K's Journal

Tragedies of Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh and the May-days

Trigger warnings: Suicide, possible murder, death, breakups

“You are a dream; I hope I never meet you.” – Sylvia Plath

I like the title I wrote for this fine blog post where I have so many things to say. Particularly how May was to me and why it felt like a May-day. If you are thinking what’s up with me writing an essay about my days, weeks and months, then let me borrow Plath’s words that I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still before I begin to write.

So let me.

Two great artists known for their deaths. Two great artists who died of suicide, one suspected to be murdered and other,  tortured to have a tragic end. Two artists who lived in a different timeline. Who became famous for their work posthumously.

Two great artists who had to spend their share of time in an asylum to treat their depression and psychotic episodes. Two artists who made their arts and their deaths inseparable.

Sylvia Plath (27 Oct 1932 – 11 Feb 1963 – Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.) and Vincent Van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890 – Zundert, Netherlands).

We want to know so much about their death. But, what do we know about their lives? It stuns me to know how much common these two insanely talented artists had in common. 

Sylvia Plath and Vincent van Gogh

My discovery of Sylvia Plath and Vincent van Gogh

I spent my month reading, learning and studying their work. I’ve been studying Plath’s poetry very seriously now. Her confessional style of writing astounds me. The Bell Jar is insanely a brilliant work! I find myself in the words she wrote years and decades ago. How normal the poem seems when you read it without having any knowledge about the poet’s life. And how tragic it becomes when you see how slyly was Plath talking about her suicidal behaviour, about being tormented by her own demons, about thinking a certain someone might be the death of her being.

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.” – Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath

Vincent van Gogh too lived a troubled life. He desperately tried to find a place in this world, a place where he belonged. His failed love affairs, his failed attempts to sustain a job, to live up to his mother’s expectations and his failure in various other things had done a number on him. But when he finally started painting at 27 or 30, he produced masterpieces. He found his place. He created magic using colors and his imagination.

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.” – Vincent Van Gogh

During his time at the asylum, Vincent van Gogh tried to take his life by drinking paint. And a few days after he survived his suicide attempt, he went ahead to paint the most famous – The Starry Night.

Starry Nights by Vincent van Gogh
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Art, artist and their tragedies

I wonder if art pushes artists towards tragedy. Or if it is tragedy that makes one an artist. Either way, I am falling in love with how art communicates with the viewers, readers, writers. And how a single piece of information related to the art or the artists can alter the comms.

After reading so much about them, I know for a fact that Sylvia Plath wrote fervently and Vincent van Gogh painted ardently despite their mental health and NOT because of it.

They used their pain to produce eccentric beauty. To mix passion and pain, and to bring results – I can’t imagine what a human mind is capable of when passion fuels them. I find them to be the greatest artists who ever lived.

When I read about Plath’s life, when I read her poems, when I read her prose – I feel like she is right next to me, watching me studying and learning about her tragic short-spanned life on Earth.

I guess Vincent and Sylvia might have been good friends if they were to ever meet. Both would have a good time discussing art, their inspirations, their madness and the controversies.

They both struggled to find a place in the world. Art saved them. Through paintings, prose and poems. How sad and funny that asylum treatments and isolation helped them produce great art. Both breathed their last breath when they were on the verge of becoming what they always wanted to be. A recognized artist. A somebody.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I am I am I am.

Their death and their attempts to die

In 1963, Plath died by suicide at her London home. She sealed the room with wet towels, turned the gas oven on and put her head inside the oven. What a painful way to take your own life. Freedom comes with a cost, I guess. But this wasn’t the first time she attempted to kill herself. Sylvia Plath attempted suicide three times.

In August 1953, at the age of 20, Plath attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. She survived the attempt and was hospitalized. This is when she received electro-shock therapy treatment. She talks about this row in her only novel partly based on her life, The Bell Jar. Later, in June 1962, she drove her car off the side of the road into a river, which she later characterized as a suicide attempt.

“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” These lines are from The Bell Jar.

She writes in one of her poems – “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.”

As for Vincent van Gogh, on 27 July 1890, in a field near Auvers, Vincent shot himself with a revolver. But he partly survived and dragged himself to the room where he was living. Two days later, his body gave in to the bullet wound and he died. His brother Theo was at his bedside. 

Why did he choose to end his life? We can only speculate and play around with maybe-s and what-ifs. Many suspect Vincent van Gogh was murdered. Whatever be, suicide or murder, Vincent had several abnormal breakdowns and psychotic episodes of depression and hallucinations.

