Eating Van Gogh by Mark Simon Burk

A reprint of one of my favourite stories, in which Mark Simon Burk’s character chows down on a post-Impressionist masterpiece.

I ate a Van Gogh. Not a major one. And not all of it. But I did manage to tear off an entrée size piece and chew it until the bitter oils burned metallic hot in the back of my throat.

I would have swallowed it too, had it not been for a disconcerted museum guard who pried my mouth open to allow his associate's thick, frantic fingers to hunt around inside. He removed the piece, roughly the dimensions of a Hershey bar, savaging the soft pink tissue beneath my tongue in the process. It was a highly unsatisfying and too hasty end to my carefully realized fantasy. And a rather poor beginning to my November.

They say the French know how to incarcerate better than anyone in the world. I've had only one other jail experience (nothing major and too silly to even talk about), but I'd have to agree. The food here is good. Really good. Fresh vegetables, never canned. And though the meats are sometimes served flat and gray, they are always accompanied by fresh, crusty bread. And wine. Yes, the French have wine in their prisons. Can you imagine this sort of hospitality in America? (Would you like the Warden's selection tonight, or would you prefer our Big House Cab with your frank and beans?)

If you've never experienced Van Gogh's 'La Sieste d'Après Millet' in person, you've missed out on a rarefied experience. And if you haven't, I apologize for its regrettable removal from view. I read in the papers that the acids in my saliva had not removed significant paint from canvas, but that the canvas itself had been damaged by the gnashing of my molars. I have always maintained that this damage was greatly exacerbated by the abrupt manner in which the piece was extracted from my mouth. At any rate, suffice it to say that if the talented restoration workers in Italy can mend the piece back into place, you should make it a priority to discover this masterpiece for yourself.

"Oh my God," you will likely whisper as I did, "what brush strokes!" For you will feel their violence, the dizzying electricity of them immediately. Then, after a more prolonged encounter, all of a sudden - like the way those 3-D pictures finally reveal themselves in an instant - you will feel that each and every stroke mirrors a torment so exquisite, its only possible expression was beauty. Only love and art (and I include music here) are capable of this kind of human irony.

Let me take a moment to describe the major details of my painting so you will have some reference of the world I visited for eleven days straight. The caveat is that I'm painfully aware of how futile it is to describe art. I remember five years ago as an impressionable college sophomore, I came upon a concerto recording one night that filled me with such delicious melancholy, it commanded me to play it again and again and again until the sky finally lightened to a desperate morning pale. And I would have continued to play it, had it not been for three short-tempered floormates who broke down my door and tossed the CD player - with the CD still in it - out my window. I held no malice toward them. I certainly did not expect them to sense as I did how each emotionally neutral note, when placed in specific combination with other notes carefully chosen by its composer, could create an effect that twisted and plucked every string inside me. Yet - and this is my point - I was absolutely mute to describe to them the way in which it managed to do so.

'La Sieste d'Après Millet', is a pastoral scene. Two farm workers take an afternoon nap beneath the shadow of a hay bale. One a man. One a woman. The sky is the driest blue, the very Provence sky Van Gogh came to Arles to paint. The man's clog-like shoes are off. Their two scythes lie, just like them, side by side.

His straw hat is tipped over his eyes in an attempt to block the high afternoon sun. His facial features are not revealed. The artist chose them to be so irrelevant he hadn't bothered with them at all. Or perhaps he'd grown tired of painting and planned to come back and finish the fellow's face later. But he never did, and the man's face remains an ashen cast.

In the field behind the sleeping workers are two oxen, unhitched from their plows, waiting like two reliable old Buicks. It's a hot, lazy, quietly captured moment. But this perfect tranquility is completely antipodal to the non-stop energy of Van Gogh's technique. This makes the painting nearly impossible to emotionally digest. No matter how many hours you stand before it, your mind cannot wrap itself around the severe opposition of tranquil subject and violent technique.

In the tiny jail just three blocks from the museum where I'd been hastily sent, the lawyer appointed to me asked why I would be driven to commit such a brazen and selfish act. He was a small man, fastidiously dressed with a soft paisley maroon handkerchief in his breast coat pocket. I was impressed that he knew an English word like 'brazen,' which was, in fact, my reason for accepting him as my legal representative.

I replied, "because I tried to own it with my eyes, but they alone were not sufficient." I assumed that since he was French and the French possess such superior love of the arts, he would understand this. But if he did, he offered me no encouragement.

