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What Big Hopes I Have

(all the better to wander with)

It all began for me, I think, with Little Red Riding Hood.It is appropriate that my story, my journey, began with a story about another’s journey, about strange travails and lurking dangers, about youth and idealism superseding the advice of experience.Little Red Riding Hood’s impetuosity nearly doomed her grandmother along with herself; though my own errors have not had such grave consequences there is a universal kinship between our stories.Joseph Campbell, in Hero with a Thousand Faces wrote about what he called the monomyth, the idea that all myths share a common formula, telling the same story.Whatever differences the details may have the hero’s journey is a common story to every person.I took the first step of my journey upon learning to read.My first book?Little Red Riding Hood.

Gaining literacy, however faltering, set me on a path toward liberal arts from a young age.Truthfully, books were my companionship more than any individuals apart from members of my family.Books imparted lessons to me, described worthy endeavors along with the disappointments engendered by low-minded exploits, and imbued me with a love for language that has persisted ever since.Learning, for me, has been tied up to language for as long as I can remember.Whenever a new subject was introduced to me my first response was to read what I could find on the subject.New terms, and new styles of diction, were my initial lessons, invariably.I would study any new topic with intensity, but not with persistence.The panoply of available reading materials was always so vast that lingering too long with a particular genre seemed wasteful when there were unexplored realms waiting for me in other volumes.So books, imparting a zeal for knowledge, also guided me away from specialization.

Inevitably my indiscreet studies were supplemented by public school, and reading no longer claimed all of my time.Hands on activity entered my consciousness, and in science particularly I realized that everything I had been reading about had a real-life analogue.Every fact or figure represented something in the world around me.I remember asking my mom how she made cookies (adult actions existed apart from me, mysterious).She had me help her mix the batter, making my forearm sore from beating the obstinate mixture with my giant spoon, while she prepared the oven.Yet I still didn’t understand how she’d accomplished the feat, and my own cookies came out partly raw, or worse, missing vital ingredients.Then I discovered her secret; my mom had a recipe book.With the help of the cookbook I made cookies, and then graduated to tortillas and banana bread.The instructions in the book made the difference.Books were instruction as well as entertainment, and whatever I learned from them could literally change my life.

Before you accuse me of belaboring the point, I’ll say right now that my journey did not always center around books, though they were the main engine of my education.Farther on in school I became much more interested in the people around me.The books I had loved had authors, after all, so the wonderful things present between pages all derived in the end from other people.Now, up until early high school I interacted with my peers very little.Introversion was the name of my game.I’d, perhaps, been so much concerned with books that I’d paid no attention at all to society, but by this point I felt I needed to participate.My friends, all local teenagers who appreciated the abstract, did a thorough job impressing upon me the importance of social graces such as swearing, idling my way down sidewalks, and cutting class.For several months in my freshman year I met with two of my best friends after school hours, ostensibly to rehearse our assigned reinterpretation of Julius Caesar.Instead, we ate pizza, played pool, and only got to the play on the day before we were expected to present it.We decided to make our version a comedy.The production went off with some success, enough to earn an A.This turned out to be a significant misstep for me on my journey in liberal arts, because it convinced me that proper time management was not always necessary for a good performance.

Little changed from high school to college, and armed with a lackadaisical outlook on life, my grade point average promptly plummeted.I liked to learn, but I wasn’t necessarily interested in what my professors wanted to teach me, or if I was, my mastery of procrastination resulted in late assignments.Sometimes I didn’t bother to do my assignments at all.It took academic probation before I discovered why I wanted to be in college in the first place, and why I had chosen liberal arts.I wanted the authority to study what interested me, no matter whether it was a scientific question or one of literary style.I wanted to earn respect for my opinions, based on a familiarity with a broad range of topics.Being ignorant chafed at me, and so, it turned out, did being lazy.

The path of Liberal arts is, in my mind, the path of the self-starter.It teaches its students to have a firm footing, grounding them in multiple fields so that they can navigate any obstacle.Liberal Arts does not present a well laid trail, with posted warning signs about wolves, or kindly woodcutters to rescue impetuous travelers.It is a discipline for people who prefer to stride directly into the forest, heedless of grandmother’s advice, to find what nobody else is looking for.That is the sort of life which I want to lead.Only Liberal Arts gives me the wit to wander in competence.


