Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vincent Van Gogh & Gossip

Awhile back, there was a lot of press about Van Gogh: The Life written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White.  It's been months, and yet I continue to think about their theory regarding his death.
From "New Book Claims Vincent Van Gogh Didn't Commit Suicide" by Megan Gibson, Time Magazine, October 17, 2011The authors argue that a teenaged boy named Rene Secretan, who had a history of harassing the artist, and his brother Gaston accidentally shot van Gogh while the three were out drinking together. Although it’s widely believed that the 37-year-old artist committed suicide — having famously said,”Do not accuse anyone, it is I who wanted to kill myself” —  the authors posit that van Gogh only claimed to have shot himself in order to protect the boys.
Whatever the Truth is, I love this because it is such a great reminder that you just can't know.

Thinking about the possible alternate ending to Vincent's life leads me to think about all of the regular folk I have known, that other people have told me stories about.  Usually the information is second- or third-hand and/or based on a hazy interpretation of events that may or may not be connected.  As much as I love concocting alternate tellings of the gossip, attempting to cast the lead as a misunderstood hero, I'd happily give it up to never hear another flip comment disparaging the abilities, choices, or whatever of someone not present.  A friend of mine recently said that she thinks people should, "tell their own stories." I think this is brilliant.  And it has already led me to bite my tongue a few times.

Maybe, instead of attempting to create a picture out of an incomplete set of puzzle pieces, maybe we let the person tell us.  And, if someone's not talking, but you've got some odd shaped fragments of a picture that you're itching to link together, before you start man-handling the corners to "fit," think about your favorite movies, books, tv shows.  Most all of the characters you love and admire could be judged quite harshly.  They're flawed.  It's what makes them interesting and relatable.  You know their thoughts and their personal context, and so you understand their poor choices and root for them to find their way.  Think of those fictional characters, and then apply that same open-minded, big-hearted acceptance to the people you actually know.  Trust that the people amongst us are the leads in their own story, and that they have their reasons.  Skip past the potentially damaging conjecture and settle at simply wishing the best for them.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't think making educated attempts to flesh out history should stop (if it weren't for that, I wouldn't have had this new theory about Vincent to kick around for weeks on end).  And I wouldn't necessarily choose Jesse Pinkman for a neighbor, send Jackie Peyton to pick up my prescriptions, hire Larry David to watch my cats while I'm out of town, or marry Hank Moody (on second thought, given my history, I probably would do that last one). And I am aware that certain kinds of talk about other people can be a positive (e.g., "Patton Oswalt deserves an Oscar for YOUNG ADULT." or "When are we going to tell Amanda that her blog sucks.")  

The thing is this, well, the two things are this:  1) If you're looking at another person's life and thinking you've got an open and shut case, indictment-wise -- think of Vincent.  "Of course, the crazy, ear-cutting, paint-eating drunk shot himself.  Saw that coming."  Well Super-Worldly-Knower-of-all-the-Hearts-in-all-Mankind, maybe you anticipated something, but that might not be the thing that happened, even if it kinda looks like it did, and 2) If it's even remotely possible that troubled and tormented Vincent Van Gogh had the grace to prevent young men from becoming "the ones who shot that painter," then maybe we can all give each other a bit of slack.