“We may define therapy as a search for value.”
  —Abraham Maslow
Category: book reviews

face value

Because several of his books sparkle with incandescent genius, I will read pretty much anything by Philip K. Dick and do eventually want to read everything by him.   The latest addition to that pleasure in my life is his novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.  If I had to get literary critical about it and rate the book as a reading experience, my conscience would demand the admission that for me the book was thin in terms of commanding my attention with either plot or character development and something unusual happens in the first chapter that never integrates much later, leaving a puzzling non sequitur where a denouement ought to come.  That said, I still feel great love for the book and its camp satire of celebrity worship.

Written over 40 years ago, the book rings more true today than ever.  Its world is an advance vision of ours.  The main character is a TV and music celebrity whose success is defined by how many million audience members he has, not unlike racking up “views” on YouTube or “likes” on Facebook and Instagram.  Quantified popularity makes the man, or breaks him.  But the only ones who get a shot at it in the first place have a revealing common trait: they are good looking.  Dick basically calls out the heavy social bias for attractiveness and the privileges it provides in terms of access to wealth and luxurious lifestyle.  Good-looking people are superior members of society and everyone worships and fawns over them.  Witnessing this treatment as a fiction really brings home that in real life it isn’t one.

The book also plays with the idea that its privileged class is a political experiment gone wrong, as if by karmic necessity.  Celebrities are part of a genetic engineering cycle in its sixth phase: “an elite group, bred out of aristocratic prior circles to set and maintain the mores of the world, who had in practice drizzled off into nothingness because they could not stand one another.”  Apparently if you are fed with a silver spoon, that good luck makes others like you too repugnant to bear, as if Dick is noting the narcissistic pitfalls of popularity.  That the original aim for his celebrity class was to set the moral compass of the world, an aspiration now lost and inoperative, makes for a rich point of reflection on the influence of celebrity in ours.  At the very least, the book helps to open our eyes by holding this mirror before them.

Days later, the book has an afterglow for me that makes me grateful to have spent time with it, as if it taught me about life.  How strange and fundamentally senseless it really is that my culture worships good looks, that good looks give you chances at a life other people can’t often aspire to, that attaining such a life puts you in the public eye, where inevitably you have direct and indirect influence on cultural norms and mores, despite lacking real qualifications to.  The situation is alternately laughable, preposterous, and pathetic.  The book stirred me to get in touch with those responses to the craziness in the world around me and I feel the better for deeper contact with them.  I reflected on my own longing to be beautiful by societal standards and how I too worship those who most clearly are.  I looked at that tendency as a projective response, whereby people live that longing vicariously through celebrities.

That said, the best advice in the book lands for me with a disquieting irony as a result, because the main character offers it, himself a celebrity: “If you’re afraid, you don’t commit yourself to life completely; fear makes you always, always hold something back.”  On the other hand, unrecognized longing for perfection makes you do the opposite: project it onto others as false idols.

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the Nietzsche effect

The 2012 release of American Nietzsche by University of Wisconsin Madison History professor Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen adds a rich new layer of scholarship to the life and work of modernity’s most volatile philosopher.  The Nietzsche we meet in the early pages of this book is not simply the upstart hooligan of brash ideas against Christianity and late Western morality in toto, but before then a rare kindred spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, among America’s greatest and most original reflective voices.  In this book readers learn that young Nietzsche deeply revered Emerson and we see photographic evidence that his encounter with Emerson involved overflowing marginal notes in all personal copies of his work.

But these Emersonian origins for Nietzche’s mammoth mission in Philosophy are not the primary reason for including the word American in the title of this book.  The majority of the chapters center, instead, on how Nietzsche influenced American thinking, not how American thinking influenced him. Ratner-Rosenhagen takes us on a sweeping tour of Nietzsche’s critical reception in America by every kind of reader from theologians to pulp fans.  We follow Nietzsche’s impact on American thinking from his first days of publication, through the sudden termination of his career and sanity, through his isolated death in 1900, and into the intellectual upheavals and wipe outs of the 20th century, many his offspring.

