henri-lefebvre-interview

Henri Lefebvre and Marxism: A view from the Frankfurt School

Le­fe­b­vre and con­tem­por­ary
in­ter­pret­a­tions of Marx

Al­fred Schmidt
Frankfurt, 1968

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In re­cent years the lit­er­at­ure that has ap­peared about, for, and against Marx and Marx­ism has in­creased to the point where it can hardly be sur­veyed. Yet it would be false to con­clude that the de­bate over mat­ters of con­tent has been ad­vanced. To the ex­tent that this lit­er­at­ure does not speak the lan­guage of the Cold War and at­tempt to es­tab­lish a du­bi­ous “counter-ideo­logy,” it pro­duces (as polit­ic­al sci­ence or Krem­lino­logy) works full of in­form­a­tion con­cern­ing the state of So­viet Marx­ist doc­trines in terms of their de­pend­ence on cur­rent polit­ic­al trends. To the ex­tent that Marxi­an the­ory it­self still enters its field of vis­ion, it is dulled by the fact that people (gen­er­ally fol­low­ing Karl Löwith) clas­si­fy it in the his­tor­ic­al tra­di­tion of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche, or else re­duce it to an ahis­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of the prob­lem­at­ic of ali­en­a­tion in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts.

On the oth­er hand, the group of au­thors hon­estly in­ter­ested in the fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of Marxi­an the­ory is ex­cep­tion­ally small. They are able to ab­stract from what still fre­quently passes for Marx­ism in the East­ern half of the world without deny­ing the ob­ject­ive sig­ni­fic­ance of the East-West con­flict for their thought. They have in­volved them­selves in­tens­ively with texts of Hegel and Marx, which by no means have fi­nally been dis­posed of, without fall­ing in­to the hair-split­ting on­to­logy — with its con­sec­rated body of quo­ta­tions — that is typ­ic­al for the post-Sta­lin­ist peri­od in So­viet philo­sophy. To this group be­longs Henri Le­fe­b­vre (who has re­cently be­come known in Ger­many through his acute ana­lys­is of Sta­lin­ism).1 His writ­ings are in­dis­pens­able to those who aim at an ad­equate (and there­fore crit­ic­al) un­der­stand­ing of Marx with­in the lim­its of the al­tern­at­ives that have been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in the polit­ic­al arena: either call­ing dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism a “wa­ter­tight world­view” (Robert Mu­sil) or dis­miss­ing it out of hand as a product of the dis­cred­ited nine­teenth cen­tury.

If a pub­lish­er has de­cided to bring out an edi­tion of Le ma­té­ria­lisme dia­lec­tique,2 a work that ap­peared over three dec­ades ago, it is be­cause it has scarcely lost its ac­tu­al­ity — aside from a few points that needed cor­rec­tion. The philo­soph­ic­al dis­cus­sion of Marx­ism that began dir­ectly after the First World War with Ernst Bloch’s Spir­it of Uto­pia and Georg Lukács’ His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, and was es­pe­cially furthered by Karl Korsch, Her­bert Mar­cuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Ad­orno, broke off with Hitler’s seizure of power. There­fore, works on Marx from that peri­od, as well as those writ­ten in west­ern Europe in the late thirties, are still of great im­port­ance to us: not least be­cause those works ap­proached prob­lems in a way far more polit­ic­al and closer to real­ity than was pos­sible for the new West Ger­man at­tempts at an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx after 1945, which re­mained more or less aca­dem­ic. These were all es­sen­tially centered on the “young Marx” in whom the au­thors (Thi­er, Po­pitz, Fromm) wanted to see an “ex­ist­en­tial thinker.”

Since Le­fe­b­vre’s book also seems at first glance to be­long to the ex­ist­ence-philo­soph­ic­al, mor­al­iz­ing, and ab­stract an­thro­po­lo­gic­al school of in­ter­pret­a­tion, it seems ne­ces­sary to make the read­er some­what more con­vers­ant with Le­fe­b­vre’s in­tel­lec­tu­al de­vel­op­ment.3 Only on that basis can the cent­ral concept of “ali­en­a­tion” in his Dia­lect­ic­al Ma­ter­i­al­ism be un­der­stood and dif­fer­en­ti­ated from in­ter­pret­a­tions us­ing this concept in a sense al­most ex­actly op­posed to the Marxi­an one.