For instance, it is said Vincent van Gogh used to eat yellow paint. He thought it would bring happiness inside him. One fine day at the asylum where he had voluntarily admitted himself, he tried to kill himself by drinking paint/chemicals.

Before admitting to the asylum, on 23rd Dec, 1888, he had a mental breakdown. Vincent van Gogh cut off part of his own ear. This certainly is not normal. He packaged up his ear and gave it to a prostitute in a nearby brothel.

Four months after this event, in April 1889, Vincent had written to Theo, “If I was without your friendship I would be sent back without remorse to suicide, and however cowardly I am, I would end up going there.”

A few months later he tried to poison himself by eating his paints and turpentine. He was saved by the doctors in time.

Vincent once wrote in a letter to his brother Theo –

“In the life of the painter, death may perhaps not be the most difficult thing. For myself, I declare I don’t know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream.

Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.

For the moment I’m going to go to bed because it’s late, and I wish you good-night and good luck.”

My favorite quote from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
My favorite quote from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Why is it personal to me?

The reason why I went so deep into their lives is because it felt personal. They asked the questions I am asking myself today. 

Plath once asked “What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don’t know and I’m afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.”

Sometimes I feel like a starry night, and other times, I feel desperate to find a place in the world like Vincent van Gogh did. Sometimes I am the happy poem Sylvia wrote about passion, about falling in love. But then the other times, I feel trapped in my own mind. I feel like I am going mad. I ask my brain to stop the clap-trapping. The good news is, my brain listens to me. I become nonchalant. I become calm. I slow down and write a few (read: many) lines to my poems.

Reading their work gives meaning and words to what I feel. To what many of us feel. Tell me that you too don’t question your existence? Tell me you are not fighting to find a meaning to your life? Or tell me you have it all figured out. The voices in our head, in my head, sometimes are so so loud that I retreat. Sit alone. Sleep. I need the cyclone to stop.

No, I don’t have a tragic life except a few things that keep me up at night once in a while. I live a very happy life. But everything around me affects me. I feel too much. I think this might be the end of me someday. Your sufferings affect me. Your sadness makes me want to change it for you, even though I know it isn’t my fight. Your achievement makes me want to jump in excitement.

So what am I to do when the world is filled with sadness and I see injustice everywhere? This is when emotions overwhelm me. When Vincent van Gogh said –

“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’.”

I found myself in these words. 

Tragedies of Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh and the May-days

What else ...?

I’ve been reading a very unhinged book for a book club, Big Swiss by Jen Beagin, and am enjoying it completely. 

May has been very cultural and literature-rich for me. To learn about two tortured artists and to go out for a storytelling gig by Lakhsh Maheshwari about Amrita Pritam, Imroz and Sahir. What a tragic love story! I can’t wait to read and listen to their work, to find pieces of their lives in their art.

So – if I am not to call May a May-day then what should I?

I know it sounds lame and not funny. But lol, I find it humorous.

Btw, I got promoted, hehe. Seems like I won’t complain about corporate for some time. Not sure how long this would last.

Rains are about to start next month. Definitely not looking forward to them. Except that they will make me want to write more poetry and sing songs I’ve been lipsing. I like how dramatic weather can get sometimes.

See you (soon?)!

Quotes by Vincent van Gogh

“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” – Vincent van Gogh

“Art is to console those who are broken by life.” – Vincent van Gogh

“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” – Vincent van Gogh

Quotes by Sylvia Plath

“Here I am, a bundle of past recollections and future dreams, knotted up in a reasonably attractive bundle of flesh. I remember what this flesh has gone through; I dream of what it may go through.” – Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 

“When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know. “Oh, sure you know,” the photographer said. “She wants,” said Jay Cee wittily, “to be everything”.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between…I am still so naïve; I know pretty much what I like and dislike; but please, don’t ask me who I am. A passionate, fragmentary girl, maybe?” – Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

“I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day, spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free. I want, I think, to be omniscient.” – Sylvia Plath, Letters Home

Kinjal Parekh

Book Blogger || Finance Blogger || Mumbai, India || Indian Booktuber. Kinjal Parekh is highly passionate about reading books and learning about history. Her favorite genres include historic fictions, history non-fiction, mind-body-spirit and poetry books. She loves when a book makes her cry and make her feel vulnerable and emphatic. Apart from books, Kinjal loves to explore and understand how the financial and the economic world works for which she keeps reading economic, financial and business books. One book at a time, she aims to motivate non-readers cultivate the reading habit. She can talk about books all day and night and often tends to cancel out-side plans to stay back home and read a book.

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