Then Manolo sent me a *.pdf copy of his book, and I'll be darned if it isn't a real thing: a book-length version of Boethius's Consolation, except with shoes. For those of you unfamiliar with Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy, let me explain.
Boethius was a government official in what remained of the Roman Empire in the early 6th century. He was then accused of treason (an accusation that is probably false) against the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. After spending many months in prison, he was executed as a traitor.
During his time in prison, Boethius wrote the Consolation. In it, Lady Philosophy comes to console him in prison. She argues that all of the things that men think make them happy do not, and that the only things that can bring happiness are internal. Probably the most famous line in the book is when Lady Philosophy says, “Why, then, O mortal men, do you seek that happiness outside, which lies within yourselves?” Though it is little known today, the Consolation was extremely influential in the medieval era, probably moreso than even Plato (who had influenced Boethius).
So here's the way The Consolation of Shoes works: Substitute the word "shoes" for philosophy. That most famous Boethian quote is transformed into "Why, then, oh mortal men, do you seek happiness outside that which lies within your shoes?" The impoverished Manolo is visited by Lady Fashion, who shows him a heavenly pair of shoes and cryptically tells him, "We shall always have the shoes." Manolo embarks on a spiritual quest to find these perfect shoes, only to realize at the end that the shoes Lady Fashioned showed him were not a single pair of perfect shoes, but rather the sum of all shoes combined. Every shoe, then, is part of these shoes, and their heavenly perfection is reflected in lowly earthly shoes.
For a Boethius geek like me (I come to it through King Alfred the Great's translation), Manolo's Consolation is both very funny and a little disturbing, and both for the same reasons. Manolo's work is so ironic that the irony turns back upon itself. A two or three page treatment might have been different, but by making it book length, Manolo creates a nihilistic work, where things internal and eternal are of no more value than shoes. This attitude is reflected in one of my favorite quotes from The Simpsons, in an episode entitled "Homerpalooza":
Disaffected youth #1: Here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.
Disaffected youth #2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Disaffected youth #1: I don't even know anymore.
Very often the elevation of kitsch and irony can be a barrier between us and Truth; if we can keep our focus on things that take themselves too seriously (broadway musicals, celebrity gossip, fashion), we can avoid taking ourselves too seriously. Now, this can be a good thing taken in moderation, but too much of it can be a way of avoiding confrontation with nasty truths about ourselves. If life is not serious, then there is no Truth, and I cannot be held accountable.
In form, Manolo's work is of this spiritually deadening type. Unlike Boethius, who fell from high earthly position and only found true liberation from his prison in philosophy, Manolo begins as poor but, as the introduction by Herr Professor Doktor Boethius von Korncrake* makes clear, Manolo has risen to high social position. Only the surface is important, and things like fashion, fame, and wealth can satisfy (sounds like a more educated version of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" now that I describe it).
But I think the modern relative obscurity of Boethius prevents The Consolation of Shoes from being dangerous in its nihilism, and keeps it good fun. After all, the only people who would know Boethius well enough to get the joke are, well, people who know Boethius. If you have already read Boethius, then you have been confronted intellectually with the question of what is important in life, so Manolo isn't presenting you with any ideas that you weren't already familiar with.
OK, ok, so this review has been a lot more serious than perhaps a light-hearted piece like Manolo the Shoeblogger's The Consolation of Shoes calls for. If you know your Boethius, it is very funny, with several laugh-out-loud moments. I would highly recommend it for anyone toiling away at serious Boethius scholarship. Go ahead, give your mind a break, and let it dangle its toes in the sparkling stream that is The Consolation of Shoes.
*Man, I love typing that whole thing out. It makes me laugh every time.
UPDATE, June 15th:
I received a very kind e-mail from Manolo the Shoeblogger, who made some important clarifications, writing, in part:
[W]hat the Manolo meant to convey in his work was that the eternal might well be
found in the most unlikely and humble of objects. Is it not possible to see God in the handiwork of the craftsman, in his devotion to his craft, and in the product of that devotion? Why should the handiwork of the scholar and philosopher be preferred over the handiwork of the cobbler? Both are capable of glorifying God in their own way.
This strikes me as a reasonable (and quite beautiful) way to read The Consolation of Shoes. I suppose it is to Manolo's credit that I received far more mail over the last week concerning this post than I have for my other posts!