First, some dates in pre-World War II French philo­sophy. About the year 1930, the philo­soph­ic­al as­pect of Marx­ism began to arouse in­terest in France. At the same time, a broad gen­er­al re­ceptiv­ity to­ward Hegel, in­ter­woven with at­ti­tudes to­ward Kierkegaard, was an­nounced by Jean Wahl’s book, Le mal­heur de la con­science dans la phi­lo­soph­ie de He­gel. Wahl is in­clined to re­duce the rich­ness of Hegel’s work to the stage of the “un­happy con­scious­ness.” With this em­phas­is on the ro­mantic mo­ment in Hegel, it be­comes al­most im­possible to sep­ar­ate Hegel and Kierkegaard. Sub­sequently, the ap­pro­pri­ation of the ideal­ist dia­lectic is par­alleled by an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx’s early writ­ings in the light of Heide­g­ger’s Be­ing and Time. This pro­cess led to the birth of the French vari­ety of ex­ist­en­tial on­to­logy: to ex­ist­en­tial­ism. It was com­pleted between 1933 and 1938, years in which Al­ex­an­dre Kojève gave his now fam­ous lec­tures on the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Spir­it4 at the Ecole des Hautes Et­udes be­fore stu­dents such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Mer­leau-Ponty, Ray­mond Aron, and R. P. Fes­sard. These lec­tures fol­low the same ques­tion­able lines as Wahl and see ac­cess to Hegel’s en­tire oeuvre in a single level of con­scious­ness. With Kojève, it is the much-com­men­ted-on chapter “De­pend­ence and In­de­pend­ence of Self-Con­scious­ness: Lord­ship and Bond­age.” Al­though he wants his in­ter­pret­a­tion of Hegel to be con­sidered “Marx­ist,” he does not fo­cus on Marx’s ma­ter­i­al­ist “in­ver­sion” of the dia­lectic. Rather, as Fetscher em­phas­izes, Kojève already sees in the phe­nomen­o­lo­gic­al dia­lectic it­self “all the ul­ti­mate con­sequences of the Marx­ist philo­sophy of his­tory.”5 Thus “mo­tifs of thought” that first arose from Marx’s cri­tique of Hegel are ascribed to Hegel. But even Marx’s po­s­i­tion is not done justice, since Kojève lags be­hind his claim that one should el­ev­ate one­self to real his­tory, that is, to the con­crete forms of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, which are de­term­ined dif­fer­ently at dif­fer­ent mo­ments in time. In­stead, he is sat­is­fied with the sterile defin­i­tion of a Heide­g­geri­an “his­tor­icity of ex­ist­ence” that is sup­posedly present in the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Mind as an “ex­ist­en­tial”6 and rad­ic­ally “fi­nite”7 an­thro­po­logy. Ac­cord­ing to Kojève, the an­thro­po­lo­gic­al char­ac­ter of Hegel­i­an thought be­comes un­der­stand­able only on the basis of Heide­g­ger’s em­phas­is on “on­to­lo­gic­al fi­nitude,” al­though the an­thro­po­logy of Be­ing and Time (which Kojève as­serts in op­pos­i­tion to Heide­g­ger’s in­ten­tion) adds noth­ing new to that de­veloped by Hegel.

