Monday, March 23, 2015

Red Shoes

I lost my mind quite some time ago.

Sure at least some other people share the same sentiment. I know a few of us, and was asked by another mad individual: what made me go off the rails? Since me being crazy, as I experience it, is not suffering from any form of psychopathological issue in the clinical sense. It's rather about being daring enough to create my own vision against the tide of fashionable indifference and challenge and rethink whatever I do in order to get an exclusive lifelong experience. People keep saying that I'm weird, and that's the only proof I got that my theoretical approach is more or less consistent with my behavior. This doesn't bring me to any better position than anyone else, which is also one of the reasons why I think I'm crazy. Life is just something my arrogantly aspiring human intellect cannot clutch, and trying to do so makes it slip a bit askew. What this ambition to have a peculiar living practice does bring me, though, are stories. I keep hearing people don't tell stories as much as some previous generations supposedly did; that kids swipe away content on demand on Their screens instead of venturing into the wondrous world of the mind's eye.

Occasionally, I saw some people living talelessly, but I have to admit I saw more of the contrary. Spring has come and with it the time came for me to put on my red shoes again. I walked, hopped and tapped a lot of merry beats in them in the last two or so years. While wearing this crimson pair, I partook in many anecdotes in the making - obviously I was surrounded with adventurous people and couldn't see much of those living without stories.

Are You out there, people without stories?

my pair of red shoes
My spunky pair of red shoes.

I couldn't imagine my life without stories. With each person I know, in each group I am, we build stories "to tell them to our grandchildren". These stories gradually grow into legends and eventually mythology. These mythologies are the spirit of friendship and love. They are the interrelation above personae, something that fills us with unique memories, be they great or not so good.

We can only hope to get to know our own selves as much as we can. As far as knowing other people we meet goes, we have anecdotes to build and relate to - little fables that leave us with even tinier impressions, which can build up a whole library worth of narration.

(Sometimes these libraries get burned to the ground and that is one of the greatest forlorn in life.)

Let me demonstrate how to disregard what has been said before and build discrete content for ourselves, in hopes to experience something novel. Not so long ago, I met another soul stepping around in red shoes. Both of us wearing them was one of the fundaments of our mythos, without actual rationality or regard to wider circumstances behind it. It happened so that we got interested in what do the red shoes symbolize outside of our point of view? So I did a little research, and this is what I got:

Millennia ago, long before we had the Gregorian calendar, red cloth coloring was rare and made from crushed shells of the murex sea snails (driven to local extinction by the demand), mainly produced by the Phoenicians. It was expensive, so only wealthy folk could afford it. Whoever appeared in red footwear (or any other clothing of this color) was immediately recognized as the part of the ruling classes. There were even at least two Native American chiefs who gained the name Red Shoe which, at the same time, was also a high war captain rank. The Romans made a sort of a tradition out if it, and slowly the Catholic Church recognized it as the official papal shoes (and slippers).

Enter Louis XIV who invented a control system for potential rivals. He was giving permission to aristocrats to wear red heels but only if They behaved well enough (and how shameful it was not to have red heels, just try to imagine). Since murex wasn't an option, He had to import cochineal from Central America, a species of insect producing carminic acid which is still used in a wide range of products today.

From this it is evident that at first it was mainly the physical scarcity of processed, special flesh coloring which turned red shoes into something exclusive (except with the Indians who had Their own symbolism around the color already), and then with the French monarch it was more of a concept which was tied to a material object. The next guy in line to add substance to the metaphor took it purely into the mental level and wrote a moralistic narrative. The man was Hans Christian Andersen with His story "The Red Shoes". He portrayed the red shoes as the supernatural commodity of vengeance for craving to achieve self-realization through neurotic assent towards conformist and narcissistic demands. The author's inspiration for the story is also interesting, as according to Slavoj Žižek:

Andersen himself located the origins of the story in an incident he witnessed as a small child – in a wonderful example of the self-destructive, uncompromising stance: His father was sent a piece of red silk by a rich customer, to make a pair of dancing slippers for her daughter. Using red leather along with the silk, the father worked very carefully on the shoes, only to have the rich lady tell him they were inadequate. She said he had done nothing but spoil her silk. "In that case," he said, "I may as well spoil my leather too," and cut up the shoes in front of her.

