a bridge to bring the stories of both men – each a genius in his own right – together. And it was their conflict with religion, their finding inspiration in the dark of the night and the human psyche, and their cutting-edge creativity – that brought their stories together. I am glad you enjoyed the essay and thank you for your kind words!