The sup­posedly broad­er “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al-on­to­lo­gic­al basis”8 with which Kojève wants to dote dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism is more li­able to re­duce it to a doc­trine of in­vari­able struc­tures. Not the least of the ways that this would de­vel­op is in strictly polit­ic­al terms. In­so­far as Kojève breaks the struc­tur­al ele­ments of the Mas­ter-Slave dia­lectic away from its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al back­ground (which must al­ways be thought of with it), he in­flates labor and the struggle for life and death in­to etern­al factors, à la so­cial Dar­win­ism. Stripped of every con­crete de­term­in­a­tion, man ap­pears as an es­sence “which is al­ways con­scious of his death, of­ten freely as­sumes it and some­times know­ingly and freely chooses it”; Hegel’s “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al philo­sophy” is viewed as “ul­ti­mately one… of death.”9 Ana­chron­ist­ic­ally, and thus in a way that fals­i­fies Hegel, Kojève equates the struggle for “re­cog­ni­tion” with a “fight for pure prestige.”10 Hu­man es­sence and know­ledge con­sti­tutes it­self with a de­cided “risk” of life. It is as if “self-con­scious ex­ist­ence is pos­sible only where there are or — at least — where there have been bloody fights, wars for prestige.”11 On the oth­er hand, it mat­ters little that he ab­stractly holds firm to the idea of the “realm of free­dom” that Hegel an­ti­cip­ated and that has to be real­ized by Marx­ism.12 It is a re­con­ciled con­di­tion that does not oc­cupy a situ­ation, in which neg­at­iv­ity (time and ac­tion in their present mean­ings) ceases, as do philo­sophy, re­volu­tions and wars as well: his “polit­ic­al-ex­ist­en­tial” an­thro­po­logy sharpened by “de­cision­ism” bears fas­cist­oid traces.13 If one starts from the premise that the Hegel and Marx ex­eges­is out­lined here was dom­in­ant in the France of the thirties, it be­comes clear that Le­fe­b­vre, even with all the un­avoid­able con­ces­sions to the spir­it of the times, took a path all his own. Op­posed to every on­to­logy, to the late-bour­geois as well as to the Sta­lin­ist ones, he de­veloped him­self in­to a crit­ic­al Marx­ist whose stand­ards grew out of a ma­ter­i­al­ist ana­lys­is of the course of his­tory. His aca­dem­ic teach­ers were hardly ap­pro­pri­ate to lead his thought in this dir­ec­tion. In Aix-en-Provence he stud­ied Au­gustine and Pas­cal14 with the lib­er­al Cath­ol­ic Maurice Blondel, and at the Sor­bonne he worked with Léon Brun­schvig, the “in­tel­lec­tu­al­iste” philo­soph­er of judg­ment who was an en­emy of every dia­lectic. What made Le­fe­b­vre (by no means without con­flict) turn to Marx­ism had little to do with uni­versity philo­sophy. It was the polit­ic­al and so­cial up­heavals of the post­war peri­od, and more par­tic­u­larly per­son­al prob­lems, psy­cho­ana­lys­is, and as­so­ci­ation with the lit­er­ary and artist­ic av­ant-garde, the sur­real­ist move­ment.15 Lastly, it was the sus­pi­cion, which turned in­to a firm con­vic­tion, that philo­sophy as it had been handed down to us had demon­strated that it in­creas­ingly was less able to come to grips with, not to men­tion mas­ter, the prob­lems posed by the his­tor­ic­al situ­ation of be­ing and con­scious­ness in so­ci­ety. At this point, the call of Marx and En­gels, in their early writ­ings, for the “neg­a­tion” of philo­sophy and the turn to­ward a prax­is “which would real­ize philo­soph­ic­al in­sight,” seemed to of­fer it­self to him. A pos­sib­il­ity seemed to open up, not only of more or less ar­tic­u­lately mir­ror­ing the frag­ment­a­tion de­vel­op­ing in mod­ern ex­ist­ence — the way it happened in ir­ra­tion­alist ideo­lo­gies — but of grasp­ing it con­cretely, that is, as something which could be tran­scen­ded.

