Vincent Van Gogh and Doctor Who.
It feels odd to say it, but I was moved, two days ago, by an episode of Doctor Who, the saga of an immortal time traveller. Before you think me too eccentric in my feelings, I shall explain.
The episode in question concerned Vincent Van Gogh. Doctor Who travelled to visit him, at the beginning of his final year of life, upon seeing his art in the Musee D’Orsay. I will not spoil the episode for you, should you be interested in following the adventures of Dr. Who, but I do need to address one point.
Vincent Van Gogh was adjudged by all, himself included, a failure in his lifetime. His art was rejected. He only ever sold one work and that was to someone close to him. In the end, he so despaired of his life, of his social rejection, of his failure, that he took his own life at the age of 37. He died thinking that his entire life had been a failure. He died never knowing what impact he was to make upon art subsequent to his death.
None of us know what posthumous mark we will make. None of us know whether posterity will even give us one thought, or whether all that we did and were, will be lost when the last person who remembers us, dies. This is the common fate of Man. We cannot see what our lives provoke, in the time beyond our final day. We live and die, not knowing whether or not we will be forgotten.
The situation with regards to Van Gogh is particularly acute. His sense of failure was so strong, his conviction that his life amounted to nothing was so intense, that he actually killed himself. Yet, Vincent Van Gogh is accounted one of the greatest painters who ever lived. The tragedy is that he never knew it. The one person to whom this success would have mattered most, never got the chance to witness it.
In Doctor Who, Vincent Van Gogh is transported into the future, to the modern era. He is taken into the Musee D’Orsay to an exhibition of his own work. He is stunned to see that anyone would ever care enough about his works – which he was unable to sell in his lifetime – to exhibit them in a national museum. He is profoundly moved by this, to learn that his life was not a failure after all. Yet, that is not what moved him most. He overhears a museum art guide describe him as the greatest painter who ever lived. Tears well in his eyes. The failure in life, is to be a success in death.
I was deeply touched by this, for there is great tragedy in Vincent Van Gogh’s life. More tragic than his life, was that his early death deprived him of the knowledge of his own eventual acceptance and success. The greatest gift Van Gogh could ever have received, was knowledge of his own future reputation. Van Gogh, in Doctor Who, witnessed what none of us do: what the world thinks of us and says of us, when we are gone. He saw his impact on future time, long after his own death. What made it all the more poignant is that his success in death, should be in such contrast to his utter failure in life.
None of us know what final impact our lives will have, if any, on the world. Even people who are famous in their own lifetimes, may be unremembered just fifty or a hundred years after their deaths. Many a “famous” writer of the early twentieth century is now utterly forgotten. So, too, many of the early film stars. Their names would go unrecognized today, except by film historians. So, too, is it so, for those not known in their lifetimes, who may become famous in death. I find these cases peculiar, for everyone seems to know of them, except themselves: they never lived to see their own reputations blossom.
No matter what we think we know of our lives, we cannot know what will be thought of us after we are gone. Nothing is a guarantee that our memories shall endure – not even fame in one’s own lifetime. We cannot know whether, by having lived, we have changed the world in any enduring fashion. All we can do, in our lives, is to express our uniqueness, as best as we can and hope that the world and the future find value in it, even if we shall never know it. There is one mercy in all of this, however: that is, even if the future forgets us, we shall not be around to know about it. Yet, the opposite applied in Van Gogh’s case – the future remembers him – and he never knew.
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