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Why Van Gogh Cut His Ear

  1. Dec 6, 2003 #1
    Van Gogh and Gauguin were sharing a small room in Arles, France. The evening before the ear cutting incident they were at a Cafe drinking absinthe, a known epileptogenic drink that is now illegal. For no apparent reason Van Gogh picked up his absinthe and threw it at Gauguin. The next day he couldn't remember having done it. Gauguin told him he was going to go elsewhere, which upset Van Gogh. Gauguin went out for a walk...

    "Going to his mirror and taking up his razor, van Gogh began to shave the edges of his ruddy beard. Just then, he told the doctor, he heard a disembodied voice commanding him to kill Gauguin. In Rey's (the doctor's) opinion, van Gogh had seized; the voice was a TLE (Temporal Lobe Epilepsy) seizure, coming from inside his brain.
    Prompted by the voice, van Gogh went out into the empty street. He approached the public garden, passed between the firs and bouganvillea bushes that marked its entrance, and walked along the garden path, the blade still in his hand.
    In a few minutes he reached Gauguin who, hearing footsteps, turned to find his host, fifteen feet behind him, looking crazed and holding up a blade. Van Gogh appeared to be in a trance. Moments later, he swung around and ran home, where he used the blade on himself, slicing off the lower half of his ear, the source of the voice that had told him to kill Gauguin.
    To staunch the blood gushing from the wound, van Gogh pressed towel after towel to his head, dropping the soiled ones to the floor. Hours passed. Gauguin did not return; he had decided to spend the night at a hotel.
    Around midnight, van Gogh picked up his severed ear, wrapped it in paper, and went out. He walked through the village to a brothel that Gauguin frequented, where he left his ear on the stoop with a note saying it was a "keepsake" for a prostitute who had once posed for him. He returned home, escorted by a neighbor who had been alerted to his strange behaviour, and went to sleep. The next morning, roused by officers summoned by the neighbor, he was taken to the hospital, where he met Felix Rey."

    Eve LaPlante

    She points out earlier in the chapter that this Dr. Rey had happened to be reading aticles on the various manifestations of seizure disorders by the great British Neurologist J. Hughlings Jackson. Before hearing the voice, van Gogh had started to suffer from occasional startling disturbances in his visual field, stomach aches, and mood swings. A couple of months after the incident he had a grand mal seizure that was witnessed by a nurse who was sent to keep him company while he painted.
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2003
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  3. Dec 7, 2003 #2


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    Interesting that you should say this, just a few days ago this some how came up in a discussion.

    It was said that Van Gogh was actually poisioned, which led to his irradic behaviour. Where did the poison come from? From the paint! All the organic solvents (not sure which one exactly, I believe they mentioned the compound a few days ago) he was inhaling, combined with the alcoholism caused this compound to accumulate in his body.

    Not sure about the correctness of this statement, but it could be true.
  4. Dec 7, 2003 #3
    He actually started becoming emotionally over-intense in early adulthood. You may know he tried for a long time to be a preacher. The parishoners petitioned to have him removed because he was too intense for them. He didn't even think seriously about art untill after this failure as a preacher.

    During the next ten years till his suicide, he lived on a near starvation diet, both because he had little money and out of some misguided empathy for the very poor people he liked to paint. When he did get money he was more likely to spend it on paint, coffee, tobacco, and wine, than food.

    After the ear cutting incident he tried to commit suicide once by drinking turpentine and eating some of his paint. This may be where your story came from.
  5. Dec 7, 2003 #4
    Lead and other heavy metals were also used in the pigments especially in white paint such as flake white. White lead is very toxic. I believe Cobalt blue has poisonous ingredients and the cadmium colors (not sure if they had those then or not) are supposed to be dangerous. He was also a big user of chrome yellow, which is very toxic.
  6. Dec 7, 2003 #5
    Exactly, all of the heavy metal pigments are very toxic - in my library somewhere I have a list of pigments vanGogh used - nearly every one contained heavy metals.
  7. Dec 7, 2003 #6
    Cobalt blue contains cobalt which is aheavy metal and highly toxic. The cadmium colors are highly toxic as well, cadmium causes many of the same problems as lead poisoning, but it is also dangerous as a pulmonary carcinogen. Some of the compounds used in the cadmium paints are also used in pesticides. The cadmiums came into use in the late 18th century, and were widely used in vanGogh's time.
  8. Dec 7, 2003 #7
    It had nothing to do with the paints or alcoholism it had to do Van Gogh being insane. Just shortly after Van Gogh passed away his brother was also put into a mental institution. His brother having almost the same exact symptoms as Van gogh. This proves that it was a hereditary insanity.
  9. Dec 7, 2003 #8
    I agree. As I noted above, his personality was quite erratic before he even began to handle paints. It the paints were to blame all the painters of that time would have had the same symptoms.
    Alcohol was actually a thing that contributed to him becoming worse. Alcohol has a worsening effect on both mental illnesses and epilepsy.
    You are ignoring the diagnosis of epilepsy, made by Dr. Rey, and which was confirmed by the eventual generalization into a grand mal seizure that the nurse witnessed. You are also ignoring that on the night before he cut his ear he was drinking absinthe, which is so well known to trigger seizures that it has been outlawed.

