Wednesday, May 25, 2011
UNDER THE RADAR. I admit there's no real point to this post. But maybe that is the point. Commenter Helk said:
Not sure about using hate anymore. Reeks of desperation and a lack of faith. The calm, imperturbable face of a train coming down the tracks seems like it might be a better visage (for me). No emotion, only force mixed with orientation.
I think he's hit on something. