Van Gogh’s Raison d’ être -Borniage (1878)
Note: This is part IV of a series on Vincent van Gogh’s early adult life. You can read each story separately, but if you feel like you’re missing out, check out the other parts.
The mineshaft Vincent went into, had a bad reputation. Gas explosions, water, collapse- had all caused numerous deaths in the Marcesse coal mine, Belgium. But Vincent had to see it from the inside, as preacher of the community. He had a friendly tour guide, a man who’d worked for 33 years at this particular mine and knew it like the back of his hand. The basket or cage-like device he stepped into, looked very much like a bucket in a well. Hanging above a pit that went down 700 meters, Vincent felt as if this was his first time at sea, but slightly more harrowing. The man told Vincent this feeling of dread never quite left him either. Looking up, as he descended into the underworld, the light above transformed from an oculous, to a star. Once below, a spectacular world opened up to him, full of little chambers, workers, and even a stable with horses. It was like a black beehive. The mine had 5 floors, 3 of which at the top were already exhausted and were abandoned. In the cell-like chambers, soot-covered workers were digging away by the dim light of a small lamp. Water was coming through the passageways, and the reflection of the workers lights created a rather beautiful effect, Vincent thought.
Vincent arrived in the Borniage region in December 1878. After moving from England back to the Netherlands in 1876, he first secured a job at a bookshop in Dordrecht — again through his uncle Cent. He didn’t enjoy this job and his mind was preoccupied with religion rather than work. Even his roommate had noted: “Vincent is no good at the work, his mind lies elsewhere”¹. But it was in Dordrecht, where Vincent hatched his plan to study theology.
“It is my prayer and deepest desire that the spirit of my father and grandfather may rest upon me, and that it may be given me to be a Christian and a Christian labourer that my life may resemble that of them whom I name — the more, the better — for behold, that old wine is good and I desire not the new.”²
He soon left the job and after discussion with the family, it was agreed that Vincent would go to Amsterdam where he could be supported by his uncles in preparation for the university’s entrance exam. But studying was a heavy burden on him, and with his various walks around the city, his trips to museums, family visits, and his churchgoing, one has to wonder where he found the time to study at all. Years later, Vincent commented on his educational disaster:
“The time spent at Amsterdam is still so fresh in my memory. You were there yourself, and so you know how the pros and cons were weighed, considered and deliberated upon, reasoned with wisdom, how it was well meant — and yet how pitiful the result, how daft the whole business, how grossly stupid. I still shudder at the thought. It was the worst time I’ve ever gone through.”³
With his tail between his legs, Vincent moved back-in with his parents in May 1878, who now lived in Etten. But he was not left completely without hope or friends. Even though he rather abruptly left his position at the school in Isleworth in 1876, he was still in touch with his former boss Rev. Thomas Slade-Jones. Slade-Jones may have convinced Vincent to try his luck at the Flemish Training School for Evangelists, and he joined Vincent and his father on a scouting trip to the school in Brussels. The training at the school was far shorter than a theology degree in Amsterdam, and knowledge of scripture and study was subordinate to passionate speaking. Vincent saw an ideal opportunity to overcome his failure in Amsterdam and in the autumn of 1878, he moved to Brussels.
But once again could not set himself to study, and he now had to deal with a formidable new distraction. In a letter to Theo from Brussels, he included a peculiar little drawing he called “Au Charbonnage” and admited he would “really rather like to start making rough sketches of some of the many things one meets along the way, but considering I wouldn’t actually do it very well and it would most likely keep me from my real work, it’s better I don’t begin”.⁴
He again gave up his studies and in a rather surprising shift he expressed his desire to Theo to preach in mining communities:
“You surely know that one of the root or fundamental truths, not only of the gospel but of the entire Bible, is ‘the light that dawns in the darkness’. From darkness to Light. Well then, who will most certainly need it, who will have an ear to hear it? Experience has taught us that those who work in darkness, in the heart of the earth like the mine-workers in the black coal-mines, among others, are very moved by the message of the gospel and also believe it.”
In January 1879, Vincent obtained a temporary position as preacher from the Belgian Evangelical Committee, and without a diploma or any other qualification, he became a preacher in the mining community of Borniage, Heinaut.
When he arrived, Vincent was much taken aback by the villages, the people, and its surroundings. The poverty and squalor he witnessed were unlike what he’d ever seen before.
