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Lubin, A.J. (1961). Vincent Van Gogh's Ear. Psychoanal Q., 30:351-384.

(1961). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 30:351-384

Vincent Van Gogh's Ear

Albert J. Lubin, M.D.


Several interrelated meanings are suggested to explain Vincent van Gogh's self-mutilation. Its occurrence at Christmas time was not accidental; since 1878, Christmas had become a time of intensified feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression. Vincent's masochistic fascination with bodily injury served as a defense against these feelings, for injury was associated with being cared for and loved. Further, he related injury and Christmas gifts. The box on the ears as a child, cited as the epitome of childhood relations with mother, gave proof that an ear injury, in particular, brings a mother's love. Prostitutes substituted for his rejected, rejecting mother, so it is not too surprising that he brought his Christmas token to one of them, intending to evoke a gift of love in return. In 1888, his brother Theo's imminent marriage increased the fear of isolation; the mutilation alleviated the fear by bringing Theo to him. Similarly, it stimulated the Roulins to nurse him, fulfilling a wish that reflected an envious identification with their baby.

The mutilation also represented a symbolic death, exhibiting Vincent in the image of his dead brother, the first Vincent—someone mother adored. As a gift, the severed ear was specifically the gift of a baby, a dead baby. Thus it was both a reliving of Oedipal wishes and a bitter mockery of his mother's attachment to her dead son. The sadomasochistically perceived primal scene offered its own contribution, perhaps induced by the Arles bullfights. In cutting off his ear, Vincent acted out the primal scene; at the same time he symbolically displayed himself to a mother-surrogate as a castrated, nonthreatening person. He was not the brute or the roughneck his mother believed him to be; rather he was the victim who needed her and deserved to be nursed by her.

From another point of view, the mutilation was related to highly cathected religious thoughts and identifications. In excising

an ear that was filled with tormenting hallucinations of a religious nature, it carried out the Biblical injunction to remove an offending organ. This was equated with becoming a child who is worthy of the Kingdom of God, following the Biblical inscription on the grave of his dead brother. The identification with the suffering Jesus gave further impetus to the mutilation and further promise of parental love. In part this related to the scene of the Pietà, in which the mater dolorosa tenderly holds the crucified figure. The ear symbolized the body of Jesus, like the Host in church ritual. Vincent presented it to the prostitute Rachel, who had come to represent both Mary Magdalene and the mater dolorosa. The scheming, money-seeking Gauguin was cast in the role of Judas, who betrayed Jesus in Gethsemane. The Gethsemane scene, in which the ear of Malchus is cut off, had been prominent in Vincent's mind before the mutilation. This pointed the way to the choice of the ear as the specific object for mutilation.

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