What do shoes do?

Why shoes act as a symbolic foundation for human identity | Aeon Essays
Pope Benedict XVI, despite rumours, did not wear Prada. ‘The pope, in summary, does not wear Prada, but Christ,’ said the official Vatican newspaper in 2008. Papal footwear has traditionally been red and is regarded as the colour of martyrdom. Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Reuters

Partly of the earth, partly of our body, the shoe sits on the edge of an ontological threshold. Where can it transport us?

Randy Laist is professor of English at Goodwin University in East Hartford, Connecticut. His latest book is The Twin Towers in Film: A Cinematic History of New York’s World Trade Center (2020).Listen here

Edited by Marina Benjamin

Iam at the beach, enjoying that elemental pleasure – walking barefoot outside, when the texture of sand slipping through my toes and crunching against the tender flesh of my sole turns walking into a kind of communion or commingling with the physical world. I am reminded of the Neil Simon play Barefoot in the Park (1967), where walking barefoot connotes the rambunctious, impulsive, back-to-nature sentiments of the 1960s, and also of Antaeus, the Greek demi-God who drew his strength from Mother Earth and was invincible, as long as he remained in physical contact with the ground.

In his poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ (1877), Gerard Manley Hopkins laments modern man’s estrangement from the divine with the lines: ‘The soil/Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.’ The beach is one of the few places where the modern human foot can comfortably achieve a state of elemental earthly contact.

But then the snack bar on the other side of the parking lot beckons. My feet, blissfully shoeless, arrive at the curb to meet a jagged expanse of sun-baked asphalt, gravelly pebbles and the remnants of smashed beer bottles, and my idyll comes to an abrupt end in a heartfelt appreciation of the purpose and power of the humble shoe.

I could walk to the snack bar barefoot, suffering physical discomfort and having my attention monopolised by negotiating the hazards. I am reminded of John McClane in Die Hard (1988), removing his shoes at the beginning of the movie and rubbing his bare toes in the plush executive carpeting of the Nakatomi Plaza, only to have this peaceful encounter interrupted by the brutal exigencies of his action-hero role, which becomes significantly more punishing for his want of footwear. Barefoot in the parking lot, my being is focused down to a pair of feet, painstakingly preoccupied with self-preservation and pain-avoidance. If I only had my trusty sneakers, all the solid ground in the world would be available to me. The quarter-inch of material between my feet and the ground would separate me from the physical earth but, in making the world accessible, would create a world too. As Shantideva, the 8th-century Buddhist monk observed, ‘with the leather soles of just my shoes, it is as though I covered the whole earth’ in leather.

This leather planet, the world created by shoes, is different from the barefoot world: detached, abstracted, insulated. It is a world less concerned with the topography of the ground and less attentive to its objects and textures. It is ‘duller’ and less ‘sensitive’. At the same time, this artificialised condition releases me from the grip of my physical circumstances and lets me ‘transcend’ the physical world toward my own desires.

My encounter at the beach parking lot demonstrates an important aspect of how shoes exist phenomenologically for the wearer. The most fundamental thing about my shoes is not the way they look or what they do, but how they affect my mobility, my freedom and, therefore, my being. They act, even if at a subconscious level, as the literal foundation for my understanding of myself, specifically as that understanding informs my sense of where I can go – what kinds of projects are within my sphere of possible futures. This phenomenological relationship between shoes and the possibilities they facilitate informs the antifeminist trope that a woman’s ideal state is ‘barefoot and pregnant’, the ancient Chinese practice of footbinding, even modern Western fashion’s fetishisation of high-heeled women’s shoes. Impractical and/or painful shoes reduce haptic, spatial freedom even more severely than being barefoot does, reinforcing the sense in which shoes act as a symbolic foundation for human identity.

The shoe stands as a synecdoche of the wearer. To talk about being in someone’s shoes or to think about what it’s like to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, even to imagine that you have some big shoes to fill, is to contemplate stepping into a different identity – as if the shoes, not the person wearing them, determines who you are. As Elvis sang: ‘Well, you can knock me down, step in my face, slander my name all over the place,’ as long as you lay off of my shoes, my true locus of selfhood. In this subterranean way, we are our shoes…

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