Integral to my Character

I could tell you that Integrated Studies is a practice meant to bring together academic disciplines that have nothing to do with one another and extracting some sort of coherence out of the mishmash; it would be a common definition, likely to be accepted by those looking in from the outside, but it would miss what integration means.A random collection of nuts and cogs deposited in a bowl does not make a machine.A machine’s parts are situated just so, precisely designed to fit one another, each piece integral to the working of the whole.I don’t mean to suggest that disparate fields of study are entirely unrelated; five minutes on Wikipedia wandering from link to link, click by click, is evidence enough to dispel that notion.However, that sort of undirected journey through hypertext channels does not provide coherence of thought, and whatever is read can be disregarded on the next web page.It is not integrated—unless the reader has a purpose in mind which unites the articles, a center about which the facts can spin.To me, Integrated Studies is about openness in seeking answers, to follow any route toward knowledge, whether it be scientific or irrational, anecdotal, or informal, and analyzing each newly discovered piece of knowledge to see if it is integral to the question at hand.

For most of my life my latent goal was to become a renaissance man; not a jack-of-all-trades, but someone whose capacities and scope are broad enough that I could contribute to an endeavor in more than one, limited way.I say latent because until recently this purpose was so nebulous that I should describe it more as an attitude than an intention.My preceding paragraph laid out how central having a purpose is to Integrated Studies, and to be embarrassingly frank I’ll admit that until the last two years of college I had no discernible purpose whatsoever.Oh, I studied exceedingly often, but without objective other than the study itself, giving my attention to fiction, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy—my only rubric was how interesting the study was at the time.You could call me a dilettante, and you would be right.All my incessant studying was enriching, establishing a habit of inquiry in me which I’m confident will last the rest of my life, yet at first my sole motivation was to sate my boredom.Excuse me; I was young.

With age comes shrewdness, but with adolescence comes bravado.Being a precocious youth (some braggadocio remains, you see) I had decided early to become an intellectual, so when I entered middle-school I set off in the steps of other intellectuals, which as far as I was concerned meant people like Mary Shelley, D.H. Lawrence, and Jules Verne.I realize that these names are not modern, and are perhaps irrelevant role models to adopt for the here-and-now, so I’d like to explain myself.To begin with please take my word for it that I read more often than I spoke, so my opinions were based less on socializing than they were on my available library, and my dad had brought home a collection of abridged classics when I was only eight years old…you see where I’m going.The authors of these books became my heroes, and I respected their words as fulsomely as Victor Frankenstein admired Albertus Magnus.Many of these individuals, with their famous bodies of correspondence and diverse pursuits, were among the prominent voices of society in their heyday.Growing up to be a renaissance man like my heroes was, to me, analogous to growing up to be the titular astronaut.My point, before I belabor my history further, is that the drive to be well-rounded in my learning is deeply rooted in me, providing a goal in and of itself, though not a very focused one.

If, to paraphrase Socrates, wisdom consists in knowing how ignorant one is, then I acquired considerable wisdom in college because I was appalled at how useless my learning turned out to be when I tried to accomplish anything with it.My grades were poor, and worse, my prospects seemed impoverished as well.When I initially entered Integrated Studies it was only to avoid learning a foreign language for an English degree, which seemed superfluous to me.I adore English, and maintain vague aspirations toward becoming a science fiction writer, but that path didn’t fit my life goals anymore.Not that I knew, exactly, what my life goals were.My rural background supplied those.Growing up in wooded environments taught me an appreciation for nature, and also for personal space, so the problems of pollution and overpopulation were distressing to me once I delved into politics.The values I developed from considering political questions rejuvenated my academic drive; I had the purpose necessary to integrate my studies, and was finally working on my major in fact instead of in name.

Do not conclude from the above that I want to enter politics per se, but I do want to involve myself in the direction of community, and I now believe that the best way I can accomplish this is to hone my skills at promulgating information.As a teacher, librarian, secretary, or researcher, a person dedicates themselves to the acquisition and presentation of information, in some cases needing to improvise this knowledge out of the interconnection of other skills.Integrated Studies is a discipline that uses information in one field to bolster conclusions in another, or open it to novel modes of investigation.When discussing history, for example, it turns out that one can use a famous painting such as Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast as a primary source to support theories regarding social attitudes of the time period.Philosophy not only teaches a person how to question, but it gives a perspective on physics that a pure practitioner of science lacks: the philosophy of pragmatism provides good reasons for a scientist to carefully qualify and define their terms before presenting an experimental conclusion.Since I believe that improving human relations, and society as a whole, can be effected by properly disseminating information, it behooves me to take Integrated Studies as my major.I still cannot claim that my purpose is narrowly defined—I do not aspire specifically to become a file clerk—I do know that I want to be involved in clerical work, whether at an office or as somebody’s assistance, or even in front of class.My purpose is to become part of the informational machine that runs the socio-industrial workplace, not as a cog or screw, but as the lubrication that eases the operation of every other little part.


