Looking Back

Diagnosing the Dead

September 20, 2016

Multiple Pages
Diagnosing the Dead

Beginning with Roger Fry’s elevation of Vincent van Gogh to secular sainthood, the Dutch painter first became a middlebrow, then a mass-market, martyr. For those who find the Real Thing (or their idea of Him) inconveniently demanding, van Gogh makes for a passable Jesus, right down to the suffering and resurrection.

Evidence of the latter is unavoidable. His paintings, yes, reproduced as posters, and stamped on coffee mugs and postage stamps and every hospitable (and sellable) surface. But poor van Gogh himself is regularly reanimated by mere mortals whose self-indulgence can’t be arrested in time. Lust for Life is clumsy, this new movie looks to be no better—and have you seen THAT Doctor Who episode in all its gift-shop glory? For such spectacles was Pepto-Bismol born. (If that show is an exemplar of the “new golden age” of television, kindly leave me alone with my Night Court reruns.)

Heretics are rare and swiftly dealt with; Diane Keaton’s character in Manhattan is made to number “van GOCK” (complete with guttural affectation) among her “Academy of the Overrated” as thumbnail evidence of her neurotic pretentiousness. (Whereas van Gogh’s flesh-and-blood votaries are often the truly pretentious ones. Seriously: You have to watch that Doctor Who mess…)

“Am I the only one who finds this biographical cannibalism if not morbid, then at the very least tastelessly presumptuous?”

Not that I’m one of the heretics, exactly. I’m mostly ignorant about uppercase “Art.” The scandalous handiworks of the Armory Show having been masticated through mass reproduction, I naturally find all the customary van Goghs perfectly agreeable—although, if the translations can be trusted, he might have been a better writer than a painter.

However, we all know that van Gogh’s paintings would hardly command hundred-million-dollar auction bids were it not for his tragic biography. Which brings us to his suffering, and his other curious afterlife: as an incorruptible dissection specimen.

Determining the exact nature of van Gogh’s malady—whatever drove him mad enough to cut off his ear and then take his own life—has been steered as much by fashion as forensics. When “epilepsy” was in style, that was the verdict. Then came, in rough chronological order of voguery: syphilis, schizophrenia, “the effects of too intense sun on a Nordic brain,” manic depression (when it was still called that), psychosis, borderline personality disorder, Ménière’s disease, and acute intermittent porphyria. Each was touted by experts eager to claim the painter as their particular specialty’s patron saint.

And now yet another symposium has sent down yet another verdict:

Van Gogh “did not suffer from lifelong medical conditions,” certainly nothing more exotic than “an alcohol problem.” His breakdowns were concentrated in the last eighteen months of his life, caused, perhaps, “by alcohol intoxication, lack of sleep, work stress and troubles with Gauguin, who was going to leave—attachment being one of his problems in life. He had repeated episodes of psychosis but recovered completely in between.”

Oh, and that story about his ear was mostly wrong too.

Or so they say this week. I sense a shift in the way scholars are sifting through the lives of the greats, away from postmortem pathologizing, the medicalization of history, and the contraction of creativity down to, say, lead poisoning, or even that old standby, sublimation.

For instance, they’ve been manfully chipping away at Emily Dickinson’s legendary reclusion, although the misfits and “misunderstood geniuses” for whom she (and van Gogh) are mascots aren’t budging. (And in the poet’s hometown there’s the tourist trade to think of—making Amherst a bit like the “Amity” of Jaws, except they want their shark, dammit…)

Now we’re being told that:

(1) Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers weren’t symbolic vulvas after all, Freudians and feminists alike be damned.

(2) Cat-crazed Louis Wain’s “mental degeneration,” as allegedly evidenced by his paintings’ intensifying “trippiness,” turns out to have been manipulated into existence by a careerist quack.

(3) The real story of “the guy who came up with a formula for altruism, then killed himself” is more complex than the veritable Ron Howard movie we’ve always been presented with.

Because of course it is. The impulse to conduct fantasy autopsies shrinks entire lives down to a round of Clue: It was King George, at Kew Palace, with porphyria.

Except, they now say, it wasn’t.

All this debunkery is unwelcome news for hacks who depend upon a deep well of ready-made human metaphors to dip into when crafting their mediocre poetry, motivational speeches, op-ed meditations upon the zeitgeist, master’s and doctoral theses, and, well, Ron Howard movies.

But of course, all these definitive theories and “last words” will one day give way under the weight of the next intellectual trend. Every new—God help us—Freud or Foucault always accessorizes his philosophy with the obligatory illustrative “case histories.” Doctrine via Madame Tussaud’s.

Ironically, only the very storied dead being played with and plied like Barbies have no say. Perhaps I’m just being quirkily scrupulous, but am I the only one who finds this biographical cannibalism if not morbid, then at the very least tastelessly presumptuous, like those creepy commercials in which the late Fred Astaire was manipulated into maneuvering a vacuum cleaner?

For over 150 years, one particularly popular exemplar was Phineas Gage. “Neuroscience’s most famous patient,” he survived a spike through the brain circa 1848, then lived on after death as symptom and symbol of something or other.

“Each generation revises his myth,” declared Slate, which then promised, “Here’s the true story.”

Until next time.

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