Uphill Both Ways
The road up and the road down is one and the same.
- Heraclitus (535-475 BC)
"A Pair of Shoes" (1886) oil painting by Vincent Van Gogh. Used by Martin Heidegger in his exposition of the essence of art
Uphill Both Ways
Inspired by Heraclitus (535-475 BC)'s quote, "The road up and the road down is one and the same.". The titled responsion is
I am poking fun of the older generation when my turn of phrase pivots on the truism of having to go to school uphill both ways. Better yet, without shoes I say! Does this mean that the descent of man and transcendental ascension are one and the same?
Beginning in the late nineteenth century I would like to focus on the Art category of post-impressionism of which Vincent van Gogh so clearly helped to define. These definitions of sorts are bound by an artist's symbolism, her broad brushstrokes and visibly emotive substrate. At first glance, "A Pair of Shoes", maybe exactly that; a pair of shoes belonging to a worker of sorts navigating a world bound by necessity and immediate gratification. Post-humously critics agree and collectively we possess the masterpiece to prove it. This may be slightly misleading, the ownership of the experience is ephemeral, Vincent van Gogh was just the one to capture it.
It took 10 months for me to learn to tie a lace; I must have howled with rage and frustration. But one day I could tie my laces. That no one can take from you. I profoundly distrust the pedagogy of ease. - George Steiner (1929-2020)
This graduated role reversal of humility is an act worth thinking about. Revolutions take place despite our preoccupation with initiation. As the world turns, living is perpetual, limited to our species in language only.
For me, Martin Heidegger's position distills down to a circumscribed approximation of anticipated Truth with counterfactuals to Nietzsche's Will to Power. It all boils down to Truth and the tension between the subject-object phenomenology; moving from artwork to an art thing. This all seems very superficial considering my aesthetics of ordered chaos and its corresponding pair-bond with consciousness. The appreciation is the thing in itself (one of many things), not the other way around.
This death march towards futurity isn't always such a nihilist perspective. A well-worn pragmatique shrinks in comparison as the "right" pair of shoes prop up femininity and drives her towards world domination. It sounds like a glass slipper and that's fiction, not a male-dominated hierarchy.
Ah, Heraclitus (535-475 BC)! You've got to love all of the historical zingers he left behind. Like this little gem: "The road up and the road down is one and the same."
For anybody acquainted with someone from the older generation who walked to school, this phrase takes on additional meaning. Not only was the path uphills both ways but usually obscured by snow.
All kidding aside, there's one scholarly pursuit that feels like trudging uphill both ways. Writing.
Give me research. Give me a statistical analysis. Give me literary criticism.
Just don't make me write about them. Sound familiar?
I, too, know the experience of sweating veritable bullets while staring despondently at a white screen yet not out of vacuous desperation, my inability to act is the information overlord that breaths down my neck. With that in mind, indulge me in exploring how to harness life's constant struggle to improve your writing and maybe even yourself.
Uphill Both Ways
Plodding to school uphill both ways doesn't sound like the best way to spend your time. But it does lead to an interesting question. Is the descent of man and transcendental ascension one and the same? Perhaps it's just a truism of sorts dating back to the time when you read the first paragraph. You did read the first paragraph correctly?
Any and all references to imagined upward transcendental ascension embody the corporeality of human existence. It presupposes that there is nothing special about human beings, except opposable thumbs. The use of tools used to fall into this category, too, until the chimps of Gombe came along.
Alas for a clear preeminence among the species!
Of course, the basest and more humble examination of the human being does not quantify the extraordinary potential housed within the individual. No one can deny the divine spark hidden away, like some clandestine jewel, within each person.
Yet, while some spend their lifetimes clawing away at the flesh and physicality to get at that jewel, others barely notice its existence. What does it all mean?
Do you remember the iconic call of Charles Baudelaire to visual artists? Il faut être de son temps. That they must "be of their own time"?
This argument assumes that notions such as time not only exist but matter. It concludes that the grand human experiment can be divided into epochs and that these epochs differ from one another in highly significant ways.
In other words, embodying a place and time requires more than wearing the right clothes.
The Impressionists took up this call with abandon, creating a body of dappled images that both typify and transcend time. The more deeply these artists dove into "their" contemporary experiences, the more they captured the universal quality of humanity.
