“Dat is Het.”
In Vincent van Gogh’s Dutch tongue, he extolled this triumphant realization, “Dat is Het!” It lay the foundation for a rich flood of work. He was twenty-four years old.
The years leading to this triumph had not been kind. Stymied by bouts of depression and considered a family outcast, Van Gogh sought divine meaning from a cruelly dealt hand, merging the unfortunate with the sublime, levying a stark dividing line between grim reality and art.
Jack Kerouac had similar parallels to Van Gogh. He too was an outcast of a sort. Formerly he was the family pet, especially given the disgrace of his sister marrying an older man at age eighteen. Jack was an Ivy Leaguer and burgeoning football star. But he too was afflicted by mood swings which oftentimes threatened to topple his ambitions. He realized at a young age that he was not alone among the pantheon of great artists (particularly writers) who overcame their respective afflictions to realize the length and breadth of their artistic ambitions. Like Van Gogh, but less extreme, Kerouac tempered Catholicism with writing until he split away, proclaiming himself an agnostic in his application for the naval reserve in late December 1942.
Van Gogh was transfixed by the art of Dutch landscape painters Saloman van Ruysdael and Jan van Goyen. Relaying his enthusiasm to brother Theo van Gogh (who was just as depressed and despondent), Vincent enthused that both painters were “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Like Jack Kerouac, Van Gogh was obsessed with the fervent notion of a “perfect brotherhood.” Unlike Kerouac, who lost his brother in his childhood, Van Gogh was consumed with fulfilling his “perfect brotherhood” through a brotherly solidarity with Theo. Kerouac’s love for humanity became his search for the Brotherhood as amplified through his correspondence with Sebastian Sampas.
The better part of Van Gogh’s life sought to cement a working bond between himself and Theo Van Gogh at all odds. This ideal was based on a few weeks spent with Theo in the summer of 1877. Kerouac, perhaps unable to provide himself with any context of a perfect brotherhood after the death of Sampas, spent the better part of his life searching for it through others (Neal Cassady being one example). Where Van Gogh could never truly manifest that brotherhood, he sought deeper bonds outside of himself, through religion and visually transported on canvas and paper.
These connections were not unique to Van Gogh. They peg the foundations of the Romantic Age where the imagery of nature constantly evokes the cosmic forces of God. For Van Gogh, the canopy of stars mysteriously shining over the Dutch landscape could also be seen in the eyes of its repressed people suffering from poverty and hunger. Writing to Theo on July 9, 1877, he was forceful and meditative: “The moon still shines now, and the sun and the evening star, which is fortunate, and they often speak of God’s Love and call to mind the words, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”
Theo Van Gogh had recently decided to become an artist. This, after a series of jolting indecisions based on the career expectations of his family, was enthusiastically greeted by Vincent. Assaulting Theo with more dreamy dialogue, Vincent was keen on promoting the ideal of himself as a working artist possessed with the zeal of a monk. Through the power of art, one could connect with the Creator and bring hope to his indigent minions.
When Vincent became shaken by the death of a boy who drowned by falling from Amsterdam’s Kattenburg Bridge, it sent him into a paroxysm of frenzy. He witnessed afterwards the grieving father bemoaning his senseless loss, and, in his sorrow, a light shining through the darkness (“in the midst of life we are in death” he wrote Theo on August 5). It was one of many events of late that led him to a small saying first heard in an artist’s studio in the Hague, “Dat is Het,” this is IT.
“Dat is Het!” signified a eureka moment when all was righted in a single image committed to paper or canvas. Van Gogh, however, was transported by a more divine transport of meaning. IT was that golden moment when art connected to religion. Vincent assured Theo of the rightness of this new feeling: “You will find it everywhere, the world is full of it.” He found it in the most seemingly banal life moments. He saw IT in the sermon over the dead child. Writing to Hermanus Tersteeg, Van Gogh was explicit in his observation: “there comes strength from Above, for when we are weak, then are we strong, his mouth spoke from the abundance of the heart, the words fell from his lips as the snow or the rain cometh down from heaven, one thing followed another, this was it, faith.”
There was it in the humility of the droves of workers off to work tromping through the beautiful Dutch cityscape:
“I was up early this morning, it had rained a lot during the night, but the sun broke through the clouds very early, the ground and the piles of timber and beams in the yard were drenched, and the sky reflected in the puddles was completely golden due to the rising sun, and at 5 o’clock one saw all those hundreds of workers looking like little black figures fanning out on all sides.”
It was that which consoled as well as enlightened, which Vincent felt to be the sole function of art. To bridge the chasm between, was it in its ultimate form. Not only preachers could console IT, but artists too.
It has soul. Vincent saw it in the faces of those considered ugly and outsiders, like himself. For Van Gogh, any outward physical appearance of ugliness in the old, the poverty-stricken or afflicted represented soul: “I would rather see a homely woman, for what does a beautiful body really matter?” Somewhere in there lie the visage of an angel, transfixed and radiant through the worst of any plight. Vincent believed in angels and depended on them for consolation. Later, hospitalized for his madness in Saint-Remy, Van Gogh painted through the swirling stars the image of the archangel Raphael.
For weeks afterward, Van Gogh engaged in a mission to search for IT. Ultimately, he would obtain it through the sublimity of his art.
Jack Kerouac was no stranger to Van Gogh’s published letters. It is documented that he read an edited translation of them in the late 1940s. In the mid-1950s, he experienced for himself the hot mistrals and splendiferous tulips of the Arles landscape. Proposing that he latched on to Van Gogh’s notion of IT would be purely circumstantial. What is proposed instead is that Kerouac shared with Van Gogh that necessitous urge to merge a spiritual worldview through his own art form, his writing.
In the novel On the Road, Dean Moriarty envisions IT unspooling via the dizzying solo of a jazz tenor saxophonist. It was the moment, the apex of a creative act where time itself stops. It connects the ordinary to the sublime. Kerouac believed that the role of artist was sacred. In his essay, “Are Writers Born or Made?” he believes that what Van Gogh saw in the night sky could never be seen again. So it could be said for writers: “Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and see many times imitated by made writers.”
Both Vincent Van Gogh and Jack Kerouac were artists of the future, to which the world is still coming to terms.