Lesley Chamberlain’s work on the story of van Gogh’s shoes and Western philosophy is insightful but misleading
This is a book about a pair of shoes that helped shift the agenda of Western philosophy. The shoes in question were painted by Vincent van Gogh in the latter part of 1886. They came to the notice of philosophy 50 years later, when Martin Heidegger drew on them to illustrate some thoughts about art. Heidegger’s use (or misuse) of van Gogh drew the fire of American art critic Meyer Schapiro, whose comments in turn provoked a cryptically deconstructive response from Jacques Derrida. And there the shoe story comes to an end.
Around these four episodes Lesley Chamberlain weaves a loose web of reflection on art, work, philosophy and travel. Van Gogh’s worn-out leather boots have an aura of revelation, she observes, but it is not clear exactly what they reveal. They are not allegories of God or the virtues such as one might find in paintings of an earlier epoch. They point to nothing “higher” than themselves. Rather they open out — horizontally, as it were — onto the world of human work and suffering. This was Heidegger’s insight. “Out of the dark opening, out of the inside of the shoe,” runs his poetic (or cod-poetic) flight of fancy, “gapes the burden of labour . . . In the stuff of the shoes the buried call of the earth is audible again.”
When Heidegger wrote that passage in 1936, he was a member of the Nazi party, though no longer an active one. Were his dark words about the “burden of labour” and the “buried call of the earth” a conscious echo of the fascist rhetoric of blood and soil?
Is this a “Nazi” van Gogh? That’s certainly how it appeared to Meyer Schapiro, the cultured Jewish New Yorker, writing in 1968. Heidegger, he protested, had made the owner of the shoes a peasant woman, whereas in fact it was van Gogh himself.
But Schapiro’s quarrel with Heidegger went deeper than this. For the American humanist, van Gogh’s shoes were an expression of his essence, a “piece from a self-portrait”; for the German mystic, they were a disclosure of Being. Van Gogh was just a medium, a vessel.
In 1977, Jacques Derrida entered the fray. No Nazi himself, he nonetheless took exception to Schapiro’s superior tone. How could Schapiro be so sure that the shoes belonged to van Gogh? Wasn’t ideology at work here too, an American ideology of self-ownership and self-expression? Derrida then went off on a complex riff on the themes of property, restitution and guilt that left van Gogh and the shoes far behind.
A Shoe Story is, among other things, a story of the European intelligentsia’s romance with the idea of manual labour. Van Gogh lived among labourers and presented himself as a labourer of sorts (“painting demands considerable physical effort,” he wrote proudly to his brother Theo). Heidegger urged his students to dig and chop wood between lectures. A photograph from the 1920s shows him and his student Hans-Georg Gadamer sawing a log together; an inscription below reads “Heidegger and Gadamer philosophising”. Marxist writers signalled solidarity with the proletariat by styling themselves “intellectual workers”.
All this had its silly side, of course. The charms of manual work are generally only visible to those with other means of support; to those dependent on it for a living, it is a grim servitude. “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread,” says God to Adam, as he casts him out of paradise. The lifting of this curse, though still far from complete, is surely cause for rejoicing.
Yet something also has been lost, we feel obscurely, as we sip our cappuccinos amid the warehouses of the past, now revamped as cafés and art galleries. Work, physical work, tied us to the earth. Without it, we are weightless, like astronauts in space.
Words, too, have lost their weight. We no longer live among things, but only symbols for things, flickering effervescently on our computer screens. The ultimate referent of these symbols, what Heidegger called Being, seems infinitely remote. This is the celebrated “post-modern condition”, whose material substrate, argue Marxist critics Fredric Ja1meson and Perry Anderson, is the disappearance from our lives of manual work.
Lesley Chamberlain is an amateur, in the best sense, and this book has both the virtues and vices of amateurism. It skilfully interweaves the abstract and the personal, and is full of incidental insights of the sort that academics daren’t permit themselves. Heidegger, writes Chamberlain, strove to translate into the language of metaphysics the “visionary materiality” of artists like van Gogh and Cézanne. That is sharp. Sharp, too, is her observation that “the ability to sustain seclusion is probably the strongest moral virtue we can find in Heidegger’s character”.
Elsewhere, though, her judgment is less reliable. She persistently overstates Heidegger’s theological orthodoxy (he was not still Christian in 1936) and understates his Nazi involvement (his encouragement of the Hitler mentality was anything but “indirect”).
Ernst Cassirer, Heidegger’s great rival, was not a conservative. And it is misleading to portray Schapiro and his friend Lionel Trilling as old-fashioned Enlightenment optimists; both had absorbed a good deal of modern European pessimism, as had Cassirer, in his cautious way. But none of them wanted to jettison the legacy of the Enlightenment entirely, and with good reason: they saw what such a jettisoning had led to.
The organisation of this book is meandering and digressive, as befits a story about shoes. Chamberlain explores some interesting byways, but also goes round in quite a few circles. Long passages from Heidegger, Rilke and Pevsner are quoted twice or three times over; the final chapter seems to lose its way entirely. “Travelling,” she writes, “is an anti-Aristotelian narrative, careless about defining itself in terms of a beginning, middle and end.”
I confess to a prejudice in favour of beginnings, middles and ends. But perhaps I am just a crusty old Aristotelian.