As I was sitting peacefully at the bar, she accosted me.
I had a laptop before me, on an unusually bustling evening. Earlier a friend had joined me, but he had to leave. Despite the continuing raucous clamor coming from the large group behind us, as he left, I ordered a second beer, knowing that whatever the atmosphere would not permit in conversation would still serve well for my work.
After halfheartedly working on a couple of spreadsheets and documents, I pulled up a pdf of an old book about Vincent Van Gogh that I had been skimming at similar junctures.
I had this book on my desktop because a woman I knew had recently become fascinated by Van Gogh after seeing the film Loving Vincent. I began to share her fascination after we saw At Eternity’s Gate together one evening, months later. We disagreed on the relative value of the two films. She preferred the first, and though I was only able to see the trailer, something about the animation seemed overwrought, distracting, to me. I preferred the purer experience of Eternity, and despite a number of factual inaccuracies in the story, I chose to see it several more times on a Delta seatback TV.
So, a compilation of Van Gogh’s letters seemed a good way to feed my fascination, which had already leapfrogged hers. I wanted to become familiar with his creative impulse and motivation, possibly reinforcing my own. I kept paging through the e-book pdf, finding many noteworthy passages but frustrated that there was no sufficiently effortless way to bookmark, write marginalia, or highlight passages, as I might with a real book.
Suddenly, a woman strode boldly up from somewhere out of the crowd and purposefully sat in the empty barstool next to me. She was not shy at all. In a single deft motion, she physically took the seat and verbally broke the plane of unfamiliarity it had defined. “Hi! What are you reading?” She was very inquisitive. She wanted to know not only what I was reading, but what motivated me to read it, and what it was teaching me.
This was not an ordinary situation, yet one that I know fairly well. I felt pretty sure she had been part of that boisterous crowd behind me, and she had decided to split off to stir something up because she was getting bored and she wanted to be entertained differently for a while. It seemed I was right. After we talked for a few minutes about why Van Gogh had been fascinating me and why this book was amazing, a male came up. “Dude, why are you talking to my girlfriend?” She was aghast, said some version of “it’s ok,” and basically told him to go away. The rest of the group, including the male, left for another bar. She seemed relieved.
Now, splitting with your cohorts at a bar can be a mark of a highly intelligent person who finds herself in unrewarding company and is cognizant enough to realize it. Or it can simply be taken at face value. I wanted to know which it was. So I was willing to continue humoring her, because with this book, I was armed unusually well to recognize the former, if it was there.
We continued talking. When she challenged me as to why I was specifically interested in Van Gogh and not his paintings but his letters, I responded that I wanted to know what motivates an artist, and that as a writer perhaps I could benefit from it. I also pointed out that this particular book, a compilation of his letters to his younger brother and benefactor Theo, demonstrated an interesting fact — that these letters, which were never meant for public consumption, actually give us most of what we know about the artist. In fact, when he and Theo were living in the same household, no letters were written between them at all; and as a result, today we know very little about what Vincent was thinking when painting the works he created during those intervals. This principle also affects the legacy of many other writers, artists, and poets — that their ephemeral works, the letters that they had to write in order to bridge what was, to them, just an inconvenient gap of distance, wind up telling us much more about them than their intentional works alone ever could. The periods in their lives that were most convenient to them are the least convenient to us.
Vincent discarded most of the letters he received from his brother. But Theo kept and cared for every one of Vincent’s. It is not hard to become convinced that this trove of insight was the single most influential factor that made it possible for an unknown artist, after his death — as well as Theo’s death less than a year later — to generate the interest that allowed his work to become recognized by the world. By Van Gogh’s lifetime, the importance of understanding a person’s work in the context of their life had already been expressed by Thoreau, in a private journal entry in 1857:
The real facts of a poet’s life would be of more value to us than any work of his art. Shakespeare has left us his fancies and imaginings, but the truth of his life, with its becoming circumstances, we know nothing about. The writer is reported, the liver not at all. But we want the basis of fact, of an actual life, to complete our Shakespeare, as much as a statue wants its pedestal.
Back at the bar, my inquisitive companion was clearly impressed by what she had stumbled upon — the probing questions she had probably intended to tease me with were generating solid answers. If I had instead been reading a manual on website design or some other prosaic topic, with what comparable matter could I possibly have responded?
She insisted on knowing the title of the book, and also my number, so we could talk about it again.
Of course, I was very skeptical at this proposition. I’ve seen these situations before. This had all the hallmarks of a person letting loose for an evening, trying to get out of their head in any way possible, poking and prodding anything that looks interesting, with full knowledge and intention that any intrigues that this may open will be duly closed when the designated driver leaves for home. If it had not already been proven circumstantially by the general circumstances, and the yawning chasm of our age difference, then the brief appearance of the suspicious boyfriend was the quod erat demonstrandum (and, to his credit, an effective move for an insecure male). I did, however, allow her to take a picture of the title page of the book, so she could look it up on her own. Then, her female friend walked up, looking a bit concerned, and carrying the message that it was definitely time to go. My new friend allowed herself to be pulled away, and left. “It was nice meeting you.” Likewise. I have no way of knowing if she ever looked up the book, but I like to believe that she did.
In the weeks afterward, I became interested in reading this book properly, so I managed to find a print copy, pictured above. Printed in 1913, it is one of those books that came hardcover bound, but with untrimmed pages. In those days, books were not always trimmed at the edges, meaning that many of the pages were still joined together at the outer edges as a result of the folding and binding process. In the course of reading the book, the reader was expected to “open” the pages, two at a time, by cutting through the fold with a penknife. Some old books can be found today with a number of uncut pages, indicating that they were never entirely read. Not this one. Every page has been carefully cut with a paper knife, probably by Sam A. Lewisohn, whose name is on the bookplate.
A quote from William Blake, though a bit out of context, has always expressed to me exactly why pubs and cafes should be important to a creative mind: “…that Reason may have Ideas to build upon.” When I open a brewpub, this will be inscribed on its lintel. Van Gogh’s letters indicate that he frequented bars and cafes, and I believe that it was, at least in part, for this very type of stimulation, which I find in some bars and cafes today. That inquisitive woman’s foray that evening generated a lot of thought, and probably played a key role in my decision to add the book to my collection.
But this vein of social intrigue is really what bars are about, are they not — at least for the thinkers? To expand the imagination, and to push against, and test, the boundaries that reality routinely constrains it to — an opportunity for events and ideas that are not likely to be experienced or expressed in workaday hours to become, at least for a moment, likelier.