The Fire Inside

In her characteristic weaving of old and new texts from a wide variety of sources, Maria Popova of The Marginalian first brought this quote from Vincent van Gogh to light, framing a discussion of the myth of normalcy from Alain de Botton’s book.

Here’s her quote:

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the young Van Gogh wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul… and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” Meanwhile, we move among other chimneys — all the taller built by the artful self-masonry of social media — from which we intuitively infer, even if we rationally understand this to be an illusion, that the fires burning in others are far tamer than those roiling in us; that they live with far lesser levels of confusion and complexity; that we are, in other words, not normal by comparison.

– Maria Popova, The Marginalian #

The imagery lingered in my imagination, as it captured the two sides of my own frustration, both in failing to fully express my own fire inside, and conversely frequent failure to draw out the flames dancing beneath the surface of others.

Similar to the metaphor of the iceberg submerged beneath the water, the portrayed what might be a universal frustration, we long for intimacy – to know and be known – but find ourselves absentmindedly discussing the weather.

I decided to use this quote as a launching point for reading some of van Gogh’s writing for the first time. I found Letter #155 fascinating, a snapshot in the timeline of two brothers’ relationship, as Vincent distanced himself in what he called a season of molting (which I hope was Andrew Bird’s inspiration for the title track of his 2022 album Inside Problems).

Here’s my take on Vincent van Gogh’s words in pencil-crayon-and-sharpie zine form:

Still here? Cool. Here’s the full excerpt of the letter:

Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know? May whoever believes in God await the hour, which will come sooner or later.

– Vincent van Gogh, Letter #155 #

And, here’s Andrew Bird’s music video for Inside Problems. More of an internal dialogue on the theme of the song. Enjoy.