"So," I continued, "one day when the guards changed positions and the crowd was light, I satisfied myself with a quick, gentle stroke of my fingertips across the canvas."

"You touched the painting?" He found this alarming, outrageous, as if he hadn't yet heard that I was in jail for eating a large piece of it.

"Many times," I admitted. "And what amazed me was that I could still smell the sharp, acrid character of the oils after all those years."

"Well," he said, "that is because the acids from your fingers caused the oil to decompose."

He made a good point. "Perhaps," I admitted. "So, I stared at my painting while sniffing gently at my fingers until the smell was gone."

This behavior clearly displeased him, for he let out a wonderfully indignant French 'huunh!'

"I wasn't obvious about it," I said. "I pretended to rub an itch on my upper lip, to scratch my nose. I pretended to think deeply using my fingers as an aid. I don't think anyone suspected I was smelling my fingers, not even the more observant German tourists."

"Tell me. What did you think to gain by destroying the very vision that so consumed you?" he asked.

The truth was, I'd never focused on the 'after' and had no answer for him. He paced back and forth in my tiny cell. Two steps to the wall. Two steps back to the bars.

After quite a few of these little marches, he stopped and, with dramatic hands, framed his thought. "Your crime. It is a crime of passion, yes? Perhaps not unlike a man who must possess a woman. For him, it is not enough to just view the woman and to enjoy her beauty from a distance. Some men must, for whatever reasons of derangement, have them."

I expressed to him that I sincerely hoped he would not use this analogy, which sounded an awful lot like rape to me, as his primary line of defense. And since it did not occur to him to ask me, I volunteered to share my story.

He did not say no to this. But he also did not take notes. As I talked, he sat there looking as if he wished my tale was accompanied by a much-needed late afternoon Pernod.

Most museum goers gave my painting only a casual look. Some paused for a few extra seconds, but most quickly moved on to give nods to the rest of the d'Orsay's remarkable Impressionist collection.

However, I remained fixed in front of it until the museum closed six hours later. I was pulled from my suspended state by a baguette-thin museum guard who pecked at the nape of my neck with remarkable finger strength calling out in a nasal French 'Out! Out!' Like someone being pulled from deep beneath the water, I surfaced far too quickly and experienced a reality-dosing equivalent of the bends. I wandered the city that night in a tunnel-visioned daze, finally stopping for the comfort of a harsh Kronenberg in a neighborhood bar I could never find again.

When the museum opened the next morning, there I was. For ten straight hours I stared at my painting with no regard for the needs of my bladder. Several times, the museum guards asked if I would like to sit but I remained standing there, barely acknowledging their kindness.

The following day, despite my aching back and the soreness surrounding my knees, I was in front of my painting again.

On my way to the museum on the fourth day, I considered inquiring about a guard position since I needed to be there anyway. Also, I'd lost my waiter's job, having neglected to show up for three consecutive lunches. But my constant and focused presence must have begun to register concern among the staff. As I entered the museum that morning I was politely pulled aside, frisked and my bag searched.

The point I must make clear to you is that I tried to satisfy my increasing desires at each step. But each new sense I employed soon lost its potency. There came a time when I needed to do more than just look, but to touch. When I then ached for more than just a touch, but to smell. And when I needed to go beyond the severely defined understanding I could derive from smell. And when, on the ninth day, I had to run my tongue along those thick, textured ridges that were at one time so soft and unctuous and heavy, they had surely remained wet globules long after other parts had dried. And then, after that, I desired to have them inside my mouth, to know what those thick textures of sky and wheat felt like pressed by my tongue against the top of my palette.

That morning, standing there, the choice overwhelmed me. Which part of this world should I consume? The oxen? One of the sleeping workers? Should I eat a chunk of sky? (I remember at a birthday party with a Star Wars cake quietly praying that I'd be given a piece of Darth Vader's black helmet but getting only an unremarkable piece of 'Happy Birthday' script.)

I considered all this as I watched the gallery's morning guards slowly grow accustomed to my presence for the day. The main guard, a no-nonsense fellow I'd taken a particular liking to, nodded 'no' to the breath mint I offered him. Two hours later, just before the guards changed, I casually reached into my pack and found the elegant Japanese knife I'd stowed beneath the cardboard bottom. I snapped open the four-inch blade, muffling the click with a towel I had brought for the very purpose. And just as he turned to exit the gallery, I stepped past the imaginary boundary that was the accepted plane of viewing and pressured the instrument's razor tip to the canvas. At first, it fought back. I hadn't imagined so much pressure would be required. I gently applied more and more until I heard the tight pop of the tip's intrusion and felt the give of the canvas as the blade tore through it, at first textured and resistant, then increasingly smooth. I watched as the knife's shaft disappeared down to the dark burlwood handle.