Continue reading

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From James Joyce to Howdy Doody: Deconstruction and deindustrialization after 1968

Loren Goldner was an angry island of Marxian critique surrounded in the 1980s and 1990s by a sea of poststructuralist and postcolonial hogshit. Even ostensibly Marxist parties like the ISO internalized a lot of the relativist garbage of this period, however much they might claim to reject it. I think Goldner is a bit unfair in lumping the Frankfurt School in with all the other stuff he discusses in this essay, but in terms of its reception by the Anglophone academy he has a point. One might quibble with Goldner’s characterization of this or that thinker, or some of his generalizations, but this is deliberate and calculated for polemical effect.

This essay was originally published in 2001, and can be read over at his website. I’ve taken the liberty of correcting the various misspellings that appear in it, and added first names of authors who might otherwise seem a bit obscure. You should also check out his essay on “The Universality of Marx” reposted by Comin Situ a few months back, an incisive critique of Edward Said and Samir Amin.

Foucault Deleuze Sartre

Deconstruction and deindustrialization
Ontological “difference” and the neoliberal war on the social

Loren Goldner
Break Their Haughty Power
January 21, 2001
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Ars sine scientia nihil. — Jean Mignot
[Art without knowledge is nothing]

It was 1971. We were in our early twenties and we were mad. After the seeming prelude to apocalypse we had just lived through, who, at the time, would have believed that we were at the beginning of three decades (and counting) in which, in the U.S. at least, mass movements would all but disappear from the streets? Even today, the evanescence of the world-wide mood of 1968 seems slightly incredible. The funk of 1971 turned Wordsworth on his head: “Terrible in that sunset to be alive, but to be young was hell itself.”

The “sixties,” in their positive impulse, were over. In the U.S., the mass movement in the streets of 1965 to 1969 was quickly turning comatose. The ultra-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party captured SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), but captured only a corpse made up only of its own rapidly-dwindling members. The stock market crashed, Penn Central went bankrupt, and the financial markets seized up in a general liquidity crisis (it would not be the last). Not many people of the 1960s New Left paid much attention to these economic developments at the time, and fewer still understood that they signaled the end of the postwar boom. But a sense of the end of something was in the air. The December 1969 Altamont concert of the Rolling Stones had turned ugly, as the Hell’s Angels guarding the bandstand had beaten a young black man to death with pool cues. The Chicago police murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton in his sleep. Charles Manson’s collective had earlier murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and other partygoers in the Hollywood hills, leaving a fork in Tate’s stomach, and the Weathermen made the fork into a symbol of struggle at their next conference. Some Weathermen, in turn, blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village penthouse, though Bernadine Dohrn and the others would continue to plant more bombs and to put out their demented manifestos for some time afterward. The postal workers struck militantly and the government sent the National Guard — futilely — to deliver the mail before caving to the strike. Nixon and the U.S. military invaded Cambodia; the Teamsters wildcatted in Cleveland and elsewhere; the National Guard unit which had confronted the Teamsters went on to Kent State with little sleep and killed four anti-war students. A national student strike followed, but it was (significantly) taken over in many places, for the first time in years, by left-liberals who tried to turn its energy to liberal Democratic politics for the fall 1970 elections. Huey Newton, head of the Black Panther Party (BPP), was released from jail in summer 1970, announcing at the ensuing press conference his intention to “lead the struggle of the people to a victorious conclusion,” apparently unaware (after serving 2½ years on manslaughter charges for killing an Oakland cop) that the “struggle of the people” in the U.S. was, for the foreseeable future, folding up the tent. The sleaze and rot of the end of the sixties were not a pretty sight: Tim Leary, the former P.T. Barnum of LSD, held prisoner by the breakaway Eldridge Cleaver faction of the BPP in Algiers; the burnt-out meth freaks scrounging spare change; the grim determination, in dour New Left milieus, to “smash” everything bourgeois.

