A Pair of Worn Shoes

by Ken Wilber

In his essay entitled "The Origin of the Work of Art," Heidegger interprets a painting of a pair of shoes by Van Gogh in order to suggest that art can disclose truth. And however much we might agree with that general conclusion, Heidegger's path, in this particular case, is a prime example of what can go so horribly wrong when holonic contexts are ignored.

The painting to which Heidegger refers is simply of a pair of rather worn shoes, facing forward, laces undone, and that is pretty much all; there are no other discernible objects or items. Heidegger assumes they are a pair of peasant shoes, and he tells us that he can, with reference to the painting alone, penetrate to the essence of its message:

There is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong, only an undefined space. There are not even clods from the soil of the field or the path through it sticking to them, which might at least hint at their employment. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet.

And yet, Heidegger will reach deeply into the form of the artwork, all by itself, and render the essence of its meaning:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stands forth. In the stiffly solid 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 there lies the dampness and saturation of the soil. Under the soles there slides the loneliness of the field-path as the evening declines. In the shoes there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by un-complaining anxiety about the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the advent of birth and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-in-self.

That is a beautiful interpretation, beautifully expressed, lodging itself carefully in the details of the painting, which makes it all the sadder that virtually every statement in it is wildly inaccurate.

To begin with, these are Van Gogh's shoes, not some peasant woman's. He was by then a town and city dweller, not a toiler in the fields; under its soles there are no corn fields, no slow trudging through uniform furrows, no dampness of the soil and no loneliness of the field-path. Not an ounce, nary a trace, of enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow of the desolation of the wintry field can be found. "Van Gogh's painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth," exclaims Heidegger.

Perhaps, but Heidegger has not come near that truth at all. Insteadand while not in any way ignoring the relevant features of the artwork holon itself—we must go outside the artwork, into larger contexts, to determine more of its meaning.

Let us go first to the maker's intent, as Van Gogh himself described it, or rather, talked generally about the circumstances leading up to the painting. Paul Gauguin shared a room with Van Gogh in Arles, in 1888, and he noticed that Vincent kept a pair of badly worn shoes which seemed to have a very important meaning for him. Gauguin begins the story:

In the studio was a pair of big hob-nailed shoes, all worn and spotted with mud; he made of it a remarkable still life painting. I do not know why I sensed that there was a story behind this old relic, and I ventured one day to ask him if he had some reason for preserving with respect what one ordinarily throws out for the rag-picker's basket.

And so Vincent begins to recount the tale of these worn-out shoes. "My father," he said, "was a pastor, and at his urging I pursued theological studies in order to prepare for my future vocation. As a young pastor I left for Belgium one fine morning, without telling my family, to preach the gospel in the factories, not as I had been taught but as I understood it myself. These shoes, as you see, have bravely endured the fatigue of that trip."

But why exactly were these shoes so important to Vincent? Why had he carried them with him for so long, beaten and worn as they were? It turns out, Gauguin continues, that "Preaching to the miners in the Borinage, Vincent undertook to nurse a victim of a fire in the mine. The man was so badly burned and mutilated that the doctor had no hope for his recovery. Only a miracle, he thought, could save him. Van Gogh tended him forty days with loving care and saved the miner's life." It must have been an extraordinary forty days, deeply etched on Van Gogh's soul. A man so badly burned, so horribly in pain, that the doctor abandoned him to certain and gruesome death. For more than a month, Vincent at his side. And then a vision came upon Vincent, a vision that he disclosed to his friend Gauguin, a vision that explains why the incident was so important to him.

Gauguin begins at the beginning: "When we were together in Arles, both of us mad, in continual struggle for beautiful colors, I adored red; where could one find a perfect vermilion? He, with his yellowish brush, traced on the wall which suddenly became violet:

I am whole in Spirit

I am the Holy Spirit

In my yellow room—a small still life: violet that one. Two enormous wornout misshapen shoes. They were Vincent's shoes. Those that he took one fine morning, when they were new, for his journey on foot from Holland to Belgium. The young preacher had just finished his theological studies in order to be a minister like his father. He had gone off to the mines to those whom he called his brothers. . . .

