Starry Night

Evelyn Wong ’21, June 2018

To tread the last step of the four-mile hike toward Mount Hollywood’s summit for the first time is truly surreal.

For many, it is an iconic feat—an item one would cross off on a bucket-list when visiting California as a tourist. For me, it is home. Below lies the city in which I was born and raised, preparing to blanket itself in the growing darkness; above, the same ornament-like stars that made their debut above Gatsby’s mansion.

Something about the tranquilizing view reminds me of Gatsby’s endeavor to reach his dreams, compelling me to acknowledge my own. Closing my eyes, I imagine the night sky as a living, breathing character in a Hemingway novel, with deep hues of blue swirling through a sea of black—and yet lighter blues racing through the scene with the swooshing sound of the winds. The stars shone brightly, searing cracks in the seemingly indestructible atmosphere, allowing us to admire their immeasurable beauty.

It is in these moments when I dream of having conversations with the great artist Vincent van Gogh on the rue du Palais, listening to the master himself describe the blues and violets and greens of the night sky.  Luminous surfaces are pulsating with the liveliness of interior light, seeing his brushstrokes of Cafe Terrace at Night vibrating with the same sense of excitement that he experienced while creating his works.

I would imagine his words as his brushstrokes raced across the canvas: “There’s so much more to this world than the average eye is allowed to see,” he would say, as the directors of “Doctor Who” envisioned. “I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could have ever dreamt of.”

Walking through Harvard College as a student for the first time, I often wonder which of my peers would soon become the next Van Gogh or Galileo.

Why is there such a negative connotation to the labels “crazy,” “strange” and “misunderstood”? I believe that “insanity” is the name often given to those who attempt to be rational in an insane world. After all, who determines what sanity is, anyhow?

Taking Metros to Downtown Los Angeles in my hometown, many of those whom I have grown up with are often intimidated by those we label “severely disabled” or “mentally handicapped.” We don’t think twice about their situation—in the long rides along the Gold or Green Lines viewing these individuals from behind glass barriers, we never imagine life through their eyes.

What would we think if we realized that they’ve seen the same images in the starry night sky as Van Gogh did from his asylum room at Saint-Remy-de-Provence?

Many often forget that individuals with “different” views are humans, too–as social beings, we tend to ostracize those who do not think or act like everybody else. It is easy to forget that within the shadows of Harvard College live those who are mentally afflicted, afraid to make themselves known for fear of being left out. Unless the challenge of dealing with mental illness directly affects us, our own family members, friends and peers, the plight of those who struggle to make their sanity known in a “mad world” seems utterly unreal. Only when our parents and grandparents are afflicted with depression or conditions such as schizophrenia and dementia do we repeatedly tell ourselves that the ones who raised us couldn’t possibly be insane.

But the demons that afflict them are the same fiends that terrorize the men, women and children on the streets—not only in Los Angeles but in Cambridge and around the world. The only difference may be that those we scorn are the ones who don’t have a home to return to.

Our school community stigmatizes mental health as well—in the shadows of Harvard lie the faces struggling to conform, wishing they wouldn’t be exposed for fear that they would be perceived as crazy.

Not all of these shadows are invoked with hallucinations or the stigma often attached to what we call “mental health issues”; they simply see the world differently from the rest of us—and if we took the time to walk around in their skin for a while, we’d realize that there’s a Van Gogh in every one of us.

Starry Night, along with the great works of the Impressionist and Surrealist artists, helped me realize that the visions that often plague our minds with uncertainty and discomfort aren’t insanity—for many, many individuals, those dreamlike images with melting clocks and distorted figures are very much a reality.

And though they may be different, each of our minds is just as beautiful as any other. Label me a hopeless romantic, but I’m waiting for the moment when one of the shadows of Harvard Yard or Widener Library wins a Nobel Peace Prize for quantifying turbulence, or being globally recognized for creating the next artistic masterpiece.

Image credit: Starry Night / Vincent Van Gogh

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