Good Genes Without Bad Blood

The term ‘eugenics’ is a powder keg set against the foundations of public opinion.  Merely mention the term in relation to a question of public policy and the controversy ensues.  Unfortunate comparisons to Hitler follow in the wake of the average discussion on the topic of eugenics, and the negative attitude toward it is so profound that in the opinion of Dr. Barry Mehler and others among the intelligentsia that any exploration of eugenic science or themes is motivated by scientific racism, explicitly and necessarily.  However, the history and motives of eugenics reach farther back than individuals like Dr. Mehler will admit.  It is the purpose of this essay to trace the origin of eugenic thought back to state building and animal husbandry, and to disassociate modern eugenic thought from the white supremacist movement it has been unfairly attributed to. 

            “Not since the days of Jim Crow has academia been so much at the forefront of the white supremacist movement in the United States.”[1] The previous quote from Dr. Mehler is indicative of the prevailing attitude toward eugenics in scholarship today, and there is some reason for this.  Unquestionably the history of the science has involved some people of questionable morals, at least by modern standards, and has been informed during certain eras by the mores of that time period.  Furthermore, eugenics has always been a pursuit tied in to the study of inherited characteristics, and hence of genetics in particular, so those who have been influential on the topic of inherited characteristics have colored how eugenics as a whole is viewed.  Francis Galton, author of Natural Inheritance has had an unusually strong affect on the reception of the science of eugenics, and in the words of David S. King, editor of a major medical journal, “Definitions of eugenics which exclude Galton can hardly be taken seriously.”[2]  I would seriously dispute this claim.  Certainly Galton has had a major impact on heredity research, and it is largely because of his unusual (and outdated) ideas that eugenics is considered to have been derived from a racist ideology.  His attitude toward genetics was a race-fixated one, in which “The science of heredity is concerned with Fraternities and large Populations rather than with individuals, and must treat them as units.”[3]  Such a conception of eugenics, in which a practitioner advocates the improvement of population groups rather than discrete persons, is unmistakably one concerning itself with racial improvement and is hence a racist ideology by modern standards.  But simply because one person important in the development of eugenics in its present incarnation was motivated by racist dogma does not denote that a non-racist eugenic program is impossible, or even that scientific racism is inextricable from the eugenic discourse.

As it stands, modern eugenics need not be involved with racial demographics or policy, and in fact the history of eugenics, Galton notwithstanding, has more to do with the utilitarian improvement of animals than it does with race-purification.  The efforts of animal breeders to create beasts which were superior (insofar as specified tasks were concerned) to those which were produced by nature predates efforts at instituting eugenic practices in human beings.  Before sophisticated genetic techniques were studied eugenics had its roots in animal husbandry: “…horse breeding was the best developed model for understanding the relation of biological inheritance to social circumstances.”[4]  In fact, in America it was the work of wealthy industrialists that most contributed to eugenics, people who knew from experience breeding fine horses into trotters that conscious direction was capable of enhancing valuable characteristics into their animals, and felt that their money could benefit humanity by pursuing similar research. 

The social component was included in this thinking, as for “many Gilded Age thinkers the history of the horse mirrored Western civil development.  The development of society was so dependent on horses that they were presumed to share the same history as Western Europeans.”[5]  In effect, horses and human beings in the Western world were shaped in remarkably similar ways by society, or at least that was the attitude at the time when trotter-breeders were investing in eugenics.  If husbandry practices could change subsequent generations of horses to the betterment of the society which valued them then it stood to reason according to contemporary thought at the time that human beings could be similarly tailored to their environment.  There was no contention that racial traits were either desirable or undesirable, only that there were certain human traits which were advantageous in Western civilization and that maximizing the expression of such traits should tend to improve society as a whole, as well as uplift the individual within it.  If there was any social bias in this regard it was not a racist one; if anything eugenic promoters were concerned with pedigree.