It becomes painstakingly clear on this journey that Nietzsche sent shock waves of every kind into the heart of the American experience, consistently forcing it to reckon with its own needs, limitations, and hypocrisies.  Time and again the reader encounters electrified examples of how unrelated readers yearned for some aspects of Nietzsche’s message, yearned against other aspects, and frequently struggled to make universal sense of the message at all, never reaching easy consensus.  The Nietzsche who distills out of this treatment is the quintessential version: challenger, motivator, hero, hellion,  and icon.  Ratner-Rosenhagen aptly notes that the common factor in all encounters with the explosive work of Friedrich Nietzsche by thinking Americans is that for all of them it became undeniably personal.

As if true in secondary form, that effect occurred for me also while reading this book. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s detailed examination of what mattered to Americans and to what ends they employed, resonated, and objected to Nietzsche made for lively reading, as if inviting me into the same situation.  I found myself taking a deeper interest in the fact of being interested in Nietzsche at all, and about what my interest in him reflected about my position in the world as a reader and an American.  In fact, after finishing this book, I have a new urge to coin a phrase about Nietzsche, all credit for the assist to Ratner-Rosenhagen.  My new phrase is “the Nietzsche effect” and its primary meaning is that Nietzsche brings forward the urgent philosopher in all of us.  If for no other reason, reading this book is worthwhile if only to better inhabit yours.

But for the intellectually curious, I also recommend it as a profoundly informative rhapsody on the philosophical stakes of defining America and the nature of Meaning across the revolutionary historical expanse of the 20th century.   The book clarifies in many ways how deeply embedded Nietzsche is in the intellectual and spiritual trajectory of the species at present, a fact of which he was well aware, far in advance of full recognition of it by anyone else, coloring his self-assessments as outrageously egomaniacal , bombastic, and strange.  Still: he was right!  Nietzsche first called out the moral and creative decline of the human spirit under the influence of stale institutions whose secret agenda is a universal will to power.  In many ways, this revelation dovetailed well with the American quest for personal liberty, even when confronting it for its gall or lack of gall.  This book illuminates that process.

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Ubik: U Bet!

Philip K. Dick wrote Ubik in 1969, well into his career, perhaps as its acme; the storytelling and reality-bending are that good.  In 2009 the book found its rightful place on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, not that Dick fans needed that validation.  The road to fandom with Philip K. Dick can strike like lightning or creep up on you slowly.  Once you’re on it, the originality and genius of sci-fi’s modern master loom ever larger.

Why wouldn’t they?  Frequently enough, Dick infuses his work with philosophical interests of vital importance to him at the time of writing.  In the case of Ubik, he was deeply engaged by the Tibetan Book of the Dead (aka the Bardo Thodol), which basically maps the terrain that consciousness travels after death during the bardo state, the interval between death and one’s next rebirth, a Buddhist point of view involving reincarnation and how to manage it wisely.

Assuming its own spin on that system, Ubik presents a near future in which psychic abilities have a corporate presence in the world, and big business depends on talented mediums both for gaining an upper hand on competitors and for protecting against surveillance by them.  All the active characters in the book are part of a dominant company that offers such protection: Runciter Associates.  Together, they stumble into a giant misadventure that warps all notions of living versus limbo.

That skillful erosion of assumed reality is where Ubik really shines.  It simultaneously puts its cast and its readers through a disorienting discovery process with no obvious resolution ahead, raising plentiful questions along the way.  You may find yourself asking how safe it really is to trust the things you are typically entirely certain about, such as being who you think you are in the life you think you lead.  Because the book is also very funny, it somehow elicits this grave introspection in a way that feels playful and liberating, not morose or heavy.  Yes, the word “grave” in the prior sentence is a smashing good pun.

Do I recommend this book?  Yes.  If you want to go for a superlative ride in the fine mind of an American master at the top of his game, Ubik is a unique sci-fi offering that perfectly combines philosophical sophistication with pulp sensibilities.  It leaves no loose ends in terms of answering to its own suspense, yet the answers it provides also touch on greater metaphysical speculation.  In fact, the ending is so correct that it fully cements the novel’s resident spirituality. I read this book again immediately after finishing it.  I might thrice.

