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Archive for July, 2016

The enduring mystery of van Gogh’s ear — has it now been finally solved?

It ranks among the most famous body parts of history, on a level with Venus de Milo’s missing arm, Pinocchio’s nose, and the penis of the statue of a little boy in the Grand Place in Brussels from which emerges a continuous splash of water.

I refer, you may have guessed, to Vincent van Gogh’s ear – the ear that he cut off, in whole or in part during an attack of hysteria brought on by the departure of his painter friend Paul Gauguin from their Yellow House in Arles, France.

This most famous of the early modern painters is known as much for his troubled mental state as for his brilliant artwork. And despite the efforts of legions of physicians, psychologists and psychoanalysts to fathom the exact nature of van Gogh’s illness, the world today knows little more of it than on the sultry day in 1890 when he took his life by gunshot (or was it an accident?).

As van Gogh struggled with apparent attacks of epilepsy that rendered him near senseless, he managed to create the greatest works of his lifetime. Most of this took place in the southern French town of Arles, and in the mental institute of Saint Paul de Mausole in nearby Saint-Rémy.

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Doctors had various theories as to the cause of van Gogh’s problems but few answers. Sigmund Freud was still meddling with hypnotism. The emerging psychiatrists of the day were known as alienists, trying to understand the alienation sick patients were indicating as the key symptom to their mental illness.

Van Gogh’s attack on his ear, which came on the night before Christmas Eve in 1889 after escalating arguments with his house guest Paul Gauguin, provides the focal point of a fascinating new book, Van Gogh’s Ear; The True Story.

The author, Bernadette Murphy, is an obscure Englishwoman who lived for many years in the South of France before taking up a study of van Gogh’s life. Once she got started, she was indefatigable. Her book is as much a story of her research into forgotten archives that would shed fresh detail on van Gogh, as it is a retelling of the painter’s life.

“Practically everything I thought I knew about van Gogh in Arles when I set off on this adventure turned out not to be true,” she confesses.

Ms. Murphy made three remarkable discoveries. In musty boxes at the University of California, she had a custodian find a drawing of van Gogh’s ear by the physician who attended him in Arles, Dr. Félix Rey. It shows that van Gogh severed nearly the whole of his ear, and not just the lobe as has been generally believed. After more than a century, the mystery appears to have been solved.

Ms. Murphy was also able to establish the true identity of Rachel, the girl in the brothel to whom van Gogh presented his newspaper-wrapped ear, telling her to take good care of it. And the famous petition demanding van Gogh’s removal to an asylum was engineered, according to the author, by a real estate agent conniving to rent the Yellow House to a more reputable tenant.

In writing Van Gogh’s Ear, Ms. Murphy might have given more attention to the role that self-injury plays in emotionally disturbed people. The Mayo Clinic says “this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.” Certainly van Gogh was undergoing such pain in Arles that Christmas, and indeed throughout much of his life.

Bernadette Murphy sees van Gogh’s actions that night as “altruistic – the behaviour of a thoughtful, sensitive, and extremely empathetic man,” one who was “far more than the sum of his torments ”

I was drawn to Van Gogh’s Ear because I’m working on my own upcoming book which I call Van Gogh’s Ghost. In it, I recount my search for the 21st century legacy of this great and troubled artist. But you don’t have to be writing about van Gogh to enjoy reading of him, and Bernadette Murphy’s contribution is an enjoyable and revealing addition to the shelves of van Gogh literature.

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The world wonders about Canada – why do we have it so good?

One need not search far in the global media for commentary on the remarkable success Canada is enjoying amid a world of economic turmoil, political crisis, and cultural confrontation.

The Washington Post, seeking to understand “What Canada is About,” sees our welcome of 25,000 Syrian refugees (30,000 by the end of 2016) as evidence of a country pulling together to meet a new challenge:

“Businesses, the Canadian Labor Congress, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, small towns and large cities are all contributing clothing, furniture and financial support to help settle Canada’s most recent influx of refugees.”

The London Telegraph, commenting on the unprecedented openness and people mingling ability of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, offered an answer to those who criticize his penchant for selfies in this quote from political observer Amanda Alvaro:

“I think the team that surrounds the Trudeau government has really understood strategically that if you have a willing leader who is prepared to walk in Pride and take photos with people and be accessible, then you would use that to your advantage to get people to participate in the political process.”

While the United Kingdom totters toward separation (losing Scotland) and isolation (abandoning the EU) and the United States faces a presidential choice between an artful manipulator and an unadulterated ignoramus, Canada rejoices that it is led by a young, vigorous, progressive Prime Minister.

Nor are Canadian journalists shy about recognizing the euphoria that seems to have settled on the “peaceable kingdom.”

Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail, generally no friend to liberals and progressives, wrote last week that “Canada is that increasingly rare exception — a country in which public support for immigration is strong.”

She quoted Prime Minister Trudeau at his meeting with the “Three Amigos,” (he, Barack Obama and the president of Mexico):

“No matter where you are from, nor the faith you possess, nor the colour of your skin, nor whom you love, you belong here. This is your home.”

Not that all is perfect in  Canadaland. Not all immigrants are succeeding, and the country is about evenly split on whether Canada’s current policies are taking it in the “right” direction.

So bring on the books. There’s been a half dozen published on Justin Trudeau, not counting his campaign autobiography, Common Ground.

The newest, Justin Trudeau: Natural Heir, will be out in English from Dundurn on July 23.  Huguette Young, the well-known Quebecoise journalist, wrote this in French and it’s been translated by George Tombs.

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Huguette’s book is good workmanlike  reportage that takes one through the well-known early life of the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and comes to a sudden stop on election day, October 15, 2015.

Like most books written on the run, The Natural Heir does not contain a lot of analysis. We learn that when he gave his noted eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000, “He seemed younger than his 28 years.”

We get a recounting of his educational progress through Collège Brébeuf, McGill University, and the University of B.C. When he decided to enter politics, he chose the tough east end Montreal riding of Papineau, then held by a Bloc MP, because if he could understand Papineau “it would be like understanding Canada as a whole.”

From there, the outcome seems inevitable. First came attempts by the Conservatives to denigrate him as a lightweight. They failed. In the debates, Young writes, “Justin Trudeau comes across as the embodiment of change. With the good looks, optimistic tone, dynamism and passion he seemed quite the reverse of Stephen Harper, who appeared wooden, serious, and controlling.”

“You can’t buy charisma,” Young tells us. “Justin Trudeau remained a blank slate.” “Trudeau played his cards well.”

For the general reader who doesn’t follow politics closely, this is an excellent primer on Canada’s new Prime Minister. Readers seeking a more analytical appraisal of Justin Trudeau’s attempt at feminist, progressive, and generally leftist policies will have to await another day.