            Such social awareness when it comes to eugenics, so often attributed to conscious or unconscious racism on the part of academicians, is not limited only to horse breeders.  “An average of 20% of ENE [English speaking countries and Northern Europe][6] geneticists feel that, given the availability of prenatal testing, it is not fair to society knowingly to have a child with a serious genetic disorder.”[7]  Health care in America poses currently poses significant problems.  While wishing to prevent malformed or disadvantaged children from being born certainly brings up moral quandaries, not to mention political implications, such a eugenic goal is a straightforward one.  Scientific racism has little to do with it.  Instead, there is the indication that geneticists are actively responding to socio-economic pressures.  Ethically, the role of prenatal testing is debatable.  Judging from the quoted figure above, those geneticists who advocate a eugenic policy that would restrict the birth of infants suffering from a genetic infirmity are in the minority, so one might reasonably claim that these eugenicists take the least morally popular stance.  However, in no way can racist ideologies be inferred from that avowed stance. 

On a more historical note, Plato conceptualized a utopian state in which government had an active role in managing the mating habits of its citizens, “He drew an analogy with the selective breeding of sporting dogs and horses in order to obtain the desired stock.”  It is apparent that the link between husbandry and eugenics is longstanding, and it does not only predate Galton’s racist ideology, it is not even acknowledged by Galton himself: “Galton’s work on eugenics makes very little reference to Greek social theories of eugenics and current standard works on eugenics make no reference to the Greek contribution.”[8]  It might be inferred from the preceding that current eugenic work is Galtonian in nature, but that does not follow simply from the fact that Galton did not acknowledge Greek eugenics.  It is because the Galtonian emphasis in history is widely accepted in academics, to the point where eugenicists who owe little to Galton’s racial ideas still credit him with the genesis of eugenics itself, that current writers on the topic often do not realize how dissimilar modern theories and Galtonian ones really are.  John Harris made this distinction clearly, stating that it is ethically problematic to discourage reproduction on the basis of genetic infirmity, but that parents have an obligation not to produce children who will be harmed by their genetic makeup.[9]  Essentially, he equates knowingly mating so as to maximize the likelihood of inherited disabilities in a child is tantamount to inflicting purposeful harm on the child.  There is no talk of ‘racial pollution’, only the good of the individual.  This equates to Plato’s goal of improving individual citizens within a civilization in order to affect a higher standard of harmony within the state.  Just as animal husbandry produced stronger, fleeter, and more domesticated dogs Plato felt that an ideal nation-state needed citizens of a universally higher caliber; people who could work better, who could solve problems more capably, and get along with one another with fewer problems were a necessary building block to a smoothly functioning society.             

Moreso than it was in the past, eugenics is a distinctly ethical pursuit for those academicians who theorize on it.  I do not dispute that academic and scientific racism was, for a time, quite impactful on the realization of eugenics.  In fact, most of the eugenic programs which have actually existed in America were ones which promoted racism or were promoted by racially conscious individuals, in some form or another.  However, past mistakes are not a justification for discontinuing an entire branch of study such as eugenics.  The errors perpetrated in the past were products of an ill-informed, rather mystical body of ideas such as those promulgated by Francis Galton.  Modern eugenicists are well aware of this, enough to be alert for resurgences of that sort of skewed ideology in each other’s work.  That sort of historical consciousness is sufficient to guide modern eugenics past the shoals upon which it floundered in the past.  It is important to note that these days those varieties of eugenic efforts are seldom perpetrated by those most involved in eugenic thought, but instead by atavist holdovers of more Galtonian or Aryanist influences.  As covered earlier, eugenic scientists, generally those conducting experimental research in genetics, have a much more cautious approach which underlies their work.  The disjunction of eugenics reasoning in earlier social circumstances, as well as the ethically self-conscious tenor of eugenic study in the present day, are together powerful evidence that scientific racism is no longer an attitude in the eugenic community which is prevalent, tolerated, or for which any trend of sympathy is discernible. 

