A Fantasy Consult: Van Gogh’s doctor

On occasion, when I feel especially bored, I imagine myself meeting with an important historical figure. The most challenging aspect of this theoretical exercise is, of course, deciding whom I want to meet. I avoid villains for I fear that the association with them, although totally imaginary, would haunt me. Meeting charismatic leaders, fascinating as they may be, carries the risk of blindly following their advice. Geniuses in the exact sciences are simply intimidating, while extremely successful businessmen might not even find the time to meet with me. As the list of my reservations goes on, I realize that the process of choosing the right historical figure to meet with is tiresome. In addition, I give some thought not only to the time and place in which the meeting would take place, but also to which person I want to be in this encounter. Exhausted, I am finally left with a singularly imaginary encounter in my mind:

The year is 1890. The place is Auvers, just north of Paris, France. I would meet with the famous Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh. At that meeting, I would assume an identity I feel most comfortable in, that of a doctor, or to be precise Vincent Van Gogh’s doctor — Dr. Paul Gachet.

Vincent was an enigmatic antihero with a torn soul and a stroke of genius. His early adulthood was a book full of unsuccessful chapters; a failed attempt at being a bookseller, an art dealer, at becoming a preacher. His love was deep and always unrequited. His behavior was often unexplained: passionate about color, he nibbled at his paints, then ate them, and in 1888, he cut off a part of his ear. Vincent’s behavior could have been the result of a mental disorder, perhaps a bipolar disorder, perhaps epilepsy, perhaps both, but to his contemporaries, Vincent was just a madman.

In 1890, on the advice of his close brother Theo, Vincent moved to Auvers, where Paul Gachet, a doctor reputable for attending artists such as Pissarro, Manet, Renoir and Cezanne, could take care of him.

After their first meeting, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo: “[Dr. Gachet] is sicker than I am… when one blind man leads another blind man, don’t they both fall into the ditch?” But soon thereafter, Gachet earned Vincent’s trust: “[He] has shown me much sympathy,” Vincent wrote in a letter to his brother, and “Father Gachet is very much like you [Theo] and me… he will work with you and me to the best of his power… for the love of art, for art’s sake.”

In my imaginary encounter with Vincent, I, Paul Gachet, am posing in front of Vincent in my garden in Auvers as he is holding a palette of yellows, reds and blues, peeking at me from behind the easel, his brush dancing over the canvas in short, abrupt strokes. When the portrait of Dr. Gachet is completed, I see a work of a genius. In the picture, I am sitting at the table, wearing a blue coat and a yellow hat, leaning my head against my right arm and looking directly at the audience. My expression is that of a compassionate, melancholic listener. In Vincent’s words: “sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent,” and “the heartbroken expression of our time.”

And on the table, in front of me, is the antidote to human suffering: two medical books, and the purple medicinal herb, foxglove (digitalis purpurea), from which digitalis, an important heart medicine, is extracted. And yet, in my portrait, my eyes are worried, my face is a field furrowed with concern.

One summer day in July of 1890, a fateful shot was fired. It is still in doubt whether Vincent committed suicide or was shot by another, for there were no eyewitness, and the pistol was never found.

I imagine the shot was fired under intense blue skies, on a dead-end path traversing a field of bright yellow wheat. It disturbed the piercing silence, then disappeared with no echo. The crows hovering above dispersed, then regrouped. The smell of gunpowder lingered for a moment, then faded away.

The shot did not kill Vincent, he was able to walk back to his house at the Ravoux Inn. Doctor Gachet, arrived at the scene as soon as he heard about the incident. He joined another physician, Dr. Mazery who had arrived earlier.

I imagine: we find Vincent with a small bullet hole just below his ribs. He is holding his wound. His blood– red, dark red– slowly trickling between his fingers onto the wooden floor. He is still lucid, smoking his pipe. He seems surprisingly calm. He expresses his wish for his belly to be cut open, for the bullet to be removed. I ask myself: can I perform surgery? Can I save Vincent’s life? My heart is beating hard and fast; ‘Hell’, I think, ‘it is 1890, it is rural France. Paris, where surgical theaters are available is far away. Vincent can never make the trip, let alone survive surgery.’ I carefully dress the wound; perhaps his internal bleeding would magically stop.

Vincent stayed in his bedroom at the Ravoux Inn. He died during the evening of July 29, 1890. Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever.”

Each patient is a whole world. Van Gogh’s world is one painted in intense colors and powerful stokes of the brush. But suddenly, after only a brief imaginary travel, exciting as it was, I want to leave the world of Vincent, to escape the life of Gachet. I want to return to my own patients: to the worlds of a cook, an architect, a fellow doctor, a miner. I gladly forgo the exotic world of my imagination. It is time to get back to work.

Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist working at Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital.