Old boy,
How you took my two previous letters1 isn’t yet apparent to me from your letter of today to Pa and Ma. Precisely because you neither enclosed a letter for me nor mentioned receiving my letters, I take it that I’ll soon be getting a letter from you. And in the circumstances I’d much rather that you write to me after reading both of my letters, or, this one included, all three of them, which supplement one another and don’t stand alone, than that you’d have immediately answered only the first one alone.
How cold and harsh my first letter must have sounded, and you undoubtedly thought then that I was already very callous and hardened. But was it wrong of me? And will you think badly of me for not immediately revealing my more tender and intimate feelings, since they would have found you, O man of business! in the fever of daily affairs, which is not exactly the mood to appreciate love stories. So I thought something along the lines of: no, first we’ll wake him up and only then will we sow softer words in His Hon. We’ll plough him first, this man who ‘deftly dispatches business’.
That’s why the first letter was as cold as a ploughshare. But as to the second, was I wrong in claiming that it would be more serious and intimate?
And now that we’ve begun to talk more intimately, we want to go on doing so. But ‘meanwhile’2 – a bit more ploughshare. It begins here.
Although you’ve come a long way without a ‘she and no other’,3 although you stand firm in your shoes without a she and no other, although you deftly dispatch business without a she and no other, although you are a man of willpower, energy and character without a she and no other, although you’ve gained human understanding and experience without a she and no other, although you possess cheerfulness and high spirits and courage without a she and no other, although you dare to choose sides and loathe vacillation without.... Nevertheless, you would go much further, stand firmer in your shoes, dispatch business more deftly, be more a man of willpower, energy and character, gain more human understanding and experience, possess more cheerfulness, high spirits and courage, choose sides more resolutely, be even more loathful of vacillation, hesitation, doubt &c. than you have been thus far, when you’ll have found someone suited to being your ‘she and no other’. In short, you’ll be more yourself, happier and better, with an honestly meant and deeply felt ‘she and no other’ than without the same.  1v:2
The bit of ploughshare continues — don’t let it anger you! Your letter to Pa and Ma was so gloomy in a way, and to tell you the honest truth I couldn’t make head or tail of it and don’t know what to think. Is there anything serious or not?
And some of the things you said amazed me, first of all because it was you saying them, and second because you said them to Pa and Ma.
After all, it’s you more than anyone who keep all your great and petty miseries of human life4 to yourself, and if you chance to voice them it is to those whom you know to be strong in whatever it is that might be making you feel vulnerable. In short, I think that when you feel insecure about something, you confess that insecurity only to someone you know can cure you of it. Indeed, just this summer5 you yourself told me that you considered it better not to speak of life’s difficulties but thought it better to keep them to yourself in order, you said, not to lose your resilience. I found such strength of mind very impressive, even though I was far from sympathizing and am aware that all too often my need for sympathy has tempted me to seek it from those who, instead of bolstering me up, tended rather to weaken my resolve. Pa and Ma are really good, but they have little idea of one’s actual state of mind and the actual circumstances of either you or me. They love us, especially you, with all their heart, and at bottom we, you and I both, love them truly. But alas! In many cases they cannot give us practical advice, and there are instances when they don’t understand us, no matter how hard they try.
It’s not that they or we are to blame as much as the difference in age and a different way of thinking, the difference in circumstances. I do believe, Theo, that no matter how great the love you and Pa and Ma feel for one another, they nevertheless imagine you to be very different from what you really are. And I think that you and I would do better to talk about business as well as about more intimate affairs of the heart with people like Mr Tersteeg and Mauve, for instance, than with Pa and Ma. Is the ploughshare very cold and sharp — old boy?  1v:3
I say this from my own experience.
Still, I don’t mean to say that we should hide our hearts’ secrets from Pa and Ma and not give them our trust. God forbid. It’s also not my opinion that Pa and Ma’s advice is wrong or silly. God forbid that too. But we shouldn’t expect from them such practical and such indispensable advice as others would perhaps be able to give us (Mr T. and M., for instance) who understand more from half a word than Pa and Ma from a careful explanation. I consider it possible that I’m wrong about this, but think about it and share your thoughts on the matter with me, if you will.
But — that our home is and will continue to be our refuge, come what may, and we do well to appreciate this and are obliged for our part to honour that home — I agree with you entirely on that score, though you probably didn’t expect such a frank declaration from me.
Even so, there’s a refuge that is better, more necessary, more indispensable than our home with Pa and Ma, no matter how good, how necessary, how indispensable that may be, and that is our own hearth and home with our respective ‘she and no other’.
So then, O man of business, who dispatches business deftly, behold your greatest business affair, your own home with your own ‘she and no other’.
Behold, in my view, the point which you do well to keep sight of, the remedy which, more than any other ‘tonic’,6 will stimulate and renew more and more every day your courage to face life, your high spirits, your vigour and energy. Several things you said in your letter of today now make me say: Suppose there were a special reason for you to be more than ever on the qui vive and to act forcefully and intelligently, suppose someone were trying to undermine you and there were some trouble or predicament, don’t forget that you’re 26 years old7 and in ‘the prime of life’. Strike the best blow you’ve ever struck! Thoroughly renew yourself! By being especially on the qui vive in the sense that you look at girls somewhat more seriously and observantly, and see for once whether your ‘she and no other’ isn’t among them.
Here ends the ploughshare.  1r:4
Perhaps you remember that we talked this summer about the question of women, both with a kind of despondency. That we felt, or thought we felt, something like,