            In the current medical climate in which babies can be screened prenatally for disfigurements, and where there is every expectation that someday genes can be individually tailored or selected to produce only children of exceptional fitness, the issue of racial segregation is one that belongs to the past.  Racism of any sort can express itself anywhere, but there is no reason to believe that eugenics research is explicitly involved in racism, or that its origins are inextricably tied to a racist legacy.  The eugenics of today is science that intends to improve individuals, not masses, on finding voluntary methods on a person by person basis to enhance the biological quality of persons both existent and potential.  No genocides.  No segregation.  Eugenics may one day take the form of a shot, a vaccination of sorts against infirmity in the DNA, or curative measures designed to eliminate disabilities such as nearsightedness without recourse to prosthetic enhancements.  The future of eugenics is uncertain, but one can look forward to that future free of the plague of racial politics.  Humanity in that time may be different, but it will not be a humanity consisting of one homogenous race.


Primary Sources:

            Galton, Francis.  Natural Inheritance.  London:  Macmillan & co., 1894

Secondary Sources:

            Galton, David J. “Greek Theories on Eugenics.”  Journal of Medical Ethics 24 (August 1998): 263-267.

King, David S.  “Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis and the ‘New’ Eugenics.” Journal of Medical Ethics 25 (April 1999): 176-182 

Mehler, Barry.  “Academic Ideas as a Pillar of Racist Thought.”  Ferris State University: Institute for the Study of Academic Racism.

Reindal, Solveig M.  “Disability, gene therapy and eugenics-a challenge to John Harris.”  Journal of Medical Ethics 26 (April 2000): 89-94. 

             Thurtle, Phillip.  “Harnessing Heredity in Gilded Age America:  Middle Class Mores and Industrial Breeding in a Cultural Context.”  Journal of the History of Biology 35 (Spring 2002): 43-78.

[1] Mehler, Barry.  “Academic Ideas as a Pillar of Racist Thought.”  Ferris State University: Institute for the Study of Academic Racism.

[2] King, David S.  “Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis and the ‘New’ Eugenics.” Journal of Medical Ethics 25 (April 1999): 176-182 

[3] Galton, Francis.  Natural Inheritance.  London:  Macmillan & co., 1894.

[4] Thurtle, Phillip.  “Harnessing Heredity in Gilded Age America:  Middle Class Mores and Industrial Breeding in a Cultural Context.”  Journal of the History of Biology 35 (Spring 2002): 43-78.

[5] Also from Thurtle.  This quote is part of a passage that outlines the influence that horse breeding had on social theory.  Often it is assumed that any attempt to improve the gene pool is inherently racist, but horse breeders saw the attempt as a mere extension of their success in tailoring horse’s for particular traits.

[6] Clarification of ENE is present in same work as the parent quote surrounding it, transplanted in for the sake of reader’s convenience.  The bracketed section is not present in the quote within the cited text.

[7] King, David S.  “Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis and the ‘New’ Eugenics.” Journal of Medical Ethics 25 (April 1999): 176-182 

[8] Galton, David J. “Greek Theories on Eugenics.”  Journal of Medical Ethics 24 (August 1998): 263-267.

[9] Reindal, Solveig M.  “Disability, gene therapy and eugenics-a challenge to John Harris.”  Journal of Medical Ethics 26 (April 2000): 89-94.  Harris said “It is not that the genetically weak should be discouraged from reproducing but that everyone should be discouraged from reproducing children who will be significantly harmed by their genetic constitution.”


                  Influences on the Use of Color by Early Expressionist Painters

In writing this paper I am interested in exploring the works of Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh.  When I was introduced to these two painters and their works I was struck by their rich and apparently meaningful use of color, and also by the artists’ respective histories of psychological disturbance.  Therefore the purpose of this paper will be to analyze how and why these artists used color in the way they did, whether or not the techniques (especially pertaining to color) of either of the painters influenced the other, and to what extent their selection of colors was instigated by psychological unbalance or other psychological factors.


            The psychological phenomenon of synaesthesia is one in which a person’s senses are cross-wired, that is to say, in which a person associates certain symbols, ideas, or sensory perceptions with another sensory experience.  Synaesthetes commonly associate certain colors with numbers or letters, or days of the week, though these do not represent the entirety of synaesthetic experience.  The fact that synaesthesia is common among creative individuals makes it an attractive possibility in explaining the reason for Van Gogh’s and Munch’s particular choices in color.  According to Dr. Ramachandran, synesthesia “is seven times as common in creative people as in the general population.”[1]Munch’s description of the inspiration for his painting, The Scream, is suggestive of synaesthesia.

"I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. And I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature."[2]

However, from reading the above quote, while it is clear that Munch was deriving a secondary experience from the bloody color of the sky that night (or possibly the other way around) the quote does not indicate a secondary color experience, or another association known to be synaesthetic.  Generally a synaesthete senses color, or spatial proximity, from a symbol of some sort, or from another sensory perception.  Emotion is not included as a synaesthetic experience.  In the case of Munch’s quote above we see only the linkage of a color to an emotion, which does not fit the usual pattern for synaesthesia.  Additionally, there is scholarly work that refutes that Munch was a synaesthete, directly stating that it is “probable that Munch himself was not a synaesthete.”[3]  To the contrary, Sophia Oftedahl, in a 2007 thesis, asserts that social perceptions of the time period in which Munch lived was probably the factor that caused the artist to act as if he were a synaesthete.  As she puts it “…the consideration of synaesthetic sensory perceptions as some kind of states of grace and proximity to the divine, linked to Munch’s wish to be seen as an artistic personality in touch with “the beyond”, caused the concept to be clearly present in his art…”[4]

Even if Munch was not a synaesthete, which I agree is likely the case, his contemporary Vincent Van Gogh may have been.  In 1885 Van Gogh reportedly began to take piano lessons, and during these lessons he would insistently claim that certain notes sounded like certain colors, and was so vehement and talkative on the point that his piano teacher quit teaching him, convinced he was a madman.[5]  Other evidence that Van Gogh mentally linked color and music can be found in a quote from him, in which he states that “Some artists have a nervous hand at drawing, which gives their technique something of the sound peculiar to a violin.”  This sort of cross-sensory perception is exactly what synaesthesia describes.  Still further evidence can be found in one of his own letters, written to his sister:  “I don’t know whether you can understand that one may make a poem only by arranging colours, in the same way that you can say comforting things in music.”[6]

Psychological Distress

Of the two artists being discussed, Van Gogh is the one generally acknowledged by present day psychologists to suffer from genuine mental illness, though the exact causes are somewhat ambiguous, resulting in over thirty different diagnoses.  This is perhaps due to the sheer multiplicity of possible causes, which have been speculated to include Ménière’s disease and lead poisoning.  One of the more comprehensive diagnoses is given by Henri Gastaut, who referenced Van Gogh’s medical history and other sources, notably including a photograph of the artist, to bring attention to an asymmetry of the face that suggests an early brain injury that he thinks was exacerbated by the abuse of absinthe, a drink popular with artists of the time period, which may have contributed to Van Gogh’s well documented epilepsy.[7]  The fact that this diagnosis takes aspects of Van Gogh’s life such as his abuse of absinthe and his epilepsy into account and also supports the diagnosis of the French doctors who treated him makes Gastaut’s account particularly attractive. 

Of course, simply accepting that Van Gogh suffered from mental illness does not necessarily by itself provide an explanation for his unusual use of color in his paintings.  In fact, if Gastaut’s diagnosis of temporal lobe damage is taken as true then the case for his illness contributing to his use of color becomes unlikely.  Instances in Van Gogh’s history are especially illuminating, suggesting right-sided temporal lobe damage.  People with disorders in the right side of their temporal lobes display symptoms such as problems interpreting music or tones, as well as other sensory input; symptoms that I have previously mentioned being associated with Van Gogh.[8]  Additionally, such individuals may become excessively talkative due to a lack of verbal inhibition, and indeed, Van Gogh himself can be quoted as saying that “There are moments when I am twisted by enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, likea Greek oracle on the tripod. And then I have great readinessof speech."  In reference to a noted incident in Van Gogh’s history, wherein he cut off his own ear after reportedly stalking his fellow artist and sometime friend Gauguin with a razor blade, it can be seen that Van Gogh displayed aggressive rages that are associated with epilepsy of the temporal lobe.  Lastly, according to his own admissions, he began to suffer from a decreased sexual appetite, another indicator of right temporal lobe damage.[9]  With the case made now, I think, that right temporal lobe damage was at least significantly responsible for Van Gogh’s apparent madness it appears then that his mode of mental illness is inconsistent with any kind of perceptual disorder that might explain his color use.  None of the symptoms associated with this kind of brain damage are ones that affect perception of color.  However, his abuse of absinthe may at least have been partially responsible for Van Gogh’s obsession with the color yellow, as thujone poisoning is known to cause a person’s eyesight to be tinged with yellow.  And of course, the possibility of synaesthesia cannot be ruled out.