Then we have the famous American Dorothy from Kansas, Her Technicolor version in shining, red shoes. In the original script and source novel the shoes were silver, but the people behind the movie made the decision to change the coloring and cement one of the main associations we have for that movie. Even the acclaimed novel Wicked takes advantage of this altered red version of the enchanted shoes on its wonderfully woven pages. The Ruby Slippers became so iconic that a pair from the remaining props got stolen. Was it for the money? I don't believe so.

wizard of oz 1939 movie poster

In this more modern conception of red shoes, they can be considered as magical objects, bringing withering doom or a ride to the land of marvelous dreams. Almost a decade later after Dorothy's new color, a retelling of Andersen's tale was made into a motion picture The Red Shoes, with a more realistic, yet morally very similar outcome, where artistic lack of compromise leads to suicide. Kate Bush released a pop album inspired by this second film. The more we approach our current times, the shorter and relative, yet still dependent on history the idea behind red shoes becomes. Probably the most original is Christian Louboutin (an interesting happenstance are the identical first names with the writer of the famous fiction), a prominent shoe designer, who made red soles His trademark. He even registered a specific shade of red to be His own. He made a virtue of womanly self-obsession in our contemporary era where wealthy decadence is the epitome of goal making.

There are many more creations that draw from tradition. I would only mention four of which I happened to come across and liked since I'm not writing a book here and my point is actually beside the intrigue of memetic evolution...

One comes from the universe of Dungeons & Dragons in the form of a cursed item known as Boots of Dancing, inspired by Andersen's story.

The second is a deep theory recording by Jungian analyst Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, entitled The Red Shoes: On Torment and the Recovery of Soul Life. What I particularly like about Her idea is the relevance to my post, as She favors "handcrafting" our own living selves over giving in to social pressure (as failing equals with self-destruction). This arrival to an authentic self is done through a bold pilgrimage to build our inner library, with us writing and letting those worthy donate some of Their own books onto our shelves of unique structural design.

Then there is a book The Creative Mystique: From Red Shoes Frenzy to Love and Creativity, which draws initial inspiration from the movie The Red Shoes. It deals with the nature of creative processes analyzing great female artists, and proposes self-expression as a cure to the dangers of obsessive compulsion caused by trauma. Drawing again an ambiguous analogy between red shoes and creativity as a way of finding the lost self, I can deduce at least a faint similarity with the previous example.

Finally, there is this Japanese nursery rhyme (with some controversy surrounding it):

A young girl with red shoes
was taken away by a foreigner.

She rode on a ship from Yokohama pier
taken away by a foreigner

I imagine right now she has become blue-eyed
living in that foreigner's land.

Every time I see red shoes, I think of her
And every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her.

~ Ujō Noguchi

As it can be seen, all of the most recent visions are connected to women and Their freedom, identity and self-expression. In conclusion, the red shoes transform their wearer(s) into noble, miraculous beings whose self-righteousness exceeds the everyday convenience of being tamed by external or internal nuisances.

And now, disregard all of this claptrap. Just screw it.

All this history has nothing to do with my red shoes. I just bought them because my parents suggested that they would look nice on me and I agreed. The engaging stories I hear with my inner ears whenever I put them on were made by walking in them spontaneously, and not by trying to figure out some tour guides' tips for sightseeing. What I mean is that there is no need to accept stories other people pretend to have figured out. The mythologies we co-create shouldn't be viewed as an immediate continuation of cultural tradition. If there are any historical bits and pieces, they better only serve as consistent building blocks that fit in the unsullied premise made possible by the unmatched connection of circumstance and observation. A connection unique to each bond between people, singular by nature like fingerprints. No mythology might make sense to any potential interpreter who has missed its experiential significance.

A dear friend asked me recently which my favorite fairy tale is (in a wide sense of the definition). I thought a lot about what that question even means. For a few years, I enjoyed going traveling alone and having the best time of my life. But all I actually got are stories I cannot ever fully share with others. With more people to share adventures with, my own mythology could also increase in depth, thus I rather not walk about the World alone anymore. I was in my red shoes when I realized this, in the enchanted city of London, with a monumental mythology of its own. I think I got my answer back there.

So far upon a time, besides The Little Prince, our very own tale of the Red Shoes is my most cherished one.

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