A breath - quick and high in my chest. Then a cut upward and a sharp cut to the left. It echoed through the room like an unexpected tear in a pair of old Levi's. Then my other hand grabbing for it and pulling down at the flap like a sow's ear, the tear meeting the final horizontal stroke of my knife across the bottom. Voila. A piece of the Van Gogh lay in the flat of my hand, it's yang counterpart an imperfect rectangle of emptiness just south and slightly right of the center of the painting.

The Van Gogh was mealier than I'd anticipated. Without water to lubricate - a glaring oversight on my part - the canvas, or perhaps the paste shellacking the back of it, coated my tongue with a cornmeal-like substance that tasted of stale apricot and the smell of dog dander after a rain (I assure you, if you could taste that smell, it would taste like this). The guard who removed the piece from my mouth must not have known at first that the yellow cottage cheese-like paste now covering his fingers was of the canvas' making and not mine. His first instinct was to momentarily retreat in disgust perhaps fearing my mouth was the source of some sort of contagion.

When the painting was unveiled in the courtroom, there were gasps. As if a man's severed hand had been exposed to the room.

The prosecution exhibited three pieces of evidence. The piece that had been recovered from my mouth, which was now stretched out on its own miniature canvas; the rest of the painting which, I must admit to you, with its new emptiness had lost some of its magic for me; and the Japanese folding knife I'd purchased at the Sunday flea market.

My lawyer's tone was matter of fact as he laid out for the judge the unique power and expression of my attraction, until he reached his conclusion:

"Surely, we have, all of us mortals, been irresistibly drawn to things - to certain people, or foods, or drink..." he was preparing for the leap he hoped to accomplish with as much grace as possible.

"And art, the love of art, can be as visceral a love, as consuming a passion, as one's love for the world's great cuisines or, say, for a fine LaFite - perhaps one born in the fine vintage years of the mid 70's, n'est pas?"

He stared around the room. Everyone but him unsure whether he had completed his remarks.

Then, with a great sweeping gesture, he took a deep bow, said, "Merci," and slid back onto the hard wooden bench beside me.

"You've made me sound like a painting eater - like I eat paintings all the time!" I whispered too loudly for him.

He smiled back at me in that way French men have when they don't want to deal with you. It's a mollifying smile, followed by the slightest of shrugs, as if to say, "these thoughts of yours do not concern me at this moment." It is a technique they reserve exclusively for Americans and their own teenage daughters.

"Please," I tried again. "Tell the judge that, before this, I've never eaten anything but food. I never even went through a dirt or coin eating phase, which I can tell you many American children do."

My lawyer just tapped his pinkie gently to his lips to quiet me. I was displeasing him, upsetting his small moment of poetic triumph.

When I was pronounced guilty, my lawyer informed me of my supreme fortune. Had I ingested anything by Monet - who was in much greater vogue at the time - I would certainly have been dealt a harsher sentence.

I received three years, with parole possible after six months. My defense offered no plea for leniency. He made it clear to me he was ready to move on.

I didn't push it. And having tasted my first few days of French incarceration, to be honest, it's been a step up from the cold and dreary flat I'd been living in behind the Marais. The apartment lacked a real bathroom. Hot water, when available, arrived only as spasms of rusted brown spittle, accompanied by a loud groaning shudder from the pipes.

Yesterday, a woman who'd been a girlfriend of mine during my first few weeks in Paris brought me a postcard of my Van Gogh. I can feel it now in the front pocket of my loose prison smock. Each time I lean forward, the rigid plain of it gives slightly against the bottom of my breast. I spent last night gently tapping my teeth up and down along the card's light plastic coating. It gave off a pleasant almost metallic sound that no one but me could hear. Toward morning, I found myself nibbling lightly at the corners - small little tugs that pulled minute pieces away like taffy. I tried not to do this, but it was fairly uncontrollable.

