Gauguin’s Journals And The Triumphant Defeat Of The Individual Will


I just read Paul Gauguin’s so-called “Intimate Journals.” Mostly, it was a waste of time. Nothing more profound or in-depth is to be found here than one could find in the banalities of some rebellious teenager’s diary. Gauguin rails disjointedly against the hypocrisy and restrictions of civilized behavior, apparently most upset that women don’t go around topless in polite society. Seemingly unable to keep to a line of thought long enough to actually make a convincing argument, Gauguin merely grunts and howls. Numerous passages have the feel of some crude, not particularly funny joke.

Gauguin’s best philosophical argument is not to be found in his words, but in his life. His written sentences are drawn on water, but his life’s actions have been chiseled into the marrowed rock of human history.

In his Journal, Gauguin shrilly complains of the “prudes” of society and their sanctimoniousness, austerity, and hypocrisy. His bitter, more-enlightened-than-thou attitude reminds me of the Beats at their worst.

But then, it was always Gauguin’s actions banging a gong, even as his literary output tapped upon a tin.

Part of me has little patience with the man… with his adolescent rebelliousness, with his brutishness and self-centeredness, with his almost sociopathic disconnection from humanity– and yes, with his (in my view at least) over-valued talent.

However, part of me also greatly sympathizes with him. Gauguin set his own, insignificant will against the awful power of that dread juggernaut, society. This is a dismal, never-well-ending struggle, and most individuals eventually capitulate. And for that rare man with the iron will and stubborn determination to continue upon his painful path even as he descends through the seven circles of Hell, the final defeat is as inevitable as it is complete.

I, myself, have set my shoulder against the wheel of Society for a mere moment or two, and come away with my arm lopped off at the neck. So I am awe-struck that Gauguin, once he determined his course, was powerful enough to steadfastly stick to it. No one who has not sincerely and for some length of time attempted to alter the course, or push-back against, the ever-rolling, gigantic wheel of Society cannot know just how much godlike will such a prolonged attempt demands. Typically, to even try something so accursed and ridiculous requires the buffering comfort of insanity– either possessed by the rebel before the battle is joined, or else engendered in him during the course of his fight. I doubt that very many people have lived for very long with their individual wills set against that of society’s without sacrificing their full sanity.

However much I may scoff at the teenage superficiality of Gauguin’s attempt to verbally define or defend a philosophy of life, I cannot have anything but the greatest– and I do mean greatest– respect for the sheer will-power he exercised in continuing steadfastly upon his doomed course.

Gauguin recognized that “the few use their wills” and “the rest resign themselves without a struggle.” But he felt that “life has no meaning unless one lives it with a will, at least to the limit of one’s will.” Gauguin, even while suffering “the sweet sensation of the mournful procession of my hopes,” he felt that his fight was worth its high cost. “The struggle is cruel,” he writes, “but it is not vain.” Gauguin distinguishes between doing things from vanity and doing things from pride. For him, pride is a good thing. Indeed, he recognizes that life “is so small a thing,” yet he insists that there is “time to do great things.” Of course, he also recognizes that the person who attempts greatness is destined to suffer a, usually anonymous, martyrdom…

“Laughing, you climb your Calvary,” he writes, explaining the process of offering up oneself for sacrifice. “Your legs stagger under the weight of the cross. Reaching the top, you grit your teeth– and then, smiling again, you avenge yourself.”

I can only guess that for Gauguin, the very act of unleashing his barbaric yawp was, in itself, a victory.

“When a man says to me, “You must’,” he says. “I rebel.” To surrender, even to surrender to God, was for Gauguin, “to annul oneself and die.” The individual will and the freedom to exercise it fully are inextricably linked to the freedom to create. “You see,” he writes, “I believe we are all workmen” … “We all have before us the hammer and the anvil. It is for us to create.”

Contemplating Gauguin’s story, I do not think that his is the story of a man who gradually grew to hate society. I think it is the story of a man who was never been fully tamed by society, and who eventually came to a place at which he could no longer stamp down the fierce and rising giant within, and –like a Jack London halfbreed– he eventually ran off to answer the unceasing call of the wild.

Several years ago, I went through a period in which I became weary of the pain and bother of living. I refrain from using the word “suicidal” to describe my mindset at the time, for that is not only melodramatic, but is not quite accurate. There was still inside of me– duking-it-out with my melancholy and ambivalance– a very strong, innate will-to-live. I never seriously contemplated taking my own life, and yet, simultaneously I began to carry around, sort of in my backpocket, a deathwish. I dropped-out of society, careemed at a right angle off my career path, and began doing stupid things with stupid people. I was not so much chasing death as setting a place for it at table and inviting it to join me. Easily, I could have died or had my health affected in some permanent, detrimental way. Eventually, I emerged (at least my head) from that hole. Others along the way were not so lucky.

My theory is that Gauguin experienced something similar to this before he left his family and ejected from society, and that his rejection of his old life was more-or-less a form of suicide. I doubt Gauguin ever really had any deep attachments to any of his fellow human beings, even to his wife. It seems to me that some people are born without that feeling of sympathy for their fellow Man which makes human society at least somewhat bearable. “I wish to love,” Gauguin admits in his Journal, “and I cannot.” He explains elsewhere that, “I do not know love. To say ‘I love you’ would break all my teeth.”

Gauguin does indeed, if only physically, crave the companionship of the female, but in a merely animalistic, not social, way. He only likes women if “they are fat and vicious,” and he is repelled by the thought of any deeper connection, complaining that the female intelligence “annoys me; it’s too spiritual for me.”

My guess is that, even before Gauguin dropped-out, he had never really possessed a fully formed sense of sympathetic connection with others. I think this is why he was able to leave his family without much compunction. He was already a castaway before he went off to the islands; he was already living outside the ring of fellowship that most of us take for granted as almost a second skin or necessary exoskeleton to our existence. For Gauguin, peering-in from the outside as he was, civilization seemed little more than an artificial performance of well-trained pets. And he remarks with the bitterness of the exile that “all trained animals become stupid.”

Gauguin experiences human activity as play, of which he is merely a spectator. “My own theatre is Life,” he writes. “In it I find everything, actors and scenery, the noble and the trivial, tears and laughter.” With the outsider’s perspective, he sees that “everything is serious and ridiculous, also. Some weep, others laugh.” It is the same human tragi-comedy the world over, merely played out in different scenes, including “the feudal castle, the thatched cottage, the cathedral, the brothel.”

Looking over Gauguin’s paintings, I feel like I can see in them their creator’s estrangement from humanity. He does not paint people; he paints cartoons of people. And in my own opinion, most of them are not even very good cartoons (although I do like the cover to the book I have posted above). Born a century later, Gauguin probably would have been lucky to obtain a job semi-anonymously illustrating children’s books (not that he would have accepted such a post). As it was, his unprecedented combination of bizarre color palette and unusual subject-matter –assuredly aided by a biographical story dealers could use as a “hook”– eventually catapulted his work into the stratosphere. And I do not see a time coming soon in which the work of Gauguin, that great rebel, will not be included between the covers of any reasonably comprehensive book of art.


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