Arles - travelogue - don't bet your life on posterity

He didn’t know that it was a Santa Fe sky, say the sky of June 3, 1993, same lowslung clouds, same flat earth, same encircling hills, same high blue sky above the clouds, that he was seeing in that summer of 1888, when he was bothered by the mistral and the rent and the need to suppress his sexual instincts – the year he lived on half cooked chickpeas and cheap alcohol – because Van Gogh never set eyes on New Mexico. I however recognized it instantly, hanging there in the distance outside the bus window as we swept by the acres of sun flowers and made the turn into Arles from Tarascon, where we’d go off the train.

Arles it turns out was not the tourist mecca A. and I feared it might be – seems they had all oiled off to the festival in Avignon – and we settled in for our jaunt nicely after a small blowup at our hotel -- they tried to palm off a room to us that was deficient in the usual room things – handles on doors, lampshades, and size, with the bathroom competing with the bedroom in volume, which was not doing a favor to either party. We achieved a more brilliant room, then we hied it to the Place de Forum for lunch. I suggested to A, a little shamefacedly, that we eat at the restaurant that claims to be the restaurant Van Gogh painted at night (supposedly ornamenting his huge Cargmanole peasant hat with little candles so he could see his canvas). Replete with poulpe and nicoise salade, we then commenced a tour of Arles medievale, and the river. Arles, like Santa Fe, hosts a lotta art in the summer – everybody’s favorite stalker, Sophie Calle, had just been in town for an expo – and it made a nice contrast between the old town’s winding, narrow street, which crooked along like a map of the blind leading the blind, and the affiches for past or present attractions which were glued up all over the pressing walls. The weather was perfect Provence, the kind that brings in flocks of retired British couples. They’d sneak up behind us as we would read the carte outside of restaurants: Mum, ‘ere it says they serve hommelette and frites! I wanted to try the taureau – Arles is right proud of the running of its bulls, and has run them through its cuisine as well, with local sauces and cuts. I liked it, but, such is my feebleness and American decadence, I liked A.’s entrecote de boeuf even more. The next day we used the ticket we’d bought to gain entrance to all the sights on the ancien stuff – starting with Allychamps, Champs Elysees, the street of sarcophagi, then on to the Arene and the Thermes. A. said Arles was practically Italian. Bought a book at Actes Sud, the bookstore/publisher, which has set up a general emporium of culture (coffeehouse, exhibition place, cinema). Then we lounged fashionably in a few squares, consuming beer, Perrier, some green syrupy thing, a mystery novel, emails, and time – until we had to move it to the railroad station and take the express train back to Montpellier. We were sunburned, well fed, and pretty happy about our one day jaunt/anniversary celebration.
Van Gogh, of course, left Arles under less happy circumstances. After the unfortunate ear act and the shutting up in the hospital, fifty Arles citizens signed a petition to the mayor to have him expelled, which depressed him a lot. Reading his letters, it is easy to see what an impossible man he was, messianic in that D.H. Lawrence manner – but I have a huge weakness for the wrestlers with the chthonic soul, the underground men, those who fizz like some malfactured cherry bomb, refusing either to explode or sputter out, and thus dangerous to approach. If only, for his sake, he had sold a few paintings in his lifetime! If only, for our sake, he had sold a few less paintings, or at least for less money, in his afterlife! Those guys at the fin de siecle counted a lot on the Nachwelt – on the future. They staked their work on posthumous fame. But, as Karl Kraus once wrote, do we, the living, really deserve to be a posterity? Kraus doubted we were up to the task. I do too.


Emily said…
n the summer of 2002, my friend A. somehow convinced me to accompany her on an excursion with a little six year old girl, the daughter of friends. In the past few months, the girl had started having trouble at school, with any form of sociality. Her father, our friend, came from Pakistan.

That day, we walked through Central Park with the little girl and stopped as she stared at a fountain where kids were jumping in and splashing about and having fun. Why don't you join them we said and she shook her head. Amie picked her up and carried her into the fountain basin, both of them got soaked and the girl started laughing and talking to and laughing with the other kids.

What next? Amie suggested we go the nearby MET, and so we did, and I watched the people in the museum look at the two drenched gals with their clothes sticking to them rather than the famous paintings. We wandered about in the museum until we got to the room with the Van Gogh, where the little girl just stopped and stared. She didn't say anything for a long while, just stood and looked.

When she went back to school, she would draw and paint copies of the Van Gogh paintings she had seen and hand them to her classmates, the school friends she no longer knew how to speak to.

Posterity, if there is such a thing is a thing of surprises.

roger said…
Emily, I love the story! And it makes me feel a bit like Daffy Duck in one of those sequences in which our hero shoots a rifle, which has been blocked, and blows it and himself up. My rifle was that fatal we in the last two sentences - which has the shapeless feel of some large body of water in which I am placidly paddling, and then it suddenly snaps into a more definite shape which includes the slickly wet kid trailing puddles and astonishment before the VvG's. Exactly, might I say, as van Gogh planned it - his paintings, he thought, were best understood on the simplest plane, even though they came out of a very complex encounter with all the art and life he knew.