More diffusely but with more of a future, at least in the professional middle classes, the “new social movements” were gathering momentum: women rejected their second-class roles everywhere in society, including in the 1960s New Left; gays rode the momentum of the 1969 Stonewall riots; an important minority of blacks and Latinos moved into the middle class through affirmative action programs, the Club of Rome report on Limits to Growth and the Rockefeller-backed Zero Population Growth gave the ecology and environmental movements (and more diffusely, a good part of society) the Malthusian agenda they have never really shaken off. Continue reading

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Schapiro contra Heidegger: The controversy over a painting by Van Gogh

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Below is republished the Latvian-Jewish art historian Meyer Schapiro’s epic troll of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, which originally appeared in 1968. He takes aim at the primary example used by Heidegger in his essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art”: a painting of a pair of shoes by the artist Vincent van Gogh. Schapiro contends that the artwork Heidegger examines, which is supposed to disclose an ageless truth about the relation of being to world, represents something entirely different from what he claims. Painstakingly reconstructing the exhibition Heidegger attended where he first saw the Van Gogh painting (gleaned from a letter in response to his inquiry), Schapiro pinpointed the precise work referred to in the essay.

Needless to say, Schapiro’s article cause quite the stir in aesthetic and philosophical circles. Jacques Derrida, the French theorist and longtime champion of Heidegger, responded to the controversy at length in his book The Truth in Painting, where he concludes: “Schapiro, insouciant, lays a trap for Heidegger. He already suspects the ‘error,’ ‘projection,’ ‘imagination’ in Heidegger’s text.”

Heidegger at spring Gelassenheit jpg1 Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

The relevant works can be downloaded here:

  1. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936) in Off the Beaten Track (1950)
  2. Meyer Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object: A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1968)
  3. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (1987)
  4. Meyer Schapiro, “A Further Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1994)
  5. Babette E. Babich, Words in Blood, Like Flowers: Philosophy and Poetry, Music, and Eros in Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and, Heidegger (2006)

An orthodox Trotskyist living in New York during the 1930s, Schapiro was moreover an associate of the Frankfurters-in-exile Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In 1937, he even helped the pioneering critical theorists find an apartment near Columbia University. Much to Adorno’s surprise, Schapiro was already acquainted with Walter Benjamin’s writings on “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” Writing to Benjamin, who was then living in Paris, Adorno urged him to “establish contact with Schapiro, who is extremely familiar with your writings and in general is a well-informed and intellectually imaginative man…Politically speaking, Schapiro is an active Trotskyist. Here is his address: Prof. Meyer Schapiro, 279 West 4th Street, New York, N. Y. (he reads German fluently).”

Benjamin met with Schapiro in Paris in 1939, at the request of Adorno, who hoped his friend might be persuaded to move to New York. Tragically, Schapiro was unable to convince Benjamin to emigrate. He committed suicide near the Spanish border a year later.

Schapiro’s political involvement during that decade even led him to correspond with Leon Trotsky in Mexico. The former Red Army leader clearly appreciated the gesture, writing: “You belong to the camp of friends who as yet are not too numerous but who are, fortunately, increasing.” Later Schapiro acted as an intermediary between Bronstein and the surrealist leader André Breton, setting up the meeting where they would co-write the manifesto “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.”

vincents_shoesVincent_van_Gogh_-_Still_life_with_Bible_-_Google_Art_Project

The still life as a personal object: A note on Heidegger and Van Gogh

Meyer Schapiro
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In his essay on 
The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger interprets a painting by van Gogh to illustrate the nature of art as a disclosure of truth.[1]

He comes to this picture in the course of distinguishing three modes of being: of useful artifacts, of natural things, and of works of fine art. He proposes to describe first, “without any philosophical theory…a familiar sort of equipment — a pair of peasant shoes”; and “to facilitate the visual realization of them” he chooses “a well-known painting by van Gogh, who painted such shoes several times.” But to grasp “the equipmental being of equipment,” we must know “how shoes actually serve.” For the peasant woman they serve without her thinking about them or even looking at them. Standing and walking in the shoes, the peasant woman knows the serviceability in which “the equipmental being of equipment consists.” But we,

as long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of equipment in truth is. In van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. 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.