Woman is the desolation of the righteous man.8

And — and — I and possibly you too, at least a little bit, were in our view ‘the Mr Righteous in question’. Whether the above words are true or not I’m in no position to say, because since this summer I’ve begun to doubt if I actually knew then, first ‘what a woman is’, and second ‘what a righteous man is’. And I set out to examine both questions more closely, the result of such examination being that now I often say to myself,

You don’t yet know what a woman is,
you don’t yet know what a righteous man is, except that you aren’t yet such a one.9

Which is completely different from my frame of mind this summer.
Not I but père Michelet says to all young men like you and me, ‘a woman must breathe upon you if you’re to be a man’. She has breathed upon me, my dear chap!10 What do you mean? Because three times she has answered ‘never’. That, my dear chap, is one of their ways of breathing upon a monster, and there’s the monster who turns into a man! For love of her! She and no other!
Do you understand, my dear chap?
In the same way and conversely must ‘a man breathe upon a woman if she is to be a woman’? I think so very certainly. If you ask me,
How to breathe on her? Here’s my clear and simple answer,
By setting against her ‘never’ these other words, ‘my dear, I love you and you will love me, may God help us’. One must have loved, and have fallen out of love, and love on!11 Do you understand, my dear chap?
No! where is thy sting? Never, where is thy victory!12 To love again, it is God’s will! Do you understand ─ my dear chap?  2r:5
Behold, therefore, a love story for you, man of business! Do you think it very tedious and very sentimental?
Once I’d firmly resolved neither to leave her nor to return from following after her,13 even if this might incur her displeasure at first, once I clung simply and solely to the ‘she and no other’ and the ‘love on’, then I felt a certain calm and determination.
Then my despondency also disappeared, then all things became new14 for me, then, too, my physical energy increased.
And even though I haven’t yet come to the end of the no, nay, never, and unfortunately therefore am to this day a soul in need,15 I still consider my conduct unregrettable. By this I don’t mean to say that I did not, do not or will not do any clumsy, awkward things, but that the mistakes I did make, am making and will yet make don’t alter the fact that there’s a straight path before me upon which I walk,16 and that the ‘she and no other’ and the ‘love on’ are principles which I do well to adhere to. There are, however, those who think that I ought to have resigned myself and think that it goes ‘against the rules’ not to consider myself defeated, but if one says of my declaration of this summer, ‘the cat gets the birds who sing too soon’,17 then you know the verse,

Indeed, he lost feathers galore,
But what, my fine sirs, was in store?
They grew better than ever before.18