For Munch it is much more difficult to establish a history of mental illness, as there seems to be no striking evidence in favor of any sort of physiological basis for insanity, unlike with Van Gogh.  Instead, conclusions must be based on his troubled childhood, in which many members of his family died.  Such tragedy doubtless had an effect on poor Munch’s psyche, but the exact nature of that effect is not clear.  It is likely that the anxiety he reportedly felt and the themes of death and decay evident in his work are the direct result of his childhood trauma, and not some sort of inborn chemical unbalance or physical infirmity.  Therefore any altered perception of color on Munch’s part would have been purely subjective, and not due to mental illness. 

Artistic Influence

The impact that Van Gogh had on Munch as an inspirational figure would seem to offer a better explanation of Munch’s use of color.  Both artists drew inspiration from Impressionist works, in which the painter sought to capture an immediate impression of his model with quickly daubed swathes of color.  This process was especially dependent on the prevailing light conditions, and the artist strove for a non-biased perspective, painting the subject in the colors they actually observed rather than what convention would suggest.  Van Gogh states in his letters his love for the Impressionist style, but also comments that his goal was to use the counter-intuitive colors of Impressionism not to portray a vivid and genuine picture of how subjects actually looked, but instead to express how they made him emotionally respond.  While Munch is often given the title of Father of Expressionism, he claimed to have taken many of his cues from Van Gogh, and also painted works designed to elicit a particular emotional response via his use of color, making the two of them true forerunners of the Expressionist style.


            From the data I have gathered I have come to the conclusion that mental illness may have been a primary factor in the color use of only one of the artists discussed, Vincent Van Gogh.  Psychological trauma might certainly be considered to have been a strong motivator and cause for Munch’s choice of subject matter and admiration for Van Gogh’s art, but attributing Munch’s colors to physiological or mental infirmity would be misrepresenting his influences.  Importantly, it must be acknowledged that neither artist’s color usage was inspired only by psychological or mental disturbance, and that the most important cause for their artistic choices was their historical antecedents, the Impressionists, and their intrinsic interest in and love of pure color.

Works Cited

Blumer, Dietrich, “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,” The American Journal of Psychiatry 159, no. 4 (2002): 519-526, (accessed April 6, 2013)

Campen, Cretien van, The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science (The MIT Press, 2008), 54.

Gogh, Vincent van, The Letters (Nov. 1888), translated from French, The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery, endorsed by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, (accessed April 6, 2013) Letter W09, Arles, c. 16

Loshak, David, “Space, Time and Edvard Munch,” The Burlington Magazine 131, no. 1033 (April 1989): 274, (accessed March 25, 2013)

Milner, Brenda (1968), “Visual recognition and recall after right temporal lobe excision in man,” Neuropsychologia 6(3): 191-209. doi: 10.1016/0028-3932(68)90019-5 (accessed April 6, 2013)

Oftedahl, Sophia,  Monism and Synaesthesia; Two Metaphysical Concepts in the Art of Edvard Munch,  Thesis (“hovedoppgave”) in the History of Art, Spring 2007, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas,Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo, (accessed March 25, 2013)

Ramachandran, Vilayanur S. and Hubbard, Edward M., “Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes,” Scientific American 288, no. 5 (May 2003): 57, (accessed March 25, 2013)

[1]     Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard, “Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes,” Scientific American 288, no. 5 (May 2003): 57, (accessed March 25, 2013)

[2]David Loshak, “Space, Time and Edvard Munch,” The Burlington Magazine 131, no. 1033 (April 1989): 274, (accessed March 25, 2013)

[3] Sophia Oftedahl,  Monism and Synaesthesia; Two Metaphysical Concepts in the Art of Edvard Munch,  Thesis (“hovedoppgave”) in the History of Art, Spring 2007, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas,Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo, (accessed March 25, 2013)

[4] Ibid.

[5]  Cretien van Campen, The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science (The MIT Press, 2008), 54.

[6] Vincent van Gogh, The Letters (Nov. 1888), translated from French, The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery, endorsed by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, (accessed April 6, 2013) Letter W09, Arles, c. 16

[7] Dietrich Blumer, “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,” The American Journal of Psychiatry 159, no. 4 (2002): 519-526, (accessed April 6, 2013)

[8] Brenda Milner (1968), “Visual recognition and recall after right temporal lobe excision in man,” Neuropsychologia 6(3): 191-209. doi: 10.1016/0028-3932(68)90019-5 (accessed April 6, 2013)

[9] Dietrich Blumer, “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,”

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