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Conversation starter: "A Pair Of Shoes" (1886) by Vincent van Gogh

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". 

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