Celestial Locomotive


In his short and troubled life, it is told that Vincent Van Gogh was sensitive, gifted and emotionally honest. He suffered from both extreme despair to sublime ecstasy — some have called it hallucination — and died by his own hand in a “wheat field that had engaged his attention.” Despite the mystery surrounding his death and the search for enchantment that fueled his life, there is no disagreement on his love and life-long devotion for the stars.

It is the stars as a final destination that I draw your attention to, taken from one of the most profoundly moving pieces on life, death, and the myriad of contemplations on both.

The book, that is its source, is by film critic, Roger Ebert, entitled Life Itself.

The excerpt, I Do Not Fear Death, is an eloquent and thoughtful piece that one can’t help but feel the need to capture and preserve. It is penned in loveliness and grace and the simple reading of it leaves you aching for a belief in divinity.

From the author’s wistful note that, “One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing,” to a favored passage on kindness he memorized, which reads in part, “I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals,” (taken from a photograph of the Irish poet, Brendan Behan, on the wall of the legendary O’Rourke’s in Chicago), that Ebert says covers all his political beliefs, there is raw truth here in all its uneasiness.

Yet, it is the beautifully moving passage on a celestial locomotive to the stars, from the tragically flawed Van Gogh, that forms the heart of Ebert’s incandescent essay.



Looking at the stars
always makes me dream,
as simply as I dream
over the black dots
representing towns and villages
on a map.

Why, I ask myself,
shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky
be as accessible
as the black dots
on the map of France?

Just as we take a train
to get to Tarascon or Rouen,
we take death to reach a star.

We cannot get to a star
while we are alive
any more than we can
take the train
when we are dead.

So to me
it seems possible that
cholera, tuberculosis and cancer
are the
celestial means of locomotion.
Just as steamboats, buses and railways
are the terrestrial means.

To die
quietly of old age
would be to go there
on foot.



Painting: Starry Night over the Rhone, Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, 1888




~ by eaesthete on 11/06/11.

2 Responses to “Celestial Locomotive”

  1. I was fortunate to be in Toronto in Sept. when Roger Ebert was attending TIFF and signing his memoir Life Itself in a bookstore. I bought the book, lined up for over an hour to get his autograph, shook his hand, and stayed for a most entertaining and inspirational Q & A session. This essay from Salon is the last chapter of his memoir, entitled “Go Gently”. It’s most gratifying to learn of his admiration for Van Gogh… both of them confront illness and mortality with their irrepressible zest for life and exuberant sense of wonder. I may not agree with their view of the ultimate and thereafter, nevertheless, looking at the artist’s painting of a starry night while listening to his voice in the passage is itself a moving experience.

    • Arti,

      Thank you for that most lovely response. Again, I marvel at our shared sensibilities, since I did not know of your prior post. It’s all rather extraordinary to me.

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