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Symbolism of the foot, 1956

60 years ago today Cornelis Verhoeven got his PhD on his thesis Symboliek van de voet (symbolism of the foot). He describes how he came up with the idea of the book as follows; he had written three essays of together more than 300 pages, the third and most lyrical being the one for history of religion, called ‘symbolism of the foot’:

“The idea for which i’d come up with a few years earlier, walking in the street behind a girl who had something devine in her movements and who also in other ways highly fascinated and confused me. I was surprised that the asphalt under her feet remained indifferent, that it wouldn’t wave under the clatter of her sandals, and that no flowers sprouted forth from it, such as it happens in mythology when a goddess approaches and strides past. Of course i fell in love with this goddess, followed her ways and found her address, but my careful and shy advances were not appreciated. And with the first surly glance i had already set for the horizon. Maybe she dreamt of a young god in a red sports car  who would take her with him to the full life on beaches far away. As far as i know he never appeared. I myself started to suspect that also in amorous ways i was not born for a grand and thrilling life. But my enthusiasm about the idea of a carpet of flowers underneath the feet of a goddess did not suffer from it; it had in the mean time gained its own meaning and undisturbedly followed its own dynamic. A bit of a broken heart is also intellectually interesting.”

From ‘De glans van oud ijzer’ (‘The shine of old iron’), Cornelis Verhoeven.

symbolism of the foot


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February 28, afternoon

When I enter the room, he calls my name. I’ve never known that just this can be enough to be happy for a moment. It is evidence of his presence in the present, with us. But he is tired and confused. The only thing he keeps saying when he’s asked or suggested something, is ‘good night’. He annunciates it in the same, somewhat imperatival way as in the past, when he thought it was time to go to bed and we weren’t initiating yet. That is his text for today and he repeats it with great persistence and with emphasis on the first word. It isn’t much, but i’d rather hear that than quick prayers. With this, one could have thoughts of wanting to say goodbye, or as far as i’m concerned a request to be left alone.

When he wakes up from a short sleep, he indicates that he wants to be helped up. He can no longer do this by himself. Yesterday he made it to the side of his bed, when he tried for a last time to escape from the bed pan and the bottle and make it to the bathroom by himself. We lift him up and put him in a chair by the bed.

‘It is so far away,’ he says with eyes wide open. I don’t know which distance he means; he doesn’t offer explanation. With my arm around his shoulder, because i’m emotional and because I don’t want to see him fall forward again and again, I carefully try and talk with him.

‘Did you sleep?’


‘Did you dream?’


‘Did you see someone?’



‘Nobody.’ He pronounces it a bit plaintive and disappointed.

My brother calls out that I should stop it and starts to cry. He can’t take it anymore. Neither can I, really, but I think I have to, for I want to know what he experiences and be involved in his visions. He sighs deeply and gives no further answers. I almost feel that as a reproach for my indiscreet questions.

My soul, and probably those of all of us, is composed of his sighs. With those he spoke the most imperatival and inevitable language. All of the tiredness, disappointments and reproaches that his fatherhood brought him, were expressed in them. I remember a vacation day at the beginning of the war. I went to the field where he was starting to mow the wheat. Sighing, he put down the sickle. Without getting up all the way, with one hand touching his painful side, he hobble to the side of the field. There was a blue enamelled can of cold tea in the shadow of a bush there. He twisted off the lid and poured it full. Only then did get get all the way up. With a pallid look he took in his work. Hesitatingly his lips, grey with stubble, laid a ring against the sharp edge of the lid. He rinsed the tea long and loudly in his mouth before he gulpingly swallowed it. Again he sighed, this time to indicate that a new phase of a tiring job had to begin. While he used the sleeve of his smock to wipe the sweat of his brow, I realised again that I wouldn’t be able to heartily respond to the question that had to come and was in effect already asked with that sigh.

‘So, Cornelis’ he would say; he’d always use that formal name if he wanted to hide his intentions, , a form of mischief that had become a clear code throughout the years, ‘so, Cornelis, would that not be a nice job for you?’ He remained hopeful that one day i’d start to think of the work as nice. The wheat that he had sown had to be bound. Because I was on holiday and therefore had seas of time, because I was still young of body and limbs and could bend down well, because I already costed so much and could do something in return, for all those reasons i’d heard from others, it was obvious I should join in. A good son helps his father with his work, that goes without saying. But he never commanded. It might sound nonsensical, but I would have been grateful for a command from him, for one unambiguous command in my whole life. I never had a command, nor a slap or a direct reply. All it ever was were propositions, suggestions and reproachful sighs. I hated to stupid coincidence that precisely children of farmers always got involved in their dad’s work and that they were judged by their willingness to do so, but I also knew that he hated the work of a farmer as much as I did. It was thrust upon him by his lineage and his irrevocable fate. That’s why I could only after a long time of practise get a careful refusal from my lips, and that one still got punished from within with painful guilt, the answer to his sighs.

But that afternoon I didn’t let it get that far. I think my guilt had driven me to that field. Even before father had closed his can, i’d already bend over for the first sheaf. I saw him smile apologetically.

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It’s not entirely clear why the word ‘shadow’ has called into life so much sombre symbolism. Even the denomination ‘sombre’ alone is an example of that. For ‘sombre’ is ‘subambratus’, ‘where it is cast over by shadow’. But we only have to give the word a little proverbial tap and it is ‘shade’. Then it suddenly becomes all idyllic romance in the shade of a gazebo and the word takes back its meaning it once had attached to it in sunny countries: coolness and protection from merciless sunlight and scorching heat, and besides ‘the shadow of death’ we can also think of texts like ‘protect us under the shadow of your wings’. Because both one and the other meaning come from southern countries, I don’t think it’s correct to view the sombre symbolism of the shadow simply as a result of its export to northern regions. It has to be the case that the symbolism itself too, like all things, has its ‘shadow side’ and that precisely that one has become an object of reflection. And that is then not about the cool shade, but about the shadow as an image and a derived phenomenon.

Perhaps platonism, as a certain explanation or as a taking Plato’s philosophical metaphor literally, has contributed dubiously to this. In that the shadow has been detached from the things that caused it. For, according to the sombre language of summaries and overviews, the things down here on earth are but weak and perishable shadows of the real things, like they are in the heaven of ideas, eternal and immutable. In this language, in which no one would recognize Plato, the shadow is indeed an image of the thing, a silhouette, and not the thing itself. And if we were only to see the shadows of things, provided this were possible, we wouldn’t see the things themselves in the full light. But what this gloomy language leaves unsaid, is the unmistakable fact that the thing itself cannot be far removed from the shadow that it causes by its own existence. It is bound to it like a doppelganger. It therefore also doesn’t get a second’s worth of opportunity to divert to an other and higher world. The mistake that this platonistic use of language has brought into this world, seems to be that it has separated siamese twins and granted the shadow its own, separate existence in another world. A genius author like Plato would not come up with something like this. All it is is late parrots piffling. In Plato the shadow points towards the immediate proximity of the things themselves in their substance.

In antique symbolism the shadow is also the wraith of the deceased, the mirror image, the doppelganger or the silhouette that is supposed to remain when someone dies and that lives on in a subterranean realm of the shadows. The shadow, that which we see of ourselves, has become a derived and secondary ‘me’, a soul outside of us that we can’t think away because we can’t abolish our own existence and our identity. From the moment of that separation it can be localized in any random place in our imagination, above in the light or below in the dark , and it can also wander around restlessly on earth, like a fluttering butterfly, another symbol of the soul that has become detached from the body or a shadow that has been granted its own and unsatisfactory existence.


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