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Following Dreams

The various lectures and writings by Carl Jung collected under the title Dreams share a common theme, but explore it in different ways.  The opening chapters are by far the most accessible, treating the reader to a view of how Jung’s ideas evolved in regard to dreams, moving from respectful consideration of Freudian theory to eventual outright rejection of it as far too limiting for its fixations on sexuality, defense mechanisms, and personal liability.  In the end Jung simply cannot be content to kowtow to his former mentor’s ideas.  As a big fan of Jung, I cherished this glimpse into the early phases of his individuation process.

I also enjoyed how the collection further illuminates many of Jung’s most profound contributions to Psychology, while focusing on dreams as the primary subject.  The book therefore invites the reader to consider the Collective Unconscious,  Major Archetypes, Psychic Compensation, and Individuation as they pertain to dreaming. Throughout his career, Jung stated quite plainly that he regarded dreams the best investigative tool for the human psyche, because they operate outside the influence of the conscious mind and directly express the unconscious in full regalia.  It is therefore no wonder a book dedicated to his work on dreams inevitably involves most of his key theories.  It also reveals his pioneering commitment to the vital importance of Subjectivity as the most valid form of personal authority, while global calamities were dogging the flailing 20th century.

Then the second half of the book throws you farther into the deep end.  Jung presents a sequence of roughly 50 dreams, derived from 300 by one dreamer, that illustrate the individuation process and its thematic use of mandala symbolism as the Archetype of perfection and wholeness.  The fact that Jung chases out a full narrative of major inner growth and development in the dreamer by means of the dreams is deeply fascinating, and also challenging to follow.  There is some risk of losing the forest for the trees as Jung goes to painstaking length to connect details from each dream with highly arcane historical parallels from ancient sources that get no easier for the reader as they come forward in time.  In fact, the emphasis on the relatively recent medieval practice of alchemy may provide the hardest precedent to follow from the bunch.  That said, the attempt to often rewarded me and then blew my mind on multiple levels.

Are you wondering how? The following story is the kind of thing that can happen when your heart, mind, and spirit open more to Jung, in my opinion.  At first, as I was reading this book, I sensed that his ideas were making an even deeper impression on me than they had in the past.  They seemed to be moving from intellectual resonance to something more pressing, as if imparting a felt-sense to me of a collective unconscious in which I had a real hereditary share.  I started taking it very seriously that there is so much more to me than my ego consciousness and that the deeper parts are ancient, autonomous, and vastly intelligent.  I began to feel something akin to transformation.

So this morning I took time to meditate for over an hour as a way of appreciating and nurturing the Unconscious, passively surrendering to it, my eyes closed, my body perfectly still in a sitting posture, my hands folded, my breathing slow and steady.  I gently let go of my thinking process and simply rested.  Unprocessed emotions came and went.  Deeper relaxation set it.  I was not expecting anything else.  Nor needing it.  It was enough to take and enjoy a good meditation. Ahhh….

In that state, an unsolicited synthesis percolated in me that while Jung was analyzing mandalas in the dream series, he had often pointed out that in many dreams the dreamer had typically crafted or found a protective space in the  shape of a square in which to commune with Archetypal aspects of self.  Inside each sacred square the dreamer encountered mandala symbolism of many kinds, but always spherical or circular like mandalas, symbolizing the wholeness that can result from integrating the Unconscious.  This memory about the book then gave way to the sudden understanding that I too was sitting on a square meditation mat and directly beneath me was my round sitting pillow.  Those items were my version of the dreamer’s sacred square with its inner mandala, while they were also a traditional spiritual commonplace that has always secretly corresponded to archetypal longings in the self.  This sudden conflation of experiential and historical layers profoundly impacted me.  At the end of the meditation I recognized the Collective Unconscious as a living truth.

Then I set out for the morning to tutor two students before doing sessions at a therapy clinic.  After a thorough review of some homework difficulties, I asked the second student to look at our long list of Algebra goals and tell me which one he wanted to work on for the next 30 minutes.  Without looking, he promptly replied, “It’s time to work on circles.”  I showed him thatwhat do you know?I already had a worksheet open for that topic, because it had come up with the prior student also.  As I demonstrated for the second time that morning how to turn a jumbled binomial equation into the helpful standard formula for a circle, the name of the technique for this process hit me like a thunderbolt: completing the square!  For two hours since my meditation epiphany, I had again been doing something pertaining to circles that called for surrounding them with “squares,” the math wording expressing the dream concept.  This unlikely additional echo fired goosebumps all over my body and I lost the ability to speak for nearly 15 seconds, my hand in the air to reassure my student, who waited patiently.   I have no doubt I owe my new sensitivity to these revelations to reading the dream book.

