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This issue’s cover shows Van Gogh’s Portrait of Doctor Gachet:

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It illustrates an article by Ted Morgan (the former Sanche De Gramont) who alleges Dr Gachet killed Van Gogh. After the painter shot himself,

…he did nothing to save Vincent. Although he called himself a specialist in nervous diseases, nothing in his behaviour suggests that he understood that a bungled suicide is a cry for help. He left Vincent to die in his garret room, grossly underestimating the gravity of his wound and not bothering to have him hospitalized, an act of negligence that would at best be called malpractice. And, once Vincent was dead, he threw himself into the role of the grieved friend and gathered up Vincent’s canvases with greedy dispatch. All in all, Dr Gachet leaves a distasteful impression.

… [It] seems clear that we are dealing here with two unbalanced men. One was the patient, while the other, unfortunately, was the doctor.

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7404 - VG Death

Also in this issue:

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Horizon stalwart J.H. Plumb appears twice in this issue. His piece on ‘Disappearing Heroes’ is interesting in the light of the recent death of Nelson Mandela – the last of the greats, the last true hero? (Except perhaps for the Dalai Lama.) At the time Plumb was writing, America had just gone through the Watergate scandal:

This fear of heroes is very recent. Only a hundred years or so ago Thomas Carlyle was trumpeting the virtues of heroes and hero worship, extolling Cromwell and Robespierre…Are heroes part of the dream life of mankind from which we cannot and should not escape? Or will they disappear for good?

Young people look for mentors, he says, and,

…since [the trait of hero-worship] appears to be more deeply embedded in the masculine psyche than the female one…male-dominated societies, particularly those with a powerful warrior class, are more prone to hero-worship than others. One has only to name a few heroes – Julius Caesar, Augustus, Washington, Napoleon, Hitler, Mao, Lenin – to realize that war is often linked with them. Indeed, they sometimes seem to seek it…

Of course, not all national heroes lead their countries to disaster…It is not surprising that when the blacks began to struggle free in America during the fifties and sixties, they wanted their own black history, and their own black heroes.

He concludes we should not regret heroes fading:

…there may have been less romance in a Truman or an
Attlee but there was also more hardheaded realism. And that is the stuff that heroes were never made of.

Plumb also contributes a major article on the Anglo-Chinese ‘Opium Wars’, which began China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’.

‘Men of Ideas’ was the semi-regular feature I was never able to get my head around – Chomsky, Foucault etc. – but Bryan Magee in ‘Karl Popper: The Useful Philosopher’ explains how Popper demolished logical positivism and Marxism in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies. He also explains Popper’s contribution to the philosophy of science, ‘falsifiability’:

Although universal statements cannot be proved, they can be disproved. No number of observations of white swans can ever prove the statement ‘All swans are white,’ but it is disproved if one single observation of a black swan is accepted as correct. So, although any search for conclusive verification is irrational in that it is a search for something that is not to be found, attempted refutation is perfectly rational. Scientific statements can be tested to any degree we like, by systematic attempts not to prove them right but to prove them wrong.

This would mean that we never actually know a scientific statement to be true. Quite so, says Popper, we never do. We know at best that the statement is compatible with all our observations so far, and has resisted our most stringent attempts to find fault with it. We shall continue to make use of it for as long as it meets these conditions. When it ceases to do so, we shall be challenged to find a better theory. And this is, indeed, says Popper, how what we call “knowledge” advances….The history of science is a history of superseded theories…The formulation of a fruitful theory is thus seen as a creative human act that requires great gifts, not least of which is boldness of imagination.

Robert Hughes writes on the then-recently deceased architect Louis Kahn – he was supposed to be a genius, and I can see what’s good in buildings like the Kimbell Art Museum, but I can’t get past all that off-form concrete, exactly like the house my father designed and I grew up in. The mini bio at the end the piece describes Hughes as an ‘Australian pithy cuss’.