Van Gogh: The Starry Night

The contrast of lightness and darkness is one of those perennial themes that I probably abused to some extent in AP British Literature (so many comparative essays). But what if the contrast is not so binary? When Vincent van Gogh asked of his brother Theo, “Does what goes on inside show on the outside?,” he was in the midst of a creative and personal period in which what was going on inside was indeed manifesting on the outside.

“Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it,” van Gogh added to Theo, “and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” Perhaps this is exemplified in The Starry Night, perhaps van Gogh’s most famous work — but not one of the two works he sold in his lifetime. Go to the Museum of Modern Art (where The Starry Night hangs) now, however, and there are plenty of people warming themselves at this fire.

Van Gogh painted the work in 1889, one year before he would succumb to the depression that gifted him the view that inspired this iconic work: He painted it based on the countryside of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence as he saw it from his window at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum. Of this point of inspiration, he wrote to Theo, “This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.”

What strikes me about The Starry Night is that it creates a sense of comfort in the darkness — and this from a man who suffered from a mental illness that we often equate with “darkness.” Rather than portray the dark as scary, tumultuous, or evil, he draws a blanket with the night sky, punctuated by luminescence from the stars. It exemplifies another van Gogh-ish, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”

Who the hell knows why we are handed both the painful shocks and priceless gifts we're given — until, that is, we are called upon to share them. Darkness can be productive, fertile. Lightness can be caustic and stark. Our blessings may carry burdens, and our setbacks may carry wisdom.

Today’s Contemplation: Think back to a recent challenge or setback in your life. No need to go straight to the traumatic — missing the subway by a half-second is just as effective here. Consider the storyline of the event, and how you felt in response to the event itself. Without invalidating the disappointment you felt in the moment (disappointment is the best chariot on the road to enlightenment, as Chögyam Trungpa said), can you also see some wisdom in the disappointment? Can you feel something productive within the setback? Can you see beyond the binary of “good” and “bad” experience?