Of Lost Time, Future Science Group’s literary unit, will soon publish a collection of famous letters, memoirs, and personal correspondence from a wide range of historical figures.
A fascinating letter written by the tormented artist Vincent Van Gogh will feature in this collection, opening a window into the deepest workings of his mind and disclosing an intimate, heart-wrenching portrait of the talented yet tortured man as he struggled to understand his place in the world.
Van Gogh is one of the world’s most famous artists with one of the most tragic stories.
Even today, historians are trying to piece together the puzzle of his life and death.
Van Gogh’s story is one of unrecognised genius and personal torment, and his works sadly went unappreciated while he was alive.
A Man Possessed
Few artists could use pain as a catalyst for creativity as well as Van Gogh. Considered something of an artistic enigma, he used art to depict not only what he saw but also what he felt.
His works are well known for their striking use of form and colour, instantly recognisable through his characteristic skill in capturing and portraying the splendour of our world.
Van Gogh challenged the traditional paths that others suggested he take, which left him constantly wrestling to understand what purpose his life served.
Despite brief spells as a schoolteacher and a religious preacher, Van Gogh seemed to only truly find solace behind a canvas.
However, in choosing the path of an artist he retreated further into his own world, inhabiting a solitary life often plagued by loneliness and struggles with sanity.
His prolonged mental illness led those who knew him to consider him possessed, even demonic, a narrative that even he began to accept.
Many now believe he suffered from epilepsy, a condition that was untreatable at the time.
“If I Don’t Keep on Trying Then I’m Lost”
Written to his brother, Theo, in June 1880, the letter that will feature in Of Lost Time’s forthcoming collection sees Van Gogh battling his inner demons and attempting to come to terms with the meaning that he felt his life lacked.
The letter marks the first correspondence from Van Gogh to his brother after a break in contact that lasted almost a year.
Translated from the original French, this letter gives readers an intimate look into Van Gogh’s mind and the pattern of thinking that would come to destabilise and ultimately end his life.
In the letter, Van Gogh attempts to combat his family’s perception of him as a failure, detailing the mental prison in which he found himself.
After first acknowledging that his brother has become a “stranger” to him, and vice versa, the artist wrote that he had become “some sort of impossible and suspect character in the family” and “somebody who isn’t trusted”, as detailed in Of Lost Time’s video series.
Van Gogh’s self-perception as a person who lacked value is clear: “how then could I be useful to anybody in any way?”
He continued that he believed it most beneficial for the family if he remained distant, to make it as though he “didn’t exist”.
Later in the letter, Van Gogh described his notion of an “active melancholy”, comparing this to “one that despairs, mournful and stagnant”.
His personal philosophy suggested that while melancholy was never fully absent from his life, he had to study, aspire, and search when he had the strength. Otherwise, he would fall into a depressive state of mind.
An Idle Man Is Like an Idle Bird
A portion of the missive sees Van Gogh ruminating over the direction his life should take and how his perceived lack of purpose and adequacy created his emotional distance from the world.
With no clear path to fulfilment, he wondered: “what could I be good for? Couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way?
How could I come to know more thoroughly and go more deeply into this subject or that?”
This uncertainty was a source of continual torment, and he described himself as a “prisoner in penury”, shut out from pursuits that he felt were beyond his reach.
This led to his melancholic state, and he felt “emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections.”
Then, Van Gogh went on to describe the anxiety of life, one without any clear purpose or fulfilment, as the frustration of a bird trapped in a cage during springtime, sensing the impulse to build nests and raise young but unable to act.
Trapped, the bird “bangs his head against the bars of the cage, and then the cage stays there, and the bird is mad with suffering. An idle man like that,” Van Gogh added, “resembles an idle bird”.
A Most Powerful Spell
A final plea for affection saw Van Gogh explain to Theo that forming a deep human connection could ease his suffering.
He claimed that “to be friends, to be brothers, to love” would be “a most powerful spell”, and that without such relationships he would remain “in death”.
Though he sought recognition and validation, after writing to his brother, Van Gogh’s mental state continued to deteriorate over the coming years.
Until his last days, he continued to think of himself as a failure. Today, he is one of the most influential and prolific figures in the history of Western art.
Illuminating Hidden Voices Through Famous Letters
Of Lost Time is the literary unit of Future Science Group, a prolific publishing house in London that produces peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals.
Of Lost Time brings hidden voices and stories of the past to the public in the form of personal and sometimes famous letters, which are often our most intimate sources of historical insight.
Its collections are carefully curated and document key moments in history, penned by both well known and more obscure individuals.
Each letter anthology allows readers a glimpse into the thoughts of history’s artists, philosophers, scientists, athletes, and public figures and comprises letters united by an overarching theme.
Of Lost Time also shares deeper insights into particularly important and famous letters through its video series on Youtube.
Episodes in this series include “Mark Twain on the Origin of Ideas”, “Beethoven Saves His Life for Art”, and “Harriet Tubman Fights Slavery”.