Van Gogh, Dune, and Lessons for the 21st Century

Earlier this year, I wrote about seven books which became close companions amid the lonely days of quarantine in Manila. To close my 2020 literary journey, I’d like to share about three more books which took me on a roller coaster ride of insights, emotions, and internal debates overlaid onto a similarly tumultuous year. I read far less books towards the end of the year than earlier, but these remaining books were a sucker punch.

How does deep pain affect a human being? How does religion play a role in society and in the lives of individuals? How are we being shaped by nature, by the environment, and how are we shaping the planet today? Heroes, geniuses, leaders – who are they really and are they as infallible as they seem? How must we regard families, communities, nations, and how do these evolve?

These three books – a biography, a nonfiction, a science fiction novel – touch on these thoughts and more. And though I have more questions than answers now as I leap from one theme to another, “Sometimes questions are more important than answers,” so says writer Nancy Willard.

Van Gogh: The Life – Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)

“Theo thought he knew the answer: Vincent was the victim of his own fanatic heart. “There’s something in the way he talks that makes people either love him or hate him,” he tried to explain. “He spares nothing and no one.” Long after others had put away the breathless manias of youth, Vincent still lived by their unsparing rules. Titanic, unappeasable passions swept through his life. “I am a fanatic!” Vincent declared in 1881. “I feel a power within me … a fire that I may not quench, but must keep ablaze.”

Vincent Van Gogh’s excessive, colorful, tragic life is given justice by this 900+ page biography spanning the Dutch painter’s brief – but astoundingly eventful – 37 years on earth as well as the forces of art, culture, family, politics, commerce, religion, and society that defined and influenced Van Gogh and that he laboriously sought to define and influence in return.

It took me weeks to finish this masterpiece of a book not just because it was a long and detailed read (that drew from hundreds of letters between Vincent, his brother Theo, and other family and friends) but also because it was so intensely emotional that I needed to take breaks between reading. This was true especially for the parts that described at length Vincent’s incessant fights with his family and friends, his thoughts as he processed his own painful failures as an artist, and his excruciating battles with depression and psychosis.

Most of us know Van Gogh as one of the most famous painters of all time but he is so much more than that. He is a brother, son, friend, and lover. He is a voracious reader, student of life, avid mentor, and outdoor adventurer. But he was also an extravagant spender, was often ostracized by even family and friends, and suffered several bouts of mental illness. He is an icon adored by many today but he lived most of his life in the margins of society.

No person can be just one dimension, and if we remember this, maybe we’ll be kinder to others around us no matter where they are in life.

Dune – Frank Herbert

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Dune is the best work of fiction I’ve read in years.

Written more than 50 years ago by Frank Herbert, the novel follows the story of Paul Atreides, a young son from a noble family that is fighting for control of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis is a desert planet (think Star Wars‘ Tatooine) sparsely inhabited and cursed with a punishing climate and terrifying forces of nature (e.g. gigantic sandworms), but it is also the only source of a vital spice called melange that is used for space travel and for amplifying mental abilities. As Paul faces unexpected tragedies and challenges strewn in his path, he discovers his courage and his talents – but also his frailties – in an epic battle of power against other families and against the great threats of Arrakis itself.

It was easy to get sucked into the world of Arrakis and the larger interstellar empire that contained it. The world that Herbert created was a detailed masterpiece made more vivid by the uniqueness of each character, family, and tribe; the depth and nuances of the characters; the reverence to the uncontrollable forces of the planet they inhabited; and the allusions and questions raised on morality, governance, philosophy, ecology, religion, and more. In terms of scale and ambition, I felt that Dune was comparable to Lord of the Rings (and sci-fi legend Sir Arthur C. Clarke agrees); and in terms of political scheming and treachery, Dune reminded me of the complex power plays in A Song of Ice and Fire.

But there’s one thing that places Dune a notch above these other great works of fiction for me – and that is its painful relevance to our world today. Dune was unafraid to take on issues like environmental destruction, corporate greed, religious fanaticism, and it still stands as a brave testament against these same problems in the 21st century.

A stunning poster by artist Hugo Emmanuel Figueroa based on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune film (cited as “the greatest film never made”). The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune takes a peek at the film that never came to be – a definite must-watch.

Speaking of the 21st century…

21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari

“It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown. Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence. Even if we think we know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of doubting our opinions and checking ourselves again. Many people are afraid of the unknown, and want clear-cut answers for every question. Fear of the unknown can paralyse us more than any tyrant. People throughout history worried that unless we put all our faith in some set of absolute answers, human society will crumble. In fact, modern history has demonstrated that a society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”

It’s difficult to collapse a book with 21 whole lessons into a few paragraphs of insight, but I’ll do my best. One may not agree with all of Yuval Noah Harari’s positions – Bill Gates certainly didn’t – but Harari provides a lot of clarity that matters when there’s too much noise around us. From Harari’s 21, I’ve distilled my favorite lessons to these five:

  1. To be prepared for a future we cannot predict, we can start not just by gaining more information but – more importantly – by learning to make sense of the deluge of information around us. Education plays a big role here.
  2. Technology is leaving an indelible impact on our minds, bodies, and hearts, and we all have to understand (and address) what’s happening before it’s too late.
  3. Human beings love stories more than facts and numbers, and the stories that seem most compelling are the ones that usually ‘win’ at a given time. But this isn’t always a good thing.
  4. To sustain the human race, we need humility. One’s nation, religion, custom, or way of life is not the only or ‘correct’ nation, religion, custom, or way of life.
  5. Life is as important as the pauses in between – pauses to think, meditate, question things – and we should have more of those pauses on an individual level and on a societal level.

In the fashion of asking more questions, I’d like to leave you with this juggernaut of a question, also from the book:

Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power. You will have to admit things – for example, about the sources of your own power – that will anger allies, dishearten followers, or undermine social harmony. Scholars throughout history have faced this dilemma: Do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity?

What do you think?

Happy reading in the new year!

P.S. My 2021 read list is starting on an exciting note with On the Shortness of Life by Seneca, Tap Dancing to Work (a collection of essays about and by Warren Buffett) by Carol Loomis, and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab.

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