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 uncomplaining 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.[2]

Professor Heidegger is aware that van Gogh painted such shoes several times, but he does not identify the picture he has in mind, as if the different versions are interchangeable, all disclosing the same truth. A reader who wishes to compare his account with the original picture or its photograph will have some difficulty in deciding which one to select. Eight paintings of shoes by van Gogh are recorded by de la Faille in his catalogue of all the canvasses by the artist that had been exhibited at the time Heidegger wrote his essay.[3] Of these, only three show the “dark openings of the worn insides” which speak so distinctly to the philosopher.[4] They are more likely pictures of the artist’s own shoes, not the shoes of a peasant. They might be shoes he had worn in Holland but the pictures were painted during van Gogh’s stay in Paris in 1886-87; one of them bears the date: ’87.[5] From the time before 1886 when he painted Dutch peasants are two pictures of shoes — a pair of clean wooden clogs set on a table beside other objects.[6] Later in Arles he painted, as he wrote in a letter of August 1888 to his brother, “une paire de vieux souliers” which are evidently his own.[7] A second still life of “vieux souliers de pay san” is mentioned in a letter of September 1888 to the painter Emile Bernard, but it lacks the characteristic worn surface and dark insides of Heidegger’s description.[8]

In reply to my question, Professor Heidegger has kindly written me that the picture to which he referred is one that he saw in a show at Amsterdam in March 1930.[9] This is clearly de la Faille’s no. 255; there was also exhibited at the same time a painting with three pairs of shoes,[10] and it is possible that the exposed sole of a shoe in this picture, inspired the reference to the sole in the philosopher’s account. But from neither of these pictures, nor from any of the others, could one properly say that a painting of shoes by van Gogh expresses the being or essence of a peasant woman’s shoes and her relation to nature and work. They are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city.

Heidegger has written: “The art-work told us what shoes are in truth. It would be the worst self-deception if we were to think that our description, as a subjective action, first imagined everything thus and then projected it into the painting. If anything is questionable here, it is rather that we experienced too little in contact with the work and that we expressed the experience too crudely and too literally. But above all, the work does not, as might first appear, serve merely for a better visualization of what a piece of equipment is. Rather, the equipmental being of equipment first arrives at its explicit appearance through and only in the artist’s work. What happens here? What is at work in the work? Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant’s shoes, is in truth.”[11]

Alas for him, the philosopher has indeed deceived himself. He has retained from his encounter with van Gogh’s canvas a moving set of associations with peasants and the soil, which are not sustained by the picture itself. They are grounded rather in his own social outlook with its heavy pathos of the primordial and earthy. He has indeed “imagined everything and projected it into the painting.” He has experienced both too little and too much in his contact with the work.

The error lies not only in his projection, which replaces a close attention to the work of art. For even if he had seen a picture of a peasant woman’s shoes, as he describes them, it would be a mistake to suppose that the truth he uncovered in the painting — the being of the shoes — is something given here once and for all and is unavailable to our perception of shoes outside the painting. I find nothing in Heidegger’s fanciful description of the shoes pictured by van Gogh that could not have been imagined in looking at a real pair of peasants’ shoes. Though he credits to art the power of giving to a represented pair of shoes that explicit appearance in which their being is disclosed — indeed “the universal essence of things,”[12] “world and earth in their counterplay”[13] — this concept of the metaphysical power of art remains here a theoretical idea. The example on which he elaborates with strong conviction does not support that idea.

Is Heidegger’s mistake simply that he chose a wrong example? Let us imagine a painting of a peasant woman’s shoes by van Gogh. Would it not have made manifest just those qualities and that sphere of being described by Heidegger with such pathos?

Heidegger would still have missed an important aspect of the painting: the artist’s presence in the work. In his account of the picture he has overlooked the personal and physiognomic in the shoes that made them so persistent and absorbing a subject for the artist (not to speak of the intimate connection with the specific tones, forms, and brush-made surface of the picture as a painted work). When van Gogh depicted the peasant’s wooden sabots, he gave them a clear, unworn shape and surface like the smooth still-life objects he had set beside them on the same table: the bowl, the bottles, a cabbage, etc. In the later picture of a peasant’s leather slippers, he has turned them with their backs to the viewer.[14] His own shoes he has isolated on the ground; he has rendered them as if facing us, and so worn and wrinkled in appearance that we can speak of them as veridical portraits of aging shoes.

