Illustration by Dennis Magdich

The Purpose of the Moon

by Tom Robbins (1979)


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Marilyn Monroe.
          Marilyn Monroe was so touched that she gave up everything—her career, her swimming pool, her wiggle, her telephone, her suicide, everything—and moved to the south of France to be with Vincent van Gogh.
          Did they live happily ever after? No, no one ever does. But they pretended to live happily ever after. And since all things become what we pretend they are, fake happiness is as good as the real stuff.


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Marilyn Monroe. When she unwrapped the package and found the ear, Marilyn Monroe dished up her famous cat-that-swallowed-the-banana smile.
          Marilyn Monroe put the ear in a rosewood box on her dressing table. Every now and again, she would remove the ear from the box, pet it, blow on it, scratch it and giggle. Once, she hooked the ear on a silver chain and wore it to a party. She always intended to write the ear’s original owner a pretty thank-you note, but she never quite got around to it.
          Was Vincent van Gogh a fool?
          Maybe Marilyn Monroe was the fool. After all, Vincent van Gogh made a grand gesture and Marilyn Monroe received it frivolously.


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Marilyn Monroe. Some weeks later, the package was returned to Vincent van Gogh. It was marked, ADDRESSEE DECEASED.
          Vincent van Gogh checked into the matter and found that it was true. In his research, he learned that Joe DiMaggio had ordered that fresh red roses be placed on Marilyn Monroe’s grave every three days, forever. Not for Joe DiMaggio’s lifetime, mind you, not for the duration of Hollywood, its films and its cemeteries, but forever.
          Vincent van Gogh leaned against the dizzy crown of an epileptic sunflower. Said he, “After the end of the world, Joe DiMaggio is going to have some money coming back.”


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Marilyn Monroe. Whereupon Marilyn Monroe cut off one of her ears and sent it to Vincent van Gogh.
          Vincent van Gogh cut off his little toe and sent it to Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe sent one of her little toes in return. Next, Vincent van Gogh cut off an eyelid and posted it. In the return mail, he received an eyelid from Marilyn Monroe. Their friendship was growing warm.
          They exchanged ring fingers, tongues, belly buttons and nipples. One day, Vincent van Gogh cut out his heart and rushed it to Hollywood—but by then Marilyn Monroe had become bored with the whole affair and run off to Tijuana with Warren Beatty.
          Vincent van Gogh was shattered. Yet he should not have been so surprised. That is often the pattern love follows.


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Marilyn Monroe. Not long afterward, Marilyn Monroe flew to Paris, drove a rented car to the south of France and called on Vincent van Gogh.
          Following proper introduction, Marilyn Monroe produced a package of Hostess Twinkies. Because Hostess Twinkies always travel in pairs; because, like the coyote, the gorilla, the killer whale and the whooping crane, Hostess Twinkies mate for life, there was a Twinkie each for them to share.
          When the snack was done, Marilyn Monroe reached into her sewing basket, drew out a needle and a spool of green thread and proceeded to stitch Vincent van Gogh’s ear right back where it belonged.
          “There,” she said, licking a smear of Twinkie cream from the corner of her mouth. “There, you naughty boy. And the next time you want to clip off a piece of yourself as a token of affection, you might keep in mind the old Jewish custom. It’s less messy, more socially acceptable. Remember, to ear is human, but to foreskin is divine.”


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Marilyn Monroe.
          The severed ear reminded Marilyn Monroe of a crescent moon, and for hours she contemplated it by moonlight.
          She telephoned Vincent van Gogh. “Does the moon have a purpose?” she asked.
          Vincent van Gogh considered her question. He decided it was silly.
          Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question is whether to kill yourself or not.
          Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question is whether time has a beginning and an end.
          Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of bed, and Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm.
          There is only one serious question. And that is: Who knows how to make love stay?
          Answer me that and I will tell you whether or not to kill yourself.
          Answer me that and I will ease your mind about the beginning and the end of time.
          Answer me that and I will reveal to you the purpose of the moon.


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Marilyn Monroe. Paul Gauguin was aghast. “That was in very bad taste, Vincent,” Gauguin said. “Years from now, after you are dead and gone, you will be better remembered for cutting off your ear than for the beauty and truth of your art.”
          From beneath his bandages, Vincent van Gogh looked at Paul Gauguin and smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Art takes care of itself. And what the world thinks of me when I am dead and gone is none of my concern. What matters is life. What matters is love. Yeah.”
          The next day, Paul Gauguin cut off his wife and sent himself to Tahiti.
          “Poor Gauguin,” sighed Vincent van Gogh. “He understood only half of what I said.”


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and sent it to Marilyn Monroe. Immediately, he had second thoughts and fell into a deep depression.
          “Oh, why was I so presumptuous?” he asked. “An ear is much too intimate. And what if she doesn’t fancy ears? I might better have sent violets or phosphor. I should have sent potatoes, toothpaste or brush strokes of significant width. That ear will offend her, I know it. Oh, they ought to call me Vincent van Gauche. I’ve blown it again.”
          In the midst of all his fretting, a note arrived from America. “Dear Mister,” it began, “Thank you so much for the silk purse.” Vincent van Gogh relaxed. He grinned from ear to....Oops.


          Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear. He wanted to send it to Marilyn Monroe, but he didn’t know how to go about it.
          He couldn’t afford to deliver it in person. They had no mutual friends. And were he to send it to her movie studio, a stout woman in a tweed suit would be certain to throw it away.
          Dare he trust it to Railway Express? To United Parcel Service? To Brink’s?
          Vincent van Gogh’s ear was his love. Unable to send it through normal channels, he went out into the wheat field and sent it by crow.

Wheatfield With Crows, Vincent van Gogh, 1890