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The Alien at the End of This Book

You may already know of Carl Gustav Jung.  You may know him fairly well.  Still, you may be surprised to find out he did enough exploratory writing pertaining to UFO’s for a collected work on that subject: Flying Saucers, A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.  It’s a very good read, although it may not answer the obvious question do flying saucers exist or not.  Instead, it offers a uniquely Jungian point of view on that idea,  expanding limited notions of what existing really means.

OK, a short confession.  I came across this book because I was wondering lately about how much I would like there to be proof of extraterrestrial life.  That yearning operates cyclically for me.  Sometimes I feel it, sometimes I don’t.  Over the last few months I was feeling it like gangbusters.  I noticed I was watching a lot of UFO documentaries with an insatiable appetite for them.  By the way, they are best in the hours after midnight as a replacement for sleep, doubling their dreaminess.  I wanted to know what the heck was getting into me with this behavior.

The main suggestions proposed by Jung really helped.  They resonated with me.  They elicited that special reaction that feels like the ring of truth: simultaneous surprise and recognition.  I said, “Wow, I agree. It feels true.”  Should I tell you what Jung talks about? Not before warning you that I’m about to.  If for any reason a spoiler at this point is not to your liking, stop reading right here.  As Grover warns in The Monster at the End of this Book: don’t turn the page.  If you do, there’s a monster at the end of this paragraph. It won’t be Grover. Or will it?

Who’s still reading?  For those who are, here’s the bottom line.  Jung describes how the human psyche typically deals with material it has not been able to assimilate by projecting an external symbol, as if communicating something that way.  UFOs are that external symbol.  They are projections of the human psyche, based on material it has not been able to incorporate.  They are also compensatory, which means they contain the attempt to put something back in balance.  What exactly is out of balance is where this theory most compelled me.

On the subconscious level, suggests the theory, we are all profoundly affected by the perilous state of human affairs on Earth.   We are all well aware in our souls, but not as completely in our conscious minds, that our species has created the capacity to render itself extinct through nuclear war, but lacks the maturity to safeguard us against that foolish outcome.  Nagasaki and Hiroshima were two actual examples of going in that direction.  Since then, there has been a cold war, stockpiling nuclear weapons.  Smaller countries have joined the global arms race.  Countless detonations have occurred in the name of practicing.  At this time the political climate on Earth is anything but reassuring of human safety and survival.

This danger manifests within us as a profound helplessness and fear.  Then, according to Jung, our psyche responds by compensating for it.  Because the helplessness and fear are not fully integrated in our conscious lives, the psyche’s response to them won’t be either.  It gets projected outside as a meaningful symbolin this case, the ancient form of the mandala, the symbol of wholeness.  By this theory, Jung equates UFO’s with a projected longing in our species for the spiritual and moral wholeness that will be our likeliest salvation in the face of imminent self-annihilation.

Unfolding this argument, Jung goes to great lengths to explicate the uncanny equivalences between mandalas and UFOs .  He addresses all the typical UFO characteristics exhaustively, covering exceptions such as cigar-shaped spacecraft and how they relate to the story too.  He also connects UFOs to the ways that humans have always looked to the heavens in times of mortal insecurity.  The main difference now is simply our greater technology, which therefore influences the content of our projective process like a translation matrix or filter.

Do UFOs exist?  Another fascinating part of the book is that Jung ventures some bold ideas about how major archetypal projections tend to take place.  He describes how psychic events like these often occur in tandem with physical ones that pertain to them, so we need not rule out one explanation of UFOs for the sake of another.  Instead, we can view all the explanations as occurring together.  Calling it Synchronicity, Jung sees this process of meaningful coincidence as a hallmark trait of important psychological revelation.  He therefore invites us to expand our thinking: let it include opposing ideas, such as real and projection, because they need not contradict each other and are not necessarily incompatible.