“It’s a sombre place, and at first sight everything around it has something dismal and deathly about it. The workers there are usually people, emaciated and pale owing to fever, who look exhausted and haggard, weather-beaten and prematurely old, the women generally sallow and withered. All around the mine are poor miners’ dwellings with a couple of dead trees, completely black from the smoke, and thorn-hedges, dung-heaps and rubbish dumps, mountains of unusable coal. The villages here have something forsaken and still and extinct about them, because life goes on underground instead of above. One could be here for years, but unless one has been down in the mines one has no clear picture of what goes on here.”⁵
During this period, Vincent displayed peculiar tendencies for choosing to live in extreme conditions, leading a life of abject poverty. He gave away most of his possessions, including his bed. It became clear to him that the words from the gospel he was bringing did not actually improve the conditions of the people in Borniage, so his pastoral work mostly revolved around providing relief to the sick and poor.
His charitable work and his neglected appearance drew attention from the “Gentlemen of the Committee". According to them, his work was “too much fervour”⁶ and in a report from the Union of The Belgian Protestant Church his dismissal in July 1879 was due to Vincent’s lack of “The gift of the word”⁷. Vincent’s companionable practices, his overly sober life-view, and aversion for wealth had become too much of a threat to senior management. With strike actions hanging in the air, he had to go. He was again sacked by his employer.
From 1875 to 1879, Vincent lived for the faith. For four years he dedicated himself to scripture and churchgoing. He was now 26, and he had tried utterly in vain to continue the great cycle of the priesthood from his grandfather to his father to him. Delicate days of solemn reflection were upon him, the road ahead was empty for the first time in his life. This was not only a crisis of identity but also of faith. Vincent highlights passages in his psalm book like: “Lost, I wandered along paths of doubt”⁸. The world around Vincent had come to a standstill, or rather he made it come to a standstill. He stayed in Borniage, wandered around, read, thought. He postponed the future and became a social outcast. Theo visited him a month later, but the relationship between the brothers had become strained after accusations from the family towards Vincent of idling.
“Might I be allowed to point out to you that such idling is really a rather strange sort of idling. It’s rather difficult for me to defend myself on this score, but I would be sorry if you couldn’t eventually see this in a different light. .”⁹
He briefly visited his parents in Etten after Theo’s visit, showing up unannounced at their doorstep with a “Hello Father, Hello Mother!”¹⁰. During his short stay, he seemed to have recovered slightly, but his parents were shocked by his newly developed nervous tick, and the fact that he “read Dickens all day.”¹¹
After this visit, a plug was pulled, and contact was broken off. There was clear conflict within the Van Gogh family at this point. Perhaps letters were held from publication, but the first time Vincent “reluctantly” wrote to Theo was 9 months later in June 1880, after a gift of 50 Francs from him. This letter, a lot more than a casual ‘thank you’ note, reads like an outburst following months of reflection.
“Up to a certain point you’ve become a stranger to me, and I too am one to you, perhaps more than you think; perhaps it would be better for us not to go on this way.” ¹²
With meticulous penmanship, Vincent took stock and wrote down his defence for his recent behaviour. One of the first points he raised, is what must have been the enormously painful discovery of his father’s plan to have him committed to a mental asylum in Geel, Belgium.
I do often find myself speaking or acting somewhat too quickly when it would be better to wait more patiently. I think that other people may also sometimes do similar foolish things. Now that being so, what’s to be done, must one consider oneself a dangerous man, incapable of anything at all?¹²
Another matter Vincent wanted to have straight, was the accusation from his brother about his supposed laziness:
There are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast. There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one. Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something…but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! … That’s an entirely different idler; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one.
He demonstrated that he was making progress in his mental anguish. That he was plotting his escape from this psychological prison. That he wanted to act.
In the mining community of Borniage, Vincent sunk to the darkest pits of his mind and dwelled down there in isolation. Now, like the miners ascending slowly from 700 meters deep in the earth, he was starting to see the light above again. A few weeks later, Vincent wrote Theo to ask him for a copy of Millet’ “Les travaux des champs”, a series of prints he wanted to use for a “large drawing”. This letter, full of energy: “If only I can go on working, I’ll recover somehow”¹³, lets through a rough shimmer of the new path Vincent was about to take. He gently dared to wonder if he can do the same work as the artists he so admired.
Vincent found his new “raison d’ être”, his “teekenlust” — or drawing lust.
²From letter 109, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let109/letter.html
³ From letter 154 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let154/letter.html
* This is from letter 388, see http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let388/letter.html.
⁴ From letter 148 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let148/letter.html
⁵From letter 151 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let151/letter.html
⁶Verkade-Bruining A, De God van Vincent, Wereldbibliotheek Amsterdam 1989, P. 38
⁸Verkade-Bruining A, De God van Vincent, P.40
⁹ From letter 154 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let154/letter.html
¹⁰ Ibid, Note 2
¹² From Letter 155 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let155/letter.html
¹³ From letter 156 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let156/letter.html