We come closer, I think, to van Gogh’s feeling for these shoes in a paragraph written by Knut Hamsun in the 1880s in his novel Hunger, describing his own shoes:

As I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and when I stir my foot, their shapes and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression — impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I — a breathing portion of my very self.[15]

In comparing van Gogh’s painting with Hamsun’s text, we are interpreting the painting in a different way than Heidegger. The philosopher finds in the picture of the shoes a truth about the world as it is lived by the peasant owner without reflection; Hamsun sees the real shoes as experienced by the self-conscious, contemplating wearer who is also the writer. Hamsun’s personage, a brooding, self-observant drifter, is closer to van Gogh’s situation than to the peasant’s. Yet van Gogh is in some ways like the peasant; as an artist he works, he is stubbornly occupied in a task that is for him his inescapable calling, his life.

Of course, van Gogh, like Hamsun, has also an exceptional gift of representation; he is able to transpose to the canvas with a singular power the forms and qualities of things; but they are things that have touched him deeply, in this case his own shoes — things inseparable from his body and memorable to his reacting self-awareness. They are not less objectively rendered for being seen as if endowed with his feelings and revery about himself. In isolating his own old, worn shoes on a canvas, he turns them to the spectator; he makes of them a piece from a self-portrait, that part of the costume with which we tread the earth and in which we locate strains of movement, fatigue, pressure, heaviness — the burden of the erect body in its contact with the ground. They mark our inescapable position on the earth. To “be in someone’s shoes” is to be in his predicament or his station in life. For an artist to isolate his worn shoes as the subject of a picture is for him to convey a concern with the fatalities of his social being. Not only the shoes as an instrument of use, though the landscape painter as a worker in the fields shares something of the peasant’s life outdoors, but the shoes as “a portion of the self ” (in Hamsun’s words) are van Gogh’s revealing theme.

Gauguin, who shared van Gogh’s quarters in Arles in 1888, sensed a personal history behind his friend’s painting of a pair of shoes. He has told in his reminiscences of van Gogh a deeply affecting story linked with van Gogh’s shoes.

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.

“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.”

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.

Before leaving Belgium I had, 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.

Gauguin continues:

And Vincent took up his palette again; silently he worked. Beside him was a white canvas. I began his portrait. I too had the vision of a Jesus preaching kindness and humility.[16]

It is not certain which of the paintings with a single pair of shoes Gauguin had seen at Arles. He described it as violet in tone in contrast to the yellow walls of the studio. It does not matter. Though written some years later, and with some literary affectations, Gauguin’s story confirms the essential fact that for van Gogh the shoes were a memorable piece of his own life, a sacred relic.