    His brother, Theo, was psychologically fine untill Vincent committed suicide. His mental breakdown was triggered by grief. What symptoms are you refering to that were "almost the same exact symptoms as Van gogh"?
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2003
  10. Dec 7, 2003 #9
    Van gogh's symptoms are not just limited to epilepsy. I've never heard of anyone cutting of their ear or hearing voices from any epilepsy caused sickness.
  11. Dec 7, 2003 #10
    Actually, people with simple and complex partial seizures do hear voices. They are subject to an incredible variety of physical sensations and sensory illusions.
    Each person with epilepsy has his own personal mixture of seizure symptoms. Most forms of epilepsy do not involve any muscular convulsions. The general public is not aware of this.

    Also, people who hear disembodied voices try an incredible number of things to silence them. The most popular nowadays is a portable music player with headphones and the volume turned up. People try earplugs, stuffing cotton in their ears, shouting at the voices to "Shut up!", and in some cases they try injuring their own ears. I think this must be a very horrible thing to experience.

    Here is a link to an article that speaks about the difficulty sometimes experienced in distinguishing between complex partial seizures and mental illness.

    Psychiatric Times
    Address:http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/p950927.html [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  12. Dec 7, 2003 #11


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    Damn, where can I get me summa that?
  13. Dec 7, 2003 #12
    A couple/three years ago it was getting alot of press, making a comeback among avant-guard types, because apparently the "high" and mild hallucinations are quite pleasant. It is nicknamed "The Green Fairy".

    Currently this street drug called "Special K" is the epileptogen that people are taking, mostly without realizing it puts them in danger of going into a grand mal seizure. It also causes the "Out of Body" experience pretty reliably, such that one researcher uses it to induce the OBE in his studies of that experience. I consider him quite reckless.
  14. Dec 7, 2003 #13
    It doesn't say anything about hearing "voices" just that sounds appear to be farther, closer, fainter, and more distinct then they actual are.
  15. Dec 7, 2003 #14
    Let me do a little digging and I'll come up with an article that specifically mentions hearing voices.
  16. Dec 7, 2003 #15
    All I'm saying is that I've studied a little bit on epilepsy and I never heard of anyone hearing voices.
  17. Dec 7, 2003 #16
    It isn't the most common hallucination, to be sure, but I have probably read a dozen references to it happening in stuff I've read completely unrelated to the van Gogh case.

    I don't want you to just take my word for this, and I will, indeed, find one of these references at least for you to have a look at.
  18. Dec 7, 2003 #17


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    It used to be quite popular back in the day among artists and poets, wasn't it? Not just a peculiarity to Van Gogh? I recall reading that for some reason.

    And for whatever reason, most of the things that induce mild hallucinations turn out to be quite pleasant. Might have something to do with a common serotogenic effect among them.

    I think people realize that, and even seek it out-- they probably just don't know that it's a grand mal seizure at work. It's called a K-hole. I've heard very bad stories, and very good stories, which is kind of par for the course with hallucinogenics.

    Is there long term danger related to inducing a grand mal seizure? From what I understand, a seizure is just synchronous firing of neurons. So while maybe the underlying chemical mechanisms may turn out to be toxic to the brain, I don't see how a period of synchronous firing in itself could have deleterious long term effects-- assuming it doesn't make one more susceptible to seizures in the future.
  19. Dec 7, 2003 #18
    I have no doubt that epilepsy amplified Van gogh's eccentricities but I think he would have been mentally insane without epilepsy.
  20. Dec 8, 2003 #19
    OK, here's one:

    Health Library - Aura and seizures
    Address:http://health_info.nmh.org/Library/HealthGuide/IllnessConditions/topic.asp?hwid=tm6354 [Broken]

    I'll be editing in a couple more.

    OK, go here and scroll down to "Partial Seizures" then read the second paragraph:

    Health Library - Aura and seizures
    Address:http://health_info.nmh.org/Library/HealthGuide/IllnessConditions/topic.asp?hwid=tm6354 [Broken]

    This next one is a personal web page I found by a guy with seizures (quite a religious guy, it seems). His report of hearing a disembodied voice is in the third paragraph:

    A Brief Message of Hope - My Message
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  21. Dec 8, 2003 #20

    vanGogh was notoriously slovenly, and a lot of painters in the history of art have been affected neegatively by their materials.
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