Saturday, July 28, 2007

Van Gogh's Shoes

The type of fascination with urban decay that I spoke about last time has something in common with the idealization of rural life that I think is best captured by Heidegger in his essay "On the Origin of the Work of Art." In this essay he describes a painting by Van Gogh of a pair of peasant's shoes:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.

There are clear differences between the urban and the rural - one is more isolated and closer to the earth and the direct forces of nature than the other. What connects them is the need for constant hard work to fend off 'the surrounding menace of death,' or, as I put it previously, the lack of insulation from necessity. It's hard to know where one stands with Heidegger, but it seems to me that the point is not that we should spend more time trudging through cold wind-swept fields - this can be an enjoyable activity, but only when we don't have to do it. Rather, we are supposed to become more aware of what it is that these types of lives had that we do not. This may be akin to the sort of thoughtfulness that less Profound (with a capital 'P') thinkers such as Wendall Berry encourage.) We should also think about the connection between this 'disenchantment' and today's lack of truly great art and other works of the mind.

Chris McClure

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