Notes


[1] Martin Heidegger, «Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes», in Holzwege (Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1950), 7-68. Reprinted separately, in paperback, with an introduction by H.-G. Gadamer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1962). Trans. by A. Hofstadter, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhns, Philosophies of Art and Beauty (New York: Random House, 1964), 649-701. All quotations are from the excellent Hofstadter translation and are reprinted by permission of Harper Row, Publishers, Inc., New York. It was Kurt Goldstein who first called my attention to Heidegger’s essay, presented originally as a lecture in 1935 and 1936.
[2] Origins of the Work of Art, 662-63. Heidegger refers again to van Gogh’s picture in a revised letter of 1935, printed in M. Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by R. Manheim (New York: Anchor Books, 1961). Speaking of Dasein (being-there, or “essent”) he points to a painting by van Gogh: “A pair of rough peasant shoes, nothing else. Actually the painting represents nothing. But as to what is in that picture, you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe on an evening in late fall after the last potato fires have died down. What is here? The canvas? The brushstrokes? The spots of color?” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 29).
[3] J.B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh (Paris: 1939): no. 54, fig. 60; no. 63, fig. 64; no. 225, fig. 248; no. 331, fig. 249; no. 332, fig. 250; no. 333, fig. 251; no. 461, fig. 488; no. 607, fig. 597.
[4] La Faille, op. cit., nos. 255, 332, 333.
[5] La Faille, op cit., no. 333; it is signed “Vincent ’87.”
[6] La Faille, op cit., nos. 54 and 63.
[7] La Faille, op. cit., no. 461. Vincent van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven van Vincent van Gogh (Amsterdam: 1952-64), III, 291, letter no. 529.
[8] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607. Van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven, IV, 227.
[9] Personal communication, letter of May 6, 1965.
[10] La Faille, op. cit., no. 332, fig. 250.
[11] Origins of the Work of Art, 664.
[12] Origins of the Work of Art, 665.
[13] “Truth happens in van Gogh’s painting. This does not mean that something is rightly portrayed, but rather that in the revelation of the equipmental being of the shoes that which is as a whole world and earth in their counterplay — attains to unconcealment…The more simply and essentially the shoes appear in their essence…the more directly and fascinatingly does all that is attain to a greater degree of being. (Origins oft he Work of Art, 680).
[14] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607, fig. 597.
[15] Knut Hamsun, Hunger, trans. by G. Egerton (New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1941), 27.
[16] de Rotonchamp, Paul Gauguin 1848-1913, 2nd ed. (Paris: G. eres, 1925),33. There is an earlier version of the story in: Paul Gauguin, “Natures mortes,” Essais d’art libre, 1894, 4, 273-75. These two texts were kindly brought to my attention by Professor Mark Roskill.

Notes to “Twilight of the Idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”

Notes to Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turnMalcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche, Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche


[1] “Reading for victory is the way Nietzsche himself thought people ought to read.”  Bull, Malcolm.  Anti-Nietzsche.  (Verso Books.  New York, NY: 2011).
[2] As Domenico Losurdo blurbs on the back of his book, “Altman…adopts Nietzsche’s own aphoristic genre in order to use it against him.”  Altman himself explains: “[T]he whole point of writing in Nietzsche’s own style was to demonstrate how much power over his readers he gains by plunging him into the midst of what may be a pathless ocean, confusing them as to their destination.”  Altman, William.  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich.  (Lexington Books.  New York, NY: 2012).  Pg. xi.  Later Altman admits, however, that “[t]his kind of writing presumes, of course, good readers.”  Ibid., pg. 181.
[3] Dombrowsky, Don.  Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics.  (Palgrave MacMillan.  New York, NY: 2004).  Pg. 134.
[4] Conway, Daniel.  Nietzsche and the Political.  (Routledge.  New York, NY: 1997).  Pg. 119.
[5] Appel, Fredrick.  Nietzsche Contra Democracy.  (Cornell University Press.  Ithaca, NY: 1999).  Pg. 120.
[6] “[I]n uncovering Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy [they] reuse it.”  Bull, Anti-Nietzsche.  Pg. 32.
[7] Ibid., pg. 33.
[8] Ibid., passim, pgs. 35-38, 42, 47-48, 51, 74-76, 98, 100, 135, 139, 143.
……Indeed, Bull’s call to “read like a loser” grants to the essays in Anti-Nietzsche their hermeneutic integrity.  This formulation has since gone on to become one of the book’s most celebrated phrases, as well, charming reviewers from New Inquiry’s David Winters to Costica Bardigan of the Times Higher Education. Winters, David.  “Reading Like a Loser.”  New Inquiry.  (February 14, 2012).  Bardigan, Costica.  “Review of Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche.”  Times Higher Education.  (January 29, 2012).  Even longtime admirers of Nietzsche like T.J. Clark admit its interpretive power: “[N]o other critique of Nietzsche, and there have been many, conjures up the actual reader of Daybreak and The Case of Wagner so unnervingly.”  Clark, T.J.  “My Unknown Friends: A Response to Malcolm Bull.”  Nietzsche’s Negative Ecologies.  (University of California Press.  Berkeley, CA: 2009).  Pg. 79. Continue reading