Vincent van Gogh: Two Kinds of Idle Men

van Gogh - PrisonerI think Vincent was a pretty damn good writer, too, as it turns out.

“Because there are two kinds of idleness that form a great contrast. There is the man who is idle from laziness, and from lack of character, from the baseness of his nature. You may if you like take me for such a one…

Then there is the other idle man, who is idle in spite of himself, who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action, who does nothing because he seems to be imprisoned in some cage, because he does not possess what he needs to make him productive, because the fatality of circumstances brings him to that point, such a man does not always know what he could do, but he feels by instinct: yet I am good for something, my life has an aim after all, I know that I might be quite a different man! How can I then be useful, of what service can I be! There is something inside me, what can it be!

This is quite a different kind of idle man; you may if you like take me for such a one. A caged bird in spring knows quite well that he might serve some end; he feels quite well that there is something for him to do, but he cannot do it. What is it? He does not remember quite well. Then he has some vague ideas and says to himself: ‘The others make their nests and lay their eggs and bring up their little ones’, and then he knocks his head against the bars of the cage. But the cage stands there and the bird is maddened by anguish.

‘Look at the lazy animal’, says another bird that passes by, ‘he seems to be living at his ease.’ Yes, the prisoner lives, his health is good, he is more or less gay when the sun shines. But then comes the season of migration. Attacks of melancholia- ‘but he has got everything he wants,’ say the children that tend to him in his cage. He looks at the overcast sky and he inwardly rebels against his fate. ‘I am caged, I am caged, and you tell me I do not want anything, fools! You think I have everything I need. Oh, I beseech you, liberty, to be a bird like other birds!’

A certain idle man resembles this bird….A just or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, fatal circumstances, adversity, that is what makes men prisoners…..Do you know what frees one from this captivity? It is very deep, serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, that is what opens the prison by supreme power, by some magic force. But without this one remains in prison.

There is where sympathy is renewed, life is restored.

And the prison is also called prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance of one thing or another, distrust, false shame….But I should be very glad if it were possible for you to see in me something else than an idle man of the worst type.”

– Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo

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One Comment

  1. I just read this in a book of his letters. It is profound, and I will share with my students.

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