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High Mountains: High Ratings

Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi. His latest book The High Mountains of Portugal, released in 2016, explores themes of grief and loss, faith and redemption, religious epiphany, and meaningful living.  These themes and others are at work in the book at all times, but operate quietly beneath a playful surface, at times humorous, at times very gripping for its suspense and dramatic tension.  For literary-minded readers, the book offers a treasure chest of sparkling wording, compelling human eccentricity, and a tasteful appreciation of the cruel hand of Fate.

The book functions on a three-part structure that engages the reader through interlocking tales.  It is a common enough conceit in storytelling these days for authors to suspend the revelation of how different threads that do not seem related ultimately are.  Martel’s subtle addition to this device is to match form to content, such that particular themes amplify from the treatment.  In particular, a tripartite structure feeds the book’s abiding reconsideration of the Christian faith, itself a three-part illumination, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Did Martel intend this and other such parallels?  Read the amusing middle pages about Agatha Christie novels and judge for yourself!

Then enjoy the book’s deep and ubiquitous symbolism, which need never fully reduce to mundane equivalences.  In fact, the book’s symbolism soars for being allusive without being didactic or simplistic.  What to make, for example, of the repeated references to the Iberian rhinoceros and its noble presence in Portugal before going extinct?  Might it not represent a kind of lost perfection, which is a main preoccupation of the book?  Yes, but it’s also a modern representation of the unicorn, the medieval animal trope for Jesus Christ, another preoccupation. Martel is a true master at handling symbolism lightly yet undeniably.  He is especially good at it with animals in the mix.

One animal in particular also stands out in this novel as possibly Martel’s greatest achievement in developing a character.  You will know that character once you spend time together.  You may find yourself laughing a lot as you read, shaking your head with delight or bemused disbelief, wanting more, always more.  There is a story about Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, that he regarded Prince Myshkin, the title character of The Idiot, as his personal favorite among his creations.  Martel would have every right to hold his new character in equal esteem. He would also have similar reasons to in that both unlikely cast members manifest and evoke spiritual ideals.

The High Mountains of Portugal is another great rhapsody on life from the unique and colorful imagination of one of our most daring contemporary writers.  Here, Yann Martel further carves out a literary space all his own, one that blurs and reinvents the lines between realism, fantasy, and possibility.  His novels—this one heading the list—take readers into a paradoxical new understanding of what being human really means, made possible through the playful narrative foil of participating animals.  The book will not disappoint if you enjoy solid character development, historical curios, intelligent and illuminating digression, and a story that rewards you for pausing now and then to do some personal reflection about its myriad implications.  For better or worse, one or two of them may never resolve.


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Gestalt Psychology: Got Boundaries?

Gestalt Psychology arose in the cultural climate of the United States in the 1960’s, an era famed for the Summer of Love in San Francisco and the massive concert at Woodstock in upstate New York.  It was a time of upheaval and radical reorientation across the whole country.  A trend of conformity and extreme conservatism from the 1950’s gave way to its own worst nightmare: outrageous self-expression.  Nothing was safe against the new point of view, including Psychology.

Until that time the Freudian model of psychoanalysis dominated the clinical scene.  If you wanted to have therapy, you entered into a relationship of doctor and patient that functioned on the premise that doctors will figure out what is wrong with you—that is, analyze you—and then explain that information to you to bring about your cure.  People sometimes call this paradigm the medical model for its similarity to many medical practices, which often place exclusive authority in the doctor, relegating the patient to a passive recipient of expertise.

This paradigm contradicted the times.  Or more precisely, the times contradicted this paradigm, and eventually replaced it with an alternate view of the relationship between therapist and client, self and other, self and the world.  In his first book, “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression”, Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, outlines a very different point of view for these pairings.  In early versions, the book bore the subtitle “A Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method”, emphasizing that this material was a conscious departure from the status quo.  In later printings, the subtitle came into its own with an emphasis on “spontaneous personal encounter”.  Imagine that possibility as a way of living.