And as for ‘the rejection’ I got this summer, I’d be ashamed if I hadn’t got it. I won’t trade it for ‘no rejection’ (it was suggested that I view it as ‘not having happened’, but I said ‘it did happen’) in the sense of ‘not having happened’, but only for ‘no rejection’ in the sense of ‘love on’!  2v:6
Now, however, it’s ‘a petty misery of human life’ for me that I can’t even occasionally visit her or write to her, and that those who, with me, might exert a wholesome influence on the undermining or bankrupting of that ‘no, nay, never’ instead rather too readily bring grist to the mill of ‘no, nay, never’.
I would that she found no sympathy, anywhere or from anyone, for her ‘no, nay, never’, and that all would combine their efforts culpably to bankrupt that ‘no, nay, never’. In short, to reduce it once and for all to a monument, warning other no-nay-never-saying ladies and encouraging those who say ‘love on’.
But we haven’t reached that point yet; but you, you Theo, don’t be for the ‘no, nay, never’ but instead for the ‘love on’!
I’d think it very decent of you if, for example, you were to find a way of persuading Pa and Ma, who are extremely pessimistic about this and call what I did this summer ‘untimely’ and ‘indelicate’ (until I begged them very decidedly and definitely, after first having used more temperate reasoning in vain, no longer to apply such expressions to this love of mine, because otherwise I would be forced, proud as a lion, to go against them), I should, I say, think it very decent of you if you were to move them to less pessimism and more good courage and humanity.
A word from you probably has more influence on them than anything I could say, and it would be so good, both for them and for me, if, instead of trying to thwart me in  2v:7 my progress, they let me quietly proceed.
They would, for instance, like me to break off all correspondence whatsoever with Uncle and Aunt Stricker.
Naturally I can’t promise anything of the kind, and even if I were to cut off my correspondence with them for a while, I’d only take it up again afterwards with renewed vigour.
She doesn’t want to read my letters but — but — but — the frost and winter cold is all too bitter to last for long.
I find it much healthier and more natural that, when I first spoke to her of these things, she responded so very energetically with that ‘no, nay, never’. Precisely that — gives me the assurance that there existed some fatal condition and the hope that I’ve touched upon the very heart of that condition of wrapping oneself up in the past too much. Now there follows a crisis of indignation, but the operating surgeon laughs up his sleeve and says ‘touché’. Between you and me! Let this be between you and me! Listen, Theo, she mustn’t find out that I’m laughing up my sleeve about the result of the lancet’s cut. I’m rather repentant towards her, of course. ‘Have I hurt you? Oh, how coarse and hard I’ve been! How could I have been like that?’ That’s my attitude towards her. Very contrite and humble letter to Uncle Stricker, but nonetheless said ‘she and no other’ to His Hon. You won’t betray me, brother! Viewing what has happened as not having happened, that’s nothing but nonsense and humbug. I’ll have none of it.
Old chap, I’m so happy about ‘that rejection’, I’d really like to shout it to the skies, but I have to keep quiet. And attack her again in some way or other. But how to approach her? How to get near her? Some time or other, very unexpectedly and unforeseen. Because if I don’t stick to my guns, that fatal condition of wrapping oneself up in the past too much will return seven times stronger, and the matter of ‘love on’ is indeed such a good thing and surely worth surrendering one’s soul to.  2r:8
Well, I’ve grumbled a bit about Pa and Ma, but except that they really don’t have the remotest idea of how matters stand, and understand nothing of the ‘love on’, and could think of nothing else to say than untimely and indelicate until I stopped them, they are very good to me, and kinder than ever.
But I would rather that they had a little more understanding of my thoughts and view of things. They think along the lines of a kind of resignation strategy regarding many things to which I cannot resign myself.
Well, a letter from you making light of the no, nay, never would possibly prove very effective. This summer, for instance, a single word from Ma would have given me the opportunity to say many things to her that couldn’t be said in public.
She resolutely refused to say that word, however; instead, she cut short my opportunity. And came to me with a face full of pity and all kinds of consoling words, and without doubt she said a very nice prayer for me that would have granted me the strength to resign myself anyway.
But until now that prayer has gone unanswered, and instead I’ve been given the strength to act.
You understand that someone who wants to act cannot entirely approve of his mother praying for resignation for him. And also finds her consoling words slightly misplaced, so long as he doesn’t despair but says from the bottom of his heart,

I do not accept the yoke of despair.19

I would that she hadn’t prayed for me but had given me the opportunity for an intimate conversation with her. Furthermore, instead of bringing grist to the mill of no, nay, never, she could have looked after my interests, when Kee spoke confidentially to her and poured her heart out, and instead of going along with no, nay, never, she could have said ‘love on’. I tell you these things to prove that an energetic ‘love on’! from you, directed at Pa and Ma, would be doing me a true kindness. For I’m right in thinking, am I not, brother, that we aren’t just brothers but also friends and kindred spirits, especially with respect to Love on? Adieu, write soon, a handshake in thought, believe me

Ever yours,

Since I love ‘in reality’ there’s also more reality in my drawings, and I’m now sitting in the little room, writing to you with a whole collection of men, women, children from Het Heike &c. all around me.20 Mauve is ill, but Pa and Ma have asked him to come here and get well as soon as he can make the journey.


