Van Gogh on heartache as a vitalizing force for creative work, Einstein's advice to Marie Curie on how to handle haters, pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin on women in science, Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska on fairy tales and the importance of being scared, and more.
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In the summer of 1881, while visiting his parents, Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) fell in love with a woman named Cornelia Adriana Vos-Stricker — a beautiful, recently widowed young mother. Cornelia was touched by Vincent’s kindness to her little boy — Van Gogh had a great affection for children — and a friendship developed between them. But it was quickly warped by romantic lopsidedness — Vincent fell passionately in love with Cornelia, who was too raw with grief to open up to the possibility of a new life. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she rebuffed him gently yet firmly. But like any hopeful lover confronting hopelessness, Van Gogh warded off dejection with denial and, mistaking her gentleness for ambivalence, led himself to believe that he still had a chance if only he tried harder. (Most human heartbreak stems from this half-arrogant, half-naïve tendency of ours to believe that we can change the course of events and the feelings of others by bending, twisting, and exerting ourselves a little bit more, as if the entirety of their free will was a function of our own actions.)
Although Van Gogh’s infatuation ultimately ended in heartbreak, in the process of working through it he found himself and his art came alive in a new way — a beautiful and poignant reminder that our sorrow and our creative vitality spring from the same source.
‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh
This summer a deep love has grown in my heart for [Cornelia], but when I told her this, she answered me that, to her, past and future remained one, so she never could return my feelings.
Then there was a terrible indecision within me what to do. Should I accept her “no, never never,” or considering the question as not finished or decided, should I keep some hope and not give up? I chose the latter.
And up to now I do not repent of that decision, though I am still confronted by that “no, never never”… For myself [I have] kept some courage… I hope to continue to do so, and to keep melancholy and depression far from me, meanwhile working hard, and since I have met her I get on much better with my work.
It is no unreasonable or unjust desire to wish that [she] and I might see each other, speak to each other, and write to each other, in order to become better acquainted, and in this way to get a better insight into whether we are suited for each other or not… I hope not to leave a single thing undone, that may bring me nearer to her, and it is my intention:
To love her so long Till she’ll love me in the end.
Four days later, Van Gogh writes to his brother again, even more resolute in his decision to keep hope alive:
There is a love serious and passionate enough, not to be chilled by many “no, never nevers”… For love is something positive, so strong, so real that it is as impossible for one who loves to take back that feeling, as it is to take his own life… Life has become very dear to me, and I am very glad that I love. My life and my love are one.
Torn between compassion for Cornelia’s grief and agony over her refusal to open her heart to him, he adds:
In that inexpressible anguish of soul, rose a thought in me like a clear light in the night, namely this: whosoever can resign himself, let him do so, but he who has faith let him believe! Then I arose, not resigning but believing, and had no other thought than “she, and no other”…
So I remain calm and confident through all this, and that influences my work, which attracts me more than ever, just because I feel I shall succeed. Not that I shall become anything extraordinary, but “ordinary,” and then I mean by ordinary, that my work will be sound and reasonable, and will have a right to exist, and will serve to some end. I think that nothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love…
As the summer sets into fall, Van Gogh — who was always animated by the intimate dialogue between love and art — continues learning to find solace in the love he is feeling as an invaluable reward in its own right, independent of what he may or may not receive in return. He reflects:
Since the beginning of this love I felt, that unless I gave myself up to it entirely, without afterthought, without any restriction, with all my heart, entirely and for ever, there was no chance for me whatever, and even so my chance is slight. But what is it to me whether my chance is slight or great? I mean must I consider this when I love? No — no reckoning, one loves because one loves.
By mid-November, he becomes even more attuned to the love in his own heart as a gateway to self-discovery and a new mode of being. He writes to Theo:
If you were in love with the same sort of love as I, and, boy, why should you ever have another kind of love, then you would discover something quite new in yourself… We are used to do most of our work with our brains — with a certain diplomacy, with a certain sharp calculation. But now fall in love, and look here, you will perceive to your astonishment that there is still another force that urges us on to action, that is the heart.
What kind of love was it I felt when I was twenty? … I only wanted to give, but not to receive. Foolish, wrong, exaggerated, proud, rash, for in love one must not only give, but also take, and reversing it, one must not only take but also give. Whoever deviates either to the right or to the left, he falls, there is no help for it.
Few things are more disheartening to witness than the bile which small-spirited people of inferior talent often direct at those endowed with genius. And few things are more heartening to witness than the solidarity and support which kindred spirits of goodwill extend to those targeted by such loathsome attacks.
In 1903, Marie Curie (November 7, 1867–July 4, 1934) became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. It was awarded jointly to her and her husband, Pierre, for their pioneering research on radioactivity. On April 19, 1906, she was widowed by an accident all the more tragic for its improbability. While crossing a busy Parisian street on a rainy night, Pierre slipped, fell under a horse-drawn cart, and was killed instantly. Curie grieved for years. In 1910, she found solace in Pierre’s protégé — a young physics professor named Paul Langevin, married to but separated from a woman who physically abused him. They became lovers. Enraged, Langevin’s wife hired someone to break into the apartment where the two met and steal their love letters, which she promptly leaked to the so-called press. The press eviscerated Curie and portrayed her as “a foreign Jewish homewrecker.”
Upon returning from a historic invitation-only science conference in Brussels, where she had met Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18 1955), Curie found an angry mob in front of her home in Paris. She and her daughters were forced to stay with a family friend.
At the 1911 Solvay Conference. Curie leaning on table. Einstein second from right. Also in attendance: Max Planck, Henri Poincaré, and Ernest Rutherford.
Einstein considered Curie “an unpretentious honest person” with a “sparkling intelligence.” When he got news of the scandal, he was outraged by the tastelessness and cruelty of the press — the tabloids had stripped a private situation of all humanity and nuance, and brought it into the public realm with the deliberate intention of destroying Curie’s scientific reputation.
Einstein, who would later remark that “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted,” writes:
Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,
Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism! I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.
With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,
Shortly after the scandal, Curie received her second Nobel Prize — this time in chemistry, for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. To this day the only person awarded a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, she endures as one of humanity’s most visionary and beloved minds. The journalists who showered her with bile are known to none and deplored by all.
“If you want your children to be intelligent,” Einstein is credited with proclaiming, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Intelligence, of course, is a loose grab-bag term that encompasses multiple manifestations, but the insight attributed to Einstein applies most unequivocally to the ninth of developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences: existential intelligence. Fairy tales — the proper kind, those original Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen tales I recall from my Eastern European childhood, unsanitized by censorship and unsweetened by American retellings — affirm what children intuitively know to be true but are gradually taught to forget, then to dread: that the terrible and the terrific spring from the same source, and that what grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet.
1924 illustration by Kay Nielsen for ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ by Hans Christian Andersen
In a piece titled “The Importance of Being Scared” — a reflection on the first edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which revolutionized storytelling — Szymborska writes:
Children like being frightened by fairy tales. They have an inborn need to experience powerful emotions. Andersen scared children, but I’m certain that none of them held it against him, not even after they grew up. His marvelous tales abound in indubitably supernatural beings, not to mention talking animals and loquacious buckets. Not everyone in this brotherhood is harmless and well-disposed. The character who turns up most often is death, an implacable individual who steals unexpectedly into the very heart of happiness and carries off the best, the most beloved. Andersen took children seriously. He speaks to them not only about life’s joyous adventures, but about its woes, its miseries, its often undeserved defeats. His fairy tales, peopled with fantastic creatures, are more realistic than whole tons of today’s stories for children, which fret about verisimilitude and avoid wonders like the plague. Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.
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