The book introduces and explores the core concepts of Gestalt Psychology.  One of them is a principle theory about contrast: all qualities depend on their opposites.  For instance, there is no hot without cold, no up without down, no here without there.  It seems simple at first, but apply it to your thinking about the nature of self and things get pretty interesting.  If that experience also depends on its opposite, there will not be self without other.  So many problems on Earth derive from attempting to obliterate other and here we have a philosophy that pronounces it indispensable instead.  That kind of opening bodes well for diversity, difference, and mutual appreciation.

It also leads into many deep and related areas, such as organismic self-regulation, which is a name Perls uses for homeostasis, the process by which living things interface successfully with their environment, a consideration that brings the nature of the contact between self and not-self into high relief.   As Perls makes clear, that contact happens exclusively at the boundary between self and surroundings.  He also describes the core disturbances to contact, laying the ground work for the Gestalt therapeutic model. The model posits the areas of contact as workable boundaries, and views their presence or absence, along with their quality or lack of quality, as the determining factors in whether one suffers or thrives in one’s life. Satisfying boundaries equal sound living.

This first formal installment in Gestalt Psychology is an emergent tour de force.  It offers a broader and more comprehensive picture of the human condition than had preceded it in the world of therapy, in part because it is fundamentally a holistic philosophy at its core.  Its devoted emphasis on systems thinking places human beings in a  very wide context and elevates what it can mean to be healthy and intact, to be human at all.  Many of the book’s core ideas have implied origins in prior recorded wisdom traditions, such as Taoism and Zen, among others.  These venerable roots feed the book’s specialized applications to individual psychological well-being.

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Van Gogh: Why Suicide?

This recent biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith contains a very rich reconstruction of what Vincent Van Gogh’s life was like. There is a lot of great new material about his crucial relationship with brother Theo, who worked in an art gallery and often supported Vincent in his artistic journey.  I recommend this book to any fan of the famed Dutch post-impressionist painter, especially if you are seeking inspiration about finding your calling and expressing devotion to it with your whole self.

The book became a bestseller on account of its controversial appendix, which questions whether Vincent’s death was a suicide, as critics often contend.  The authors gather a lot of missing data about the final period of Vincent’s life in Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France.  They flesh out Vincent’s relationships at that time and clarify that several people there targeted him as a freak, especially the older brother of a student friend of his.

In the alternate version of Vincent’s death, that brother, discovered to like playing cowboy, is the owner of a faulty gun that often misfires, and the townspeople are well aware of the situation.  One day Vincent goes to paint in the fields and happens into these brothers, using the gun.  The older brother teases him, as ever.  The gun goes off by accident.   Vincent takes a shot to the gut, stumbles home, where he lays in bed for two days, at first believing he’ll recover.  Two days later  it is clear he will not and he finally answers persistent questions about what happened by saying, “No one shot me.”

I include this book in my reviews section because of this alternate ending.  It raises questions about not only the facts, but human nature.  Many people object to this reinterpretation of how Vincent died.  There is a stubborn glamorization and romanticizing of suicides among suffering artists, as if that act is somehow a fitting end for a tortured soul.  Vincent’s mental health struggles and voluntary residence in at least one asylum make him perfect fodder for that treatment.  What do you think?  Do you think a new vision of Vincent’s death as an accident reduces his legacy or biography?

Personally, I feel the new circumstances elevate his story.  As Vincent lays in bed for two days, he comes to understand he is not going to recover.  As his life concludes, he makes a choice to protect the two boys by saying he shot himself.  In this light, his final earthly act is an expression of deep compassion and a wish to spare the two young men a needless criminal investigation, especially the younger brother, who was Vincent’s friend.  Facing death, Vincent’s compassion also extends to the person whose hand held the weapon, a terrible accident, more mischief than malice.

To my tastes, for Vincent to claim he shot himself, when in fact he is looking out for the futures of a friend and for his misguided brother, well, the story rings true to me as what Vincent would do, much more true than a suicide does.  I see the person who made all those amazing paintings and originally wanted to be a preacher until his own zeal got him canned as the same person who would cover for those boys, and his final cryptic words support the idea.  I also find this version of Vincent’s death much more heroic than suicide, and therefore more pleasing.  Rather than losing to despair, Vincent let go of his life with a profound and characteristic sentiment of brotherly concern.

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