Thursday, June 14, 2007

Consoled by Shoes

The honest truth is that I thought the whole thing was a hoax. Manolo the Shoeblogger had, supposedly, written a book called The Consolation of Shoes, an obvious parody (homage?) to Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. It even had an introduction by the deliciously over-the-top character Herr Professor Doktor Boethius von Korncrake.

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!


  1. Anonymous8:16 AM

    Very enjoyable blog.....excellent, in fact. Glad I stumbled upon it! Best stumble ever...

  2. OK, now I don't know what on earth I'm going to write for my review. Maybe I'll say say "What Nokes said" and link you! :) No, I'm sure I'll come up with something.

  3. Yeah, I know. Does one go serious or silly? That's why it took me so long to write the darn thing.

  4. Anonymous10:36 AM

    Shoes. I own two pair. Two. I'm female. It would seem to me that a lot of importance is placed on (upon?) shoes in this world, though I cannot for the life of me figure out why. I have two feet. Just two. Why do I need more shoes than I have feet? One pair of my two pair was given to me as a gift by a couple of well-intentioned (well, I hope they were well-intentioned) coworkers who felt I must have more than one pair of shoes. Why? I don't really know. I was fine with the pair I had. Anyway, I have to wonder at the human fascination over and the collection of shoes. Strange, at least to me. Or maybe I am the strange one for having just two pair of shoes, which by the way, to me seems to be one pair too many. I did find it interesting that happiness and shoes were paired in even the early writing that you shared. Very odd, indeed.

  5. Manolo never ceases to astonish me! Awesome parody!

  6. To the anonymous anna_nimmity2004:

    Only two feet? When I was a young lad, I grew another foot one summer. Or so they told me. I have been looking for that extra foot ever since...

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  7. Anonymous8:14 PM

    Now that was funny! Thanks for making me smile.

  8. Anonymous3:04 PM

    Anna_nimmity2004, I think for most people, in addition to whatever language(s) they speak every day, they are privy to a second, secret language of the soul. While it is true that for many men and women, fashion is often a blind and indiscriminate accumulation of the New replacing the Old, for many, there is the secret language that fashion, and its parts (Shoes, Hats, Bags, Accessories), speak. There is an inarticulate love for the foot-shaped sculpture that speaks to the heart of the beholder, regardless of someone else's opinion of it. For some people, their secret language is music; they hear more, and derive more meaning, from music than the average person. For the mathemetician, math is the secret language; textiles are the secret language for the fabric afficianada, and the sea says more to the oceanologist than it does to the daytripper at the beach. I suspect strongly that the Anna does, in fact, have a secret langugage that speaks very strongly to her indeed, if she is so indifferent to shoes, the murmur of which is usually felt to some extent by many quite intelligent women and men. I think it is possible that literature might be Anna's secret language, since she visits this blog.

    For the Anna, on a practical note, I can recomend that she have at least two pairs of shoes, because each will last longer and be in better condition if she alternates wearing them. Also, if one pair should need repair, she will not be barefoot in the meantime. It is also possible, if her shoes are sturdily functional, that she may occasionally attend a festive event that would suggest the wearing of a more festive, if equally sturdy, shoe.

    And I agree profoundly with The Manolo. To do the best of what one is capable, with a dedicated heart, is truly the great equalizer. Whether it is shoes or shows, pottery or poetry or plumbing or philosophy, if one does one's best, it is a worthy endeavor.

  9. Anonymous5:06 AM

    Thanks for the informative blog. Its really very interested to read the blog. Waiting for 'The Consolation of Shoes.'