Be warned; you may need to read this book slowly, or (at least) twice, but it will be worth it. Its starting point is Boots with Laces (1886) by van Gogh…
Written with beautifully crafted enthusiasm, this book finds, in a pair of old boots, a key to developments and issues in the last century and a half of philosophy, religion and art. Chamberlain takes the reader on a breathless intellectual ride, glimpsing interlocking influences and references as they fly by – Hegel, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger, Schapiro, Derrida and many, many others have parts to play in this story.
This brief review cannot start to do justice to the subtle complexities of the story that is traced here, and I shall not attempt to do so. Suffice to say that it grows out of van Gogh’s concern to depict the earthy, particular hardships of real life, rather than anything idealized. Life is here, in a working person’s boots. And this insight was to be hugely influential for Heidegger, who also emphasized the concrete reality of ‘being-here,’ of being thrown into a particular set of circumstances in life, and who craved the simplicity and solid rootedness of rural life, in contrast to an ephemeral, rootless cosmopolitanism.
What is abundantly clear, throughout this book, is that art has to be taken seriously as a way to engage with the experienced truth of life. As the author puts it: ‘There has to be a hunger for truth that we bring to art, otherwise it will only be entertainment.’ (p.170)
I was particularly interested to see how van Gogh can be used as an interpretive key to the early work of Heidegger, and to his perception that the whole of western philosophy need to be re-routed, re-grounded and made solid; that one needs to find a secure place to put one’s feet (or boots). Heidegger’s thought was infused with a sense of place and the simple lederhosen-wearing life of his mountain retreat and the village of his birth and this emphasis on simplicity, on knowing where you belong, and on the truth of one’s existence as related to a sense of belonging, is one of the great attractions of Heidegger, particularly for those who are suspicious of truth in the form of intellectual abstractions. This book explores the impact of this particularity and physicality on our understanding of both art and philosophy.
Chamberlain’s strength lies in the history of ideas, showing influences and making connections, rather than in teasing out philosophical arguments, and she is sometimes rather quick in offering evaluative judgements and summaries that might benefit from further explanation. But perhaps that is inevitable in a book that tries to cover so much ground. Almost every paragraph could benefit from further explanation, but the author keeps to her story rather as a ‘sat nav’ keeps to a route, not by going straight, but by constantly correcting minor deviations, resisting the temptation to follow any one of the myriad opportunities to digress. Her style is one that is part stream of cultural consciousness, part evangelical preacher. You sense her enthusiasm as she rushes headlong from one thinker or encounter to the next. The book is more a syllabus for a lifetime to study than a single story. Frustratingly, there is no index, so it is difficult to go back and pick up on particular references.
I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in the Philosophy of Art, and in the cultural and intellectual movements of the 20th century. So far, I’ve only read it once, slowly. I’ll need to re-visit it soon.