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                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Sept 2015   Allegro ma non troppo #9  (original pub. date, Lion Magazine, 1990)



Why Did Van Gogh Cut off His Ear?


There are many questions which have kept me pondering over the last half-century or so. Many of them start with the famous "W's" of the good journalistic lead: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Thus: Where do we go when we die? What is the meaning of life? Why am I me and not someone else? and, Who Put the Bomp in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp?  I am sure that you, too, have imponderables of your own which keep you just as thought-ridden as mine keep me. For example, Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear? No? Well, where have you been?

I recently suffered a self-inflicted bookwound called Life Histories and Psychobiography. Briefly, psychobiography tries to explain a person's life by psychological interpretation, using one or more particular theories of personality: Freudian, for example. One of the chapters in this book, indeed, asks the Van Gogh question. So imagine that this really is one of those questions you keep mulling over as you fall asleep at night. And, furthermore, imagine that perhaps you have toyed with a possible answer or two—something like, "Well, maybe he was in love." Now, unless self-mutilation seems to you a normal manifestation of human affection (in which case you need more help than I am getting paid to provide), surely you will admit that as answers go, this one lacks the elegance of intellectual rigor, or, as we scholars say, "ain't got a helluva lot goin' for it." Right you are.

Here, then, are some of the psychobiographic reasons that a few academic minds, stropped keen in the tonsorial towers of Academia, have come up with to explain why 35-year old Vincent Van Gogh, in the late evening of December 23, 1888, cut off his left ear, took it to a brothel, gave it to a prostitute named Rachael and asked her to "keep this object carefully".

1. He was tormented by homosexual conflicts. Thus, cutting off his own ear was a symbolic act of self-castration. Note, here, that the Dutch slang word for penis, lul, resembles the word for ear, lel ).

2. At the time of the incident, Van Gogh was sharing a house with Gaugin. The latter's overbearing presence reminded Vincent of his own father, whom he hated. In cutting off his own ear, Van Gogh was vicariously punishing his father, but by deflecting his hatred onto himself he was also punishing himself for committing the act. At the same time, by depositing his symbolic organ at the brothel, he was fulfilling his wish to have his mother.

3. Van Gogh was influenced by bullfights he had seen recently. In such events the matador is given the ear of the bull as an award, displays his prize to the crowd and then gives it to the lady of his choice. Vincent cut off his ear as if he were the vanquished bull and the victorious matador at the same time.

4. The incident occurred at the same time as the Jack the Ripper killings, which are known to have spawned a number of "copy-cat" murders. As a masochist instead of a sadist, it is conceivable that Van Gogh would reverse Jack's act, mutilating himself and bringing the ear to a prostitute.

5. Vincent may have been acting out an incident which, indeed, he had actually tried to paint earlier that same year. It is the biblical scene in which Simon Peter "smites off" the ear of one of the high priest's servants who has come to seize Christ.

There are a number of others. They may view Van Gogh's ear as a symbol of his own sex organ, or tie in his love or hatred of one or both his parents, or see him psychotically acting out external or historical events. Not many of them deal with obvious answers, such as that Van Gogh cut off his ear in order to make his hat fit better, or that he was trying to paint and shave at the same time and
well, accidents happen. This may not satisfy the intellectuals among you, who like the idea that maybe Napoleon's conquests were a sublimation of his sense of inferiority at his short stature, or that Einstein's preoccupation with the speed of light can be traced to his unsatisfactory sex-life, or that Columbus' wanderings were a manifestation of his unwillingness to forge lasting relationships. Well, then, for you: forget Freudtry Disney! Yes, maybe we are dealing with a manifestation of the infamous Dumbo Rejection Syndrome! By lopping off his lobe Van Gogh was rejecting (1) American cartoons, and, thus, (2) American materialism, a caricature ("cartoon") of true spiritual values, and, thus, (3) American Everything Else. In a single razorlike leap of the intellect, he was anticipating by a century the objections of French intellectuals to the opening of Euro Disneyland near Paris. Of course, Van Gogh was Dutch, not French, but France is not too far from Holland, so it all ties in pretty neatly, if you ask me.

What about Rachael? Well, Rachel is derived from the ancient Hebrew word, rahel, meaning a female sheep. I'll let ewe figure that one out.

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