Just consider Berthe Morisot's meditation on motherhood at the veiled cradle. The costumes and props exude the 19th century. Yet, what mother today can't identify with the thoughts and emotions swirling in the young woman's mind as her motherhood caresses her sleeping child?
The Artist's Symbolism and Van Gogh
The landscapes of life took on greater poetic meaning, the more artists drilled down into minor details. The humble parts of life most people neglected to appreciate. Where is this better personified than "A Pair of Shoes" (1886) by Vincent Van Gogh?
Does it get more mundane than a pair of old shoes? Yet, the Dutch master, ever locked in a struggle between the sacred and profane, transformed his subject into a conceptual wonder.
In the process, he embodied Baudelaire's "artist of their own time" concept. How? The work is bound by necessity and the "now." Yet, in its posthumous glory, it takes on the sheen of a great masterpiece.
We must ask how Art and Beauty can spring from something so lowly as a pair of worn-out boots? Perhaps in Van Gogh's ability to capture the ephemeral.
Of course, photography permits us to capture the ephemeral without a second thought today. But unlike the still and moving images we record, art is different. When considering Van Gogh's work, it's hard to shake the intimate impression that the artist left a bit of his soul behind.
This "feeling" represents a rabbit hole leading to questions like what is a soul, and does it exist? Those are best left for another time. Instead, let's proceed down a different path, the way of humility.
The Graduated Role Reversal of Humility
To say that Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) infused Van Gogh's painting of shoes with multiple layers of meaning is an understatement. Whose boots they were we may never know. And the question arises: does ownership of the shoes matter?
Not in the grand scheme of art. Yet, there is a symbology in the work that cannot be denied. Heidegger's fervent need to understand this symbology brought to light a fascinating intellectual struggle with Meyer Shapiro and Derrida.
In what some cite as the most controversial part of his essay "The Origin of the Work of Art," Heidegger provides a dual description of Van Gogh's painting. He asserts that the boots symbolize the field, the earth, and the world.
But he takes it a step further, assigning ownership of the shoes to a peasant woman. Suddenly, the image transforms. Around Heidegger's national socialist ideology, it coalesces.
Call this Heidegger's Aletheia, or Truth disclosed through philosophy. Heidegger revived the term, once used by Ancient Greek philosophers, to suit his ideological, temporal, and geographic perspective. Yet, for him to proclaim Aletheia would require at least the evocation of the peasant woman, right?
Give a girl the right pair of shoes and she'll conquer the world. - Marilyn Monroe
Sometimes Boots Are Just Boots
To Sigmund Freud is attributed the pithy advice, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Whether or not he said this is an argument for another time. But the point still gets made. And it's one that leads to a critical juncture between human descent and transcendental ascension.
In essence, the boots represent the tension in subject-object phenomenology, moving from artwork to art "thing." Again, we return to the same question: does ownership of the boots matter?
Meyer Shapiro argued that they were the artist's footwear. This interpretation lends the painting a heightened level of intimacy. It also pokes fun at the traditional concept of the self-portrait, here realized through the most humble of personal belongings.
Or, you can go with the argument of Derrida that the shoes represent "anyone." This approach holds a mirror of sorts up to the viewer. It points to the universality of the human experience across the ages and the inherent physicality of existence despite the "divine spark."
Heidegger's interpretation of Van Gogh's work falls short of the mark. Abuse of the work's timelessness also represents an overestimation of his contemporary doctrine. It tells us more about the philosopher than it does the artist and artwork.
In other words, his position distills down to a circumscribed approximation of anticipated Truth. One complete with counterfactual to Frederich Nietzsche's Will to Power. It is art framed by propaganda.
When it's all said and done, though, this examination of a shoe painting appears somewhat superficial. Especially within the aesthetics of ordered chaos and its relation to the corresponding pair-bond with consciousness.
Ultimately, appreciation is the thing itself. And one of many things for that matter. It is not the other way around.
The path of futurity doesn't always lead to nihilism. Depending on one's perspective, the same object can take on multiple layers of meaning.
Perhaps the boots are a modern pair of "glass slippers." In other words, a tool by which the feminist both embodies feminism and longs for world domination. The fairy tale overtakes the male-dominated hierarchy in her mind's eye.
Yet, isn't that the fundamental magic of art? That it can represent an infinite number of things to different viewers?
It derives its timelessness from the ways in which people of different ages make sense of it. In the process, it invites the viewer into the creativity where they construct meaning.
