My dear Theo,
To my surprise another letter from you arrived yesterday with a banknote enclosed. I don’t need to tell you that I was glad of it, and truly thank you for it. They refused to change the note, though, on the grounds that it was too torn. But I got 10 guilders on it and it has been sent to Paris. If the bank refuses it, I’ll have to return the 10 guilders, for which I had to sign a receipt, but if the bank changes it I’ll get the rest later.1
What you write in your letter about the conflict one can have over the question of whether one is accountable for the unfortunate consequences of a good deed — whether one wouldn’t do better to act in a way which one knows isn’t good but which will allow one to come out of it without mishaps — that conflict is familiar to me too.
If one follows one’s conscience — for me conscience is the very highest form of reason — the reason within the reason — one is tempted to think one has acted wrongly or foolishly, one gets particularly upset if more superficial people are amused by thinking they’re so much wiser and are so much better at getting where they want. Yes, then it’s sometimes difficult, and if conditions are such that the difficulties rise to a spring flood, one can be led to regret that one is as one is and wish one had been less conscientious.
I hope that you don’t picture me in any other way than as constantly waging the same inner battle, and also often having tired brains, and in many cases also being unable to decide questions of whether it would be better or worse to do this or that.
While I’m working I feel an unlimited confidence in art and that I’ll succeed, but on days of physical exhaustion or when there are financial obstacles I feel that faith less and am overcome by doubt, which I try to get over by immediately setting to work.
And it’s just like that with the woman and the children. When I’m with them and the little fellow comes crawling towards me on hands and knees, crowing with delight, I haven’t the slightest doubt that it’s all right.
That child has very often calmed me down.
When I’m at home he can’t be kept away from me; if I’m working he comes up to tug at my jacket or works his way up my leg until I take him on my lap. In the studio he crows at everything, sits playing silently with a piece of paper for hours, a bit of string or an old brush. He’s a child who is almost always cheerful; if he manages to keep that up all his life he’ll be cleverer than I am.
Well, what to say about such matters as that there are times when one feels that there’s a certain fatality that makes the good work out wrong and the wrong good? I believe one has the right to regard those thoughts as the consequence, in part, of stress and if one has them one shouldn’t make it a duty to believe things are indeed as black as one then thinks but, because if one were to worry about it one would go mad, on the contrary, it’s reasonable to strengthen oneself physically in that case, and really set to work when that has been done, and if that doesn’t help continue nonetheless with these two remedies and regard it as something fatal if that melancholy persists. In time one will gain in strength of mind and carry on with life. There remain imponderables, there remains sorrow2 or melancholy, but against that eternally negative there’s the positive of the work that one nonetheless gets done in this way. If life were as simple and things actually worked as in the story of dutiful Hendrik3 or an ordinary, routine sermon by a minister, it wouldn’t be all that hard to find one’s way. But the fact is they aren’t like that, they’re infinitely more complicated, and good and evil no more occur by themselves than black and white do in nature.
Now one must take care not to relapse into opaque black — into definite badness — and still more
1v:3 must one avoid the white of a whitewashed wall, which is hypocrisy and the eternal Pharisaism. Whoever bravely tries to follow reason and above all conscience, the very highest reason, the sublime reason, and tries to put being honest into practice, is unlikely to go completely astray, I believe, although one won’t succeed without mistakes and banging one’s head and weaknesses, and won’t achieve perfection. And this will give rise to a deep sense of compassion and courtesy, I believe, broader than that measured quality that the ministers have made their speciality.
So one may not be regarded as of any significance by either one side or the other, and be accounted one of the mediocrities, and feel oneself at heart to be nothing other than an ordinary person among ordinary people, yet despite all that one will arrive at a relatively fixed serenity in the end.
One will be able to raise one’s conscience to a level of development such that it will become the voice of a better and higher I that is the master of the ordinary I. And one won’t relapse into scepticism or cynicism, not become one of the vile mockers.
Not at once. Michelet puts it beautifully, and those few words by M. say everything I mean, ‘Socrates was born a real satyr, but through devotion, work, renunciation of frivolous things, he changed himself so completely that on his last day, before his judges and facing death, there was in him something of a god, a ray from on high, with which the Parthenon was illuminated’.4 Well, one sees the same thing in Jesus too, who began as an ordinary labourer and worked his way up to be something else, whatever it may have been, a personality so full of compassion, love, goodness, seriousness, that one is still drawn to it. In many cases a carpenter’s boy becomes a carpenter’s boss, small-minded, dry, mean, vain, and whatever one thinks of Jesus his approach to things was different from my friend the carpenter’s from the yard behind here, who has worked his way up to become a slum landlord5 and is a lot more complacent and much more preoccupied with himself than Jesus.
But I mustn’t lapse into the abstract too much.
My plan is first of all to regain my strength, and I think that when that’s once more above the low-water mark I’ll get new ideas to steer my way of working in a different direction from that dry one.
We’ll talk about this again when you come — I don’t believe it’s a matter of a few days. If I get down some food, more nourishing than of late, in a couple of days I’ll be rid of my worst malaise, I believe, but it lies still deeper than that, and I wish I could carry on until I have an abundance of health and strength, which isn’t impossible to achieve if one is outside a good deal and has something one enjoys working on.
For it’s a fact that at present ALL my work is TOO MEAGRE AND TOO DRY. That has become crystal clear to me recently, and I don’t doubt for a moment that a general, thorough change is needed. I plan to consult you again, when you’ve seen this year’s work, as to whether you agree with me about a few measures,6 and if you do then I think we’ll succeed in getting back on our feet. We mustn’t doubt but have collier’s faith.7
I hope the note is changed. I’m hugely glad you managed to send something, for I believe it spared me an illness. I’ll let you know what happens with the note. And it would be good if you could send on the first of Aug. I believe it’s still always possible that on looking through the work we may decide on another plan for the future — I don’t know what as yet — but somewhere there must be work that has to be done and that I can do as well as someone else. If London were a little closer, I for one wouldn’t leave it to others.
Be assured as ever that it would give me enormous pleasure if we could make an article that would find buyers.
I would then feel less conflict about the money from you that you could really do with yourself.
Thanks again, and regards.