Here's the fantastic thing about 'uncontrollable.' It leads you down a path of knowing that 'controllable' never finds. I now know what a priceless painting tastes like, and I would venture to say that my experience is more rare than not. The psychiatrist at this facility has expressed some concern over my growing interest in experiencing other forms of artistic expression with greater dimension than is customarily offered. For example, a desire to fill my lungs with the dank odor leaving a cello from its echo hole as it plays a Chopin Sonata; to discover how the rise and fall of a soprano's diaphragm feels against the lightest touch of my fingertips as she sings an aria from La Traviata; or to experience the skin-splitting brittle edge of a 35 mm print of 'The 400 Blows' as its images speed their way toward the projector's lens.

In my head, I try my best to imagine these experiences. I close my eyes and let them fill my nostrils, then my chest, I roll them around my tongue and inside my mouth. As of yet, I've found no conduit in this institution to help me realize these imaginings. The psychiatrist believes my curiosities have created a level of anxiety within me that is not healthy. I would have to agree, for I have been experiencing at times, moments of shortened breath and a pressure in my chest.

The doctor has advised that, for the sake of my own inner peace, I take on my issue "with the greatest vigor." I respect the wisdom of his advice. And I have vowed to do just that, as soon as I am once again able.

16 comments:

  1. What made this story for me was the author’s use of the five senses, as he described looking, hearing, feeling and touching and eventually tasting. How well he made us feel main character’s intense need to experience all forms of art, on a level which most of us can’t reach.
    I also enjoyed the nonchalant manner in which he recounts an absurd storyline, as if such things were commonplace.
    The comments on French prison food and mc’s interaction with his lawyer lightened the narrative and added touches of humour.

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    1. Rosemary,
      You capture the story's essence beautifully! Thank you so much for giving my story your time and thought.
      Mark Simon Burk

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  2. This story reminds me of Gogol’s “The Nose”.. the absurd situation treated realistically, the idiocy of bureaucracy, the narrator one would avoid on the street. Ms. Johnson above points all these things out above perfectly. This story could be a classic! Thanks for posting it.

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    1. I love that he's someone you'd avoid on the street! Huge thanks for taking your time to read and... for your Gogol reference (if only!)
      Mark Simon Burk

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  3. Well, that was wonderfully weird. But now I have a late-night hankering for something by Pollock and all the galleries are closed.

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    1. Ha! I get it Brian! Wonder what that'd taste like??!

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  4. To call this "funny" is a huge understatement. Of course it's hysterical (love how the French are depicted). But it's so much more as to make any humor nearly incidental. Subtle metaphors abound. Only "rape" overtly (and, in my opinion, unnecessarily) expressed. By the end I can understand, actually even empathize, with the narrator's synesthesia, and motives. Intelligent research, clever throughout, brilliant description. Unforgettable, I have no doubt. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hey Chris,
      Huge thanks for reading my story! I always wonder how empathetic a character he appears to a reader. And, yes, I made 'The French' a character, because, well, who can resist!
      Mark Simon Burk

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  5. He couldn't be Van Gogh but he could get close enough to taste him. I fear for his ear. I like the droll narration. Successful therapy would involve him eventually eating his own words.

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    1. Now, that is brilliant. Does that mean that the writer in turn should consume his own story?

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  6. What a treat!!! I love the irreverent quality that never breaches it’s role in the narrative. I miss this kind of deep humor. And I love the care taken in the composition of words, sentences, and paragraphs. I can picture the author wandering the streets of Paris trying to tame his obsession….sniffing his fingers…. Please write more. You are so good.

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  7. This story is brilliantly absurd...and absurdly brilliant. We've all experienced something like this on a very small scale...for example, smelling coffee and feeling an absolute compulsion to satisfy the sense of taste in addition to the sense of smell...or seeing a delicious steak and wanting to both smell and taste it...but what a leap to consider needing to satiate additional senses while appreciating a work of art. Fun story.

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    1. Thanks for reading Ron! You just jogged a memroy for me: Playdough! When I was a kid, the smell of Playdough was so delicious so of course I had to tase it. And, of course, the taste did not in any way match the 'aroma'.

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  8. Dark, dry, fabulous. This is just the kind of twisted funny I live for. The tight canvas, the mint-refusing guard, the moment-by-moment obsession all played out with fantastically crafted sentences and a truly sick sense of humor we should all be so gifted to have. Bravo. More.. Just one more bite is all I ask ...

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  9. Thanks MGold. And, yes, every writer, every artist, every musician is obsessed :) We have to be!

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