From this perspective, Heidegger does a massive disservice to Van Gogh's work by attempting to ascribe it to one interpretation. A meaning locked in time and geography.
In essence, it is an attempt by Heidegger to "steal" the boots from both the future and the past. Better to leave those shoes to ordered chaos.
"Discovery" Is a Relative Term
As writers, we must remember that the merger between art and artist is ephemeral. In other words, it remains open for interpretation. The community can contribute at will.
These contributions, stage plays and performances, if you will, do not represent restrictions but rather a path forward. Despite being commanded by the narrative.
Of course, as a writer, you exert some control over the narrative. Even when jumping down the rabbit hole feels more like disintegration into oblivion than a visit to Wonderland.
Yet, it is in the silence of oblivion that answers often emerge, discovery occurs. These may be disquieting answers, answers that don't fit your narrative.
What to do when fevered and challenging thoughts fill your mind? Take a note from Jacob.
Wrestle with them. All night, if necessary, though they risk leaving a part of you hollow at dawn. Remember, these ideas also stand to transform you, like Israel.
Truth, Beauty, and Love
Of course, the Idealist sees the shoes differently. Within common objects and experiences, they search for seeds of transcendence.
For Idealists, the small dose of loveliness points us to the vast concept of Beauty. The tender ministrations of an earthly companion provide glimpses of the vast concept of Love. The woman by "The Cradle" shows us that Devotion transcends time and space.
In other words, symbols can either move us upwards or downwards along the philosophical chain. They can lead to a descent into the meaningless, where shoes are nothing more than an accident, echoing the "Big Bang" across the millennia. It just "is" and that's how truth functions.
Or, they can point upwards to concepts like Beauty and Love. Perhaps the boots are ultimately best thought of as the footwear of the artist. By walking in "his" shoes, we, too, can transcend to those things which matter most, Truth, Beauty, and Love.
Today, we're all natural-born cynics. Our modern cynicism rejects notions such as the ideals outlined by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Yet, there remains a utility in reflecting upon them that the chaotic swirl of Postmodernism simply cannot replace.
The Divine Spark
These points bring us back around to the thing that cynics and evolutionary biologists feel uncomfortable discussing, the divine spark. That creative energy drives us to "make" the unusable, impractical, and absolutely necessary.
The drive, not to will as Nietzche might argue, but to "give birth." Whether we're talking about the rock art of Uluru or the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Or, Van Gogh's shoes, for that matter.
No matter how grounded we are in logic and scholarly pursuits, there is an aspect of creation that remains undefinable. What the Enlightenment philosophes term "metaphysical."
Although you likely will never understand it, you must embrace it as a writer. The way ancients like Homer "in-spired" the Muses, you must internalize the creative spark. And as humbly as a pair of old work boots, submit to the toil it demands.
It is no coincidence that Socrates ultimately likened himself to a midwife, aiding his students in birthing their ideas.
The Eternal Swirl of Ideas
Elizabeth Gilbert argues, "Ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners. (I'm talking about all ideas here: artistic, scientific, industrial, commercial, ethical, religious, political.)"
According to Gilbert, the ease with which you lead a creative life, whether you're a writer or a scientist, will depend on your response to "ideas" when they find you.
In other words, invite ideas to visit and then do as they tell you, no matter how mystical and obscure the process may feel. Or, as Epictetus (c. 55-c.135 AD) points out in stoic philosophy, "First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."
Does this sound "New Agey"? Sure.
Nevertheless, Gilbert is not the lone award-winning author who speaks on the role of "inspiration." The literal "breathing in of the gods," it remains the ultimate collaboration between the human and divine.
What conclusion can we draw from this? That real, honest-to-goodness inspiration represents an external force that we can access if we're willing.
And we need to be willing. Why? Because without it, writing becomes a journey uphill both ways.
One Pair, Two Pair, or Three??
Give a girl the right pair of shoes and she'll conquer the world. - Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962)
For some reason, multiple attempts matter.
Inspiration and the Writing Life
Are you busy in the trenches? Relying on feeble attempts at wordsmithing?
When's the last time you happily and enthusiastically embraced the swirl of ideas? It's time to stop going uphill both ways.
Instead, hit the railroad switch at the juncture between human descent and transcendental ascension and change directions. Yes, the creative life requires humility and occasionally "painting shoes," but it also remains the path of the writer.
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