The Social Conquest of Earth


THERE IS NO GRAIL more elusive or precious in the life of the mind than the key to understanding the human condition. It has always been the custom of those who seek it to explore the labyrinth of myth: for religion, the myths of creation and the dreams of prophets; for philosophers, the insights of introspection and reasoning based upon them; for the creative arts, statements based upon a play of the senses.

Great visual art in particular is the expression of a person’s journey, an evocation of feeling that cannot be put into words. Perhaps in the hitherto hidden lies deeper, more essential meaning. Paul Gauguin, hunter of secrets and famed Maker of Myths (as he has been called), made this attempt. His story is a worthy backdrop for the modern answer to be offered in the present work.

Late in 1897, at Punaauia, three miles from the Tahitian port of Papeete, Gauguin sat down to put on canvas his largest and most important painting. He was weak from syphilis and a series of debilitating heart attacks. His funds were nearly gone, and he was depressed by the news that his daughter Aline had recently died of pneumonia in France.

Gauguin knew his time was running out. He meant this painting to be his last. And so when he finished, he went into the mountains behind Papeete to commit suicide. He carried with him a vial of arsenic he had stored, perhaps unaware of how painful death by this poison can be. He intended to hide himself before he took it, so that his corpse would not be found right away and instead would be eaten by ants.

But then he relented, and returned to Punaauia. Although there was very little left to his life, he had decided to soldier on. To survive, he took a six-franc-a-day job in Papeete as a clerk in the Office of Public Works and Surveys. In 1901, he sought even greater isolation, moving to the little island of Hiva Oa in the faraway Marquesas archipelago. Two years later, while embroiled in legal problems, Paul Gauguin died of syphilitic heart failure. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery on Hiva Oa.

“I am a savage,” he wrote a magistrate a few days before the end. “And civilized people suspect this, for in my works there is nothing so surprising and baffling as this ‘savage in spite of myself’ aspect.”

Gauguin had come to French Polynesia, to this almost impossible end of the world (only Pitcairn and Easter Island are more remote), to find both peace and a new frontier of artistic expression. He attained the second, if not the first.

Gauguin’s journey of body and mind was unique among major artists of his era. Born in Paris in 1848, he was raised in Lima and then Orléans by his half-Peruvian mother. This ethnic mix gave a hint of what was to come. As a young man he joined the French merchant marines and traveled around the world for six years. During this period, in 1870–71, he saw action in the Franco-Prussian War, in the Mediterranean and North Sea. Back in Paris he at first gave little thought to art, instead becoming a stockbroker under the guidance of his wealthy guardian Gustave Arosa. His interest in art was sparked and sustained by Arosa, a major collector of French art, including the latest works of impressionism. When the French stock market crashed in January 1882 and his own bank failed, Gauguin turned to painting and began to develop his considerable talent. Nurtured in impressionism by painters of undoubted greatness—Pissarro, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Manet, Seurat,