Br. 1990: 179 | CL: 155
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Etten, Tuesday, 8 or Wednesday, 9 November 1881

2. Ironical reference to a remark made by Uncle Stricker; see letter 180.
a. From the French ‘maladif’, meaning ‘sickly’, ‘unwholesomely weak’, ‘melancholy’.
5. During Theo’s holiday in Etten; see letter 170, n. 1.
b. From the French ‘imposer’, meaning ‘to impress’.
6. A tonic in the sense of a stimulant.
7. Theo was 24 at the time.
8. Michelet, L’amour, p. 268. It emerges from La femme that the saying is Pierre Proudhon’s: ‘Proudhon’s saying: “Woman is the desolation of the righteous man”’ (le mot de Proudhon: “La femme est la désolation du juste”) (Michelet 1863, p. 196). Also quoted in letters 415 and 474.
9. The passage ‘Tu... encore un’ is perhaps a quotation, but most likely something Van Gogh himself said.
10. In the chapter ‘Il n’y a point de vieille femme’ it says: ‘Every woman, at every age, if she loves and if she is kind, can give a man the moment of the infinite. More than the infinite of the moment. Often that of the future. She breathes upon him. It’s a gift. Everyone who sees him thereafter says, without explaining things, “But what’s the matter with him?… He was born gifted.” There were I don’t know how many Rousseaus before Rousseau, all arguers, quibblers, eloquent men. And not one of them carried the world with him. A woman breathes love, and maternal love, on him. And Jean-Jacques was the result’ (Toute [femme], à tout âge, si elle aime et si elle est bonne, donne à l’homme le moment de l’infini. Plus que l’infini du moment. Souvent celui de l’avenir. Elle souffle sur lui. C’est un don. Tout ceux qui le voient ensuite disent sans s’expliquer la chose: “Mais qu’a-t-il?... Il est né doué.” Il y avait eu je ne sais combien de Rousseau avant Rousseau, tous raisonneurs, ergoteurs, éloquents. Et pas un n’avait entraîné le monde. Une femme souffle sur lui, d’amour et d’amour maternel. Et Jean-Jacques en est resté) (Michelet, L’amour, p. 386).
12. Cf. 1 Cor. 15:55, ‘O Mort, où est ton aiguillon? O sépulchre, où est ta victoire?’ (O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?).
15. This phrase also occurs in letter 134.
17. A proverb meaning ‘he who is too quick to take pleasure in something will be disappointed in the end’. The English equivalent is ‘Sing before breakfast, cry before night’. See also the following note.
18. An allusion to the end of the poem ‘Vogeltjes, die zoo vroeg zingen, krijgt de poes’ (The cat gets the birds who sing too soon) by P.A. de Génestet:

Succumbing to wounds the poor finch,
Scratched and clawed to within an inch
Of its life, then met its sad end.
And the other? – it tore its attire
And shed bundles of feathers entire....
As it flew again higher and higher,
But it soon acquired feathers galore,
Yes, my fine sirs, furthermore,
Even lovelier than before.

(Het vinkje bezweek onder wonden
En klauwen, en werd verslonden,
En ’t was met het vinkje gedaan.
En de ander? – hij scheurde zijn kleêrtjes
En liet er een bundeltje veêrtjes....
Maar vloog toch weêr op in de sfeertjes,
En spoedig ook groeiden zijn veertjes
Veel mooier, Meneertjes,
Weêr aan.)

See De Génestet 1869, vol. 1, pp. 259-260.
c. Meaning: ‘me stil houden’, ‘doen alsof ik van niets weet’ (to keep quiet, to pretend I know nothing).
19. See for this quotation in Sully Prudhomme’s poem ‘A Alfred de Musset’: letter 180, n. 4.
20. Van Gogh must have drawn a fairly large number of rural types at this time. Cf. the remark he made in letter 186: ‘When I look round it’s full of all kinds of studies that all relate to one and the same thing, “Brabant types”’.