Saturday, May 5, 2012

You Say "Go," I Say "Goch" (and So Does Van Gogh)

You may have recently heard that Edvard Munch’s masterpiece “The Scream” sold for a near-record $120 million. Shortly after, San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle held a vote on his “Maximum Strength Mick” blog, asking readers which of 31 Old Master masterpieces would they like to own if could they afford it.

The selections ranged from the “Mona Lisa” (no no no, not the Bob Hoskins movie . . . aargh!) to Picasso’s “Guernica,” a painting that would only fit in Mitt Romney’s living room or the brick wall of the alley you live in, should you happen to be homeless.

I picked “Starry Night” for its dark turbulence; the stars like giant blossoms rolling across a turbulent blue sky on streams of energy. You can see the wind. It’s reality transformed, space seen as swirling with life.

I entered my selection, “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. Then, I added teasingly, “pronounced “Van Goch,” or maybe “Van Gich.”

“Ohhhh, stop being a show-off,” I’ve been told. Everyone—and that means E-VERY-ONE—pronounces it “Van Go” and who am I, some big-browed ponce who’s read “Gravity’s Rainbow” twice, to stand against the customs of lemmings? I’m only showing off my erudition like Michael Sheen parading his mouthy brain through the Louvre in “Midnight In Paris,” annoying the innocent-and-down-to-earth Owen Wilsons of the world (though, Owen's character, it must be said, is every millimeter the snob).

Arguments like this always give the impression of people looking up their noses at me.

If were a rude person, I’d be tempted to say a hearty “intercourse yourself” and continue glottal-stopping my way through the art gallery of life. However, my nose-thumb at the Indomitable Hive is not the point. My argument is based strictly and strongly on simple courtesy. Or what I also call the John Wayne Argument: “Ya call a fella how he likes to be called, pil-grim. Dead or alive.”

The “Van Go” said nowadays is the French pronunciation, and if Van Gogh were French, he would have pronounced it that way, too. But Van Gogh wasn’t French. He was born in the town of Zundert, which, as much as Wikipedia might sometimes have it otherwise, is not in France, but in the Netherlands.

Van Gogh was Dutch. He spoke Dutch and would have given his name a Dutch pronunciation (though, intriguingly, he may have been somewhat mispronouncing it himself: It’s also seems to be pronounced “Van Gich,” as discussed here.

Exactly how his name took on French coloration I haven’t found out, but, what’s really important is that Van Gogh apparently really really did not like the “Van Go” pronunciation. Van Gogh was already known as a difficult house guest and roommate (“almost unbearable” as even his loyal and loving brother Theo put it), and misstating his name made him even a bigger pill.

But whether Van Gogh was a Minnesota Nice Guy or not, what counts is courtesy. If you really love Van Gogh—or just love his art—it seems simply rude and tone deaf to address him any way but the right way--his way--even if he’s tracking mud all over your carpet while squeezing your last franc out of you and stealing the cheese off the sideboard.

Call him whatever else you want, but never call him “Van Go.”

(And if my argument really bothers you, look at it as one more way for freedom-loving Americans to annoy freedom-hating French persons.)

For myself, I imagine my own fierce displeasure at returning from the Beyond 150 years from now to find out that everyone is pronouncing my name “Boorch-veelt” simply because it took a German academic to make me world famous. Posthumous fame is nice, but please remember to address my ghost as “Burtch-feeld” (tongue tip on the hard plate, “f” as in “field”). Or else, I’ll steal your cheese, all your scotch and scare the feces out of you as I melt away into perfect gloom.

To extend my argument further--if irrelevantly--consider the case of Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush (former assistant to former President Richard B. Cheney). Sadly, we all recall Bush II’s joy in towel snapping nicknames on whoever happened to be standing around. On Putin, President of the Russian Federation (and whose soul was visible to Bush II, but no one else), Bush bestowed the nickname “Pootie-poot.”

Now, I know nicknames are not the same as given names, but imagine if, somehow, “President Vladimir Pootie-poot” had gone totally viral and had become customary usage to everyone in the world (yes, I’m looking at you, Henry Kissinger!) except for . . .  well, a dictator of immense power whose desk drawer contains a big red button with which he could launch World War 3.2. Tyrants are never good sports and “But everyone says it like that” is not a useful, or moral, argument, even in regard to a Vladimir Putin. I daresay, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton would be inclined to agree.

At least, I hope they are.


Come Holmes fans come! The game is afoot!

A quick note encouraging all of you to stop your lives this Sunday night to watch the second season of “Sherlock!" on PBS Mystery (check your local listings). I loved the first three episodes broadcast last year; to my eyes, they blew the dust off without losing the spirit of the Conan Doyle originals.

The reviews for this season promise more ripping adventure starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the 21st-Century Holmes (the best Holmes since Basil Rathbone, full of  bounding energy and infuriating self-regard), Martin Freeman as a sweetly exasperated but always game Watson, and co-creators Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss.

So many mystery series these days seemed weighted with humorless self-importance (AMC’s “The Killing” for one) that “Sherlock!” looks as fresh and cheerful as a daisy. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Julie Schauer said...

I'm curious to hear who will win the columnist's vote on 31 masterpieces.
Let us know! My guess is that A Starry Night will be very high on the list. I'm not surprised about the auction value of The Scream-- it is such an icon, even though the version that sold is a pastel drawing and not a painting.

As for the pronunciation of Van Gogh, he spoke and wrote French so well during the last 5 years of his life that he almost seems to have forgotten his native language.
I just can't get that guttural sound of Van "Goch"

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, Julie! I haven't seen any followup on the vote yet. It seems not that many readers participated, nowhere near as many participate in his movie polls. And even though Van Gogh spoke French, I don't think he went that far as to adopt the pronunciation. Pretty ironic how he drew the line.

Julie Schauer said...

You're probably right. Anyone not Dutch who can pronounce it the Dutch way is pretty amazing.

(On a note, Van Gogh wrote to Theo in French, and I wonder why...No doubt Theo had to know very good French for his business)

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, Julie! This actually led to a long thread on another discussion group that I hang out on. One of the commenters actually provided a link to a quiz show hosted by Stephen Fry, where it was a question! Go to: