a. Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait as a Painter, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh foundation)


1. Van Gogh Museum, “Hospitalization”, Van Gogh Museum. 

2. “Phoebe Waller-Bridge: ‘There was an alternative ending to Fleabag ... but I’ll never tell’”, The Guardian, 09/11/2019.

3. Emily Temple, “Susan Sontag on Being a Writer: ‘You Have to Be Obsessed’”, Literary Hub, 2017.

4. Mason Currey, Daily Rituals, How Artists Work, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, p. 12. 
i-001. | 18/10/20 

Interlude: on obsession

I realised there’s some things missing from this blog, some aspects I haven’t addressed yet. 

From the start, I knew I wanted to involve three people in every post. Van Gogh and his creative life, his disappointments and his madnesses. The travelling me, exploring the places where he lived and worked, the little that’s left of him. And the professional me, the writer trying to justify calling herself that. 

Whether I’ve already managed to invoke these three in every post, let’s leave that for now. Last week my mentor, who’s been helping me with my writing for nearly four years now, and who’s given me so many things, kindness and encouragement and belief in my ability, everything Van Gogh never really had, she pointed out to me that additionally there are two main questions at the heart of this blog: 

How did Van Gogh keep going?

And how do I keep going? 

Many ways of answering these questions. One of them is through the theme of obsession. ‘An idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind,’ says the OED. If there’s one thing all biographies and all accounts of Van Gogh’s life agree on, no matter how trivial or ill-informed they are, it’s that Van Gogh was obsessed with his art. In the year he spent in the clinic in Saint-Rémy, while his mental health fluctuated and he suffered multiple relapses, Van Gogh completed around 150 paintings.1

Is that obsession, or is it extraordinary productivity? And where lies the line between them?

There’s obviously something to be said for obsession, especially in the case of artists. One modern-day example I read about last year is that of Phoebe Waller-Bridge: 

I’d struggled to write the first episode of season two of Fleabag for four torturous months. I just couldn’t find the right story. Once I’d decided to set it in the restaurant I wrote the whole thing in under an hour ... WTF.2   

Not sure if this is an example of obsession per se, but it teases at the edges, and it has stayed with me. Earlier in the piece, when asked about how she physically writes, she says:

In bed. On Post-its. Often in weird combinations of clothes. (...) On the busiest days I can write all day and night in bed. I often forget to eat and then get panic-hungry at around 5pm, scramble downstairs on all fours like a fox and eat everything in the fridge, however incongruous. Deliveroo has been a great help. 

Is that obsession, or is it eccentricity, Bohemian unconventionality, and where lies the line between them? 

Obsession helps. Read biographies of many artists, this conclusion follows naturally. Indeed, for anyone wanting to be a writer, obsession is a prerequisite, Susan Sontag states, and compares writing to lunacy:

People write me all the time, or get in touch with me about “what should I do if I want to be a writer?” I say well, do you really want to be a writer? It’s not like something you’d want to be—it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.

Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument, and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were. Why can’t people have this as an art activity? . . . But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery, obviously. You are both the slave and the task-master, and it’s a very driven thing.3

Obsession versus slavery, obsession as addiction, terms that might be pushing the point, but again: where lies the line between them? 

I like the tales of obsessive writers with crazy habits, the peeks into their lives, Patricia Highsmith arriving at a London cocktail party with a hundred snails and a head of lettuce in her handbag,4 but I’m also intimidated by them, and tend to feel inadequate. I’m shy and timid, not just on social occassions but when I work, too. I’m generally too reasonable to work in bed all day, to forget eating, too constrained to be both the slave and the task-master. And I’m often too busy doubting the quality and veracity of everything I’ve just written to get truly absorbed in the process.

So that’s a bit of a problem. I’d like to be like Van Gogh, when I think about his work and how it makes me halt, still, unable to move every time I see it in a museum, how so many people feel the same, how his work endures and endures and never seems to lose any of its emotional poignancy. If obsession were the price for just a fraction of Van Gogh’s artistry, I wouldn’t even think about it. Christ, what artist wouldn’t want to be like Van Gogh?

But at the same time, the very last thing I want to be is anything like Vincent van Gogh. The first time I read the Naifeh and Smith biography, I had to stop every thirty pages because the man’s story was just too horrendous. Too lonely, too much of a failure, too alienated, too poor and too poorly. I’ve had just a small taste of despair in the past few years, too many instances where I recognised bits of myself in him, the convoluted thinking, the selfishness, the deranged relationship with anything to do with money, the perceived inability to connect in any meaningful way with other people. Van Gogh’s story is too fucking sad. The cost of his obsession was too high. 

This is the paragraph where I’m supposed to draw some kind of pregnant conclusion, pull all the threads together, but I don’t like those kinds of stories, and I don’t have any conclusions yet. About how to live, and how to find the balance. 

© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.