Van Gogh’s Ear by Bernadette Murphy – a (sort of) Book Review.

Gah. This book just broke my heart.  It’s just so sadly unfair that this magnificent man was mentally ill in a time when there was no adequate provision.  His situation somewhat exacerbated by misunderstanding and fear.

Van Gogh’s history has been retold so many times that his actual journey is lost to mythology.

He’s the mad artist who cut off his ear, right? Ah, he was so much more than that…

Van Gogh’s Ear by Bernadette Murphy brings the legend to life.  The research and detail is impressibly forensic rooting the reader in late 19th Century France.

This book articulates a very definite and very difficult struggle which ultimately claimed a transcendent talent.

The chapter of the actual detachment of the ear instills a queasiness.  This tragic action has been mythologized as a pop culture soundbite but the stark reality of a man being motivated to cut his own ear off – think about that for a minute – it’s absolutely brutal.  Incredibly upsetting.

Sadder still was how some people treated Van Gogh and his ‘oddities’ even in the days before the ear came off.  There’s no denying he was a nuisance, but he wasn’t the aggressive madman previous books and films have painted him to be.  He was lost, lonely and mentally ill.

Lots of people were fond of Vincent, this is apparent in his portraits of others.  Many of the locals would sit for him and Van Gogh’s Ear expertly brings each of them to life, making connections, explaining how those Vincent painted came together as a town. Again, the research involved is extensive and exhaustive, building perhaps the truest account of the community around the artist.

But also, this research exposes Vincent’s detractors.  The people who made life difficult for him.  People who didn’t understand the nature of his illness, who weren’t sympathetic.  Where others helped him, or even ignored him, a cruel couple went out of their way to cause problems for him. Someone to exercise power over.  Someone to bully.  This only exacerbated Vincent’s predicament.

In 2018, the way we view and assist those with mental illness has certainly come a long way from 1880s rural France.  There is a much higher level of understanding, care and therapy available for those who need it.  Yet, there still remains a big problem which bothers those in need – Other People.

Lots of people these days are still unwilling and/or unable to grasp the complexities and prevalence of mental illness.  Being ignorant is one thing but being deliberately unsympathetic is another.  Actually dominating and bullying people with a mental illness is an absolute crime and should be treated as such.  The internal struggle is hard enough without having to deflect others’ criticisms and ‘advice’.  That’s if you can deflect, many will absorb and internalize others’ opinions making life much harder.

The one thing we should have learned as a population by now is not to place further unnecessary pressures on people with mental illness.  Or at the very least, if you’re not predisposed to help other people (and that’s fair enough, I am not judging you for that) just know that it’s absolutely wrong to make people feel worse.

There’s also that weird thing with mental illness… depression… anxiety… One hundred people can be completely delightful to you but you will always remember the one person who was a dick.  Their words can go around in your head for a long time… sometimes for years…

In a time when 17 adults complete suicide every day (average, UK, 2015) we need to somehow make the dicks aware their words carry more weight than they probably realize.  Yet, is this even possible?  We’ve made huge advances in all other aspects of mental healthcare apart from a wider understanding and acceptance within the population.  Is it just particular to a certain subset of human nature to be ignorant and cruel?  And, if so, how do we deal with this?  Is it worth approaching the dicks to enlighten and educate them? Or do we forget them and just make sure we reassure and give extra care to those in need?

I’m not suggesting Vincent’s life would have been longer had he full support from his community but his existence would certainly have been less problematic.  But then would we have had such otherworldly art from him?  That’s a blog for a whole other time…!

Van Gogh’s Ear is a triumph of research and storytelling. Even the most hardcore Vincent aficionado will learn things new and have their take on his legend challenged.  But be prepared for the emotional punch, I’ve never read a book which has made the artist’s journey so palpable.  It was extremely moving and involving.  Highly Recommended.

Van Gogh’s Ear by Bernadette Murphy

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