"Contrary to the teaching of his wise Dutch professors, Vincent had believed in a Jesus who loved the poor; and his soul, deeply pervaded by charity, sought the consoling words and sacrifice for the weak, and to combat the rich. Very decidedly, Vincent was already mad."

"Vincent was already mad"—Gauguin repeats this several times, thick with irony, that we all should be graced enough to touch such madness!

Gauguin then tells of the explosion in the mine: "Chrome yellow overflowed, a terrible fiery glow. . . . The creatures who crawled at that moment... said 'adieu' to life that day, goodbye to their fellow-men.... One of them horribly mutilated, his face burnt, was picked up by Vin­cent. 'However,' said the company doctor, 'the man is done for, unless by a miracle. . . .'

"Vincent," Gauguin continues, "believed in miracles, in maternal care. The madman (decidedly he was mad) sat up, keeping watch forty days, at the dying man's bedside. Stubbornly he kept the air from getting into his wounds and paid for the medicines. A comforting priest (decidedly, he was mad). The patient talked. The mad effort brought a dead Christian back to life."

The scars on the man's face-—this man resurrected by a miracle of care—looked to Vincent exactly like the scars from a crown of thorns. "I had," Vincent says, "in the presence of this man who bore on his brow a series of scars, a vision of the crown of thorns, a vision of the resurrected Christ."

At this point in telling Gauguin the story, Vincent picks up his brush and says, referring to the "resurrected Christ": "And I, Vincent, I painted him."

Gauguin finishes: "Tracing with his yellow brush, suddenly turned violet, Vincent cried:

I am the Holy Spirit

I am whole in Spirit

"Decidedly, this man was mad."

Psychoanalysis, no doubt, would have some therapeutic interpretations for all of this. But psychoanalytic interpretations, relatively true as they might be, do not in themselves touch any deeper "realms of the human unconscious," such as the existential or the spiritual and transpersonal. And thus, as I earlier pointed out, if we look to the school of transper­sonal psychology for a finer and more comprehensive account of the deeper dimensions of human awareness, we find a compelling amount of evidence that human beings have access to higher or deeper states of consciousness quite beyond the ordinary egoic modes—a spectrum of consciousness.

And at the upper reaches of the spectrum of consciousness—in the higher states of consciousness—individuals consistently report an awareness of being one with the all, or identical with spirit, or whole in spirit, and so on. The attempt of shallower psychologies, such as psycho-analysis, to merely pathologize all of these higher states has simply not held up to further scrutiny and evidence. Rather, the total web of cross-cultural evidence strongly suggests that these deeper or higher states are potentials available to all of us, so that, as it were, "Christ consciousness” –spiritual awareness and union—is available to each and every one of us

A transpersonal psychologist would thus suggest that, whatever other interpretation we wish to give to Vincent's vision, the overall evidence clearly suggests that it was very probably a true vision o£ the radical potential in all of us. These higher states and visions are sometimes intermixed with personal pathologies or neuroses, but the states themselves are not pathological in their essence; quite the contrary, researchers consistently refer to them as extraordinary states of well-being. Thus, Vincent's central vision itself most likely was not pathological, not psychotic, not madness at all—which is why Gauguin keeps poking fun at those who would think that way: decidedly, he was mad. Which means, decidedly he was plugged into a reality that we should all be so fortunate to see.

Thus, when Vincent said he saw the resurrected Christ, that is exactly what he meant, and that is very likely exactly what he saw. And thus he carried with him, as a dusty but dear reminder, the shoes in which this vision occurred.

And so, you see, an important part of the primal meaning of the painting of these shoes—not the only meaning, but a primal meaning—is very simple: these are the shoes in which Vincent nursed Jesus, the Jesus in all of us.

From: The Eye of the Spirit - An Integral Vision of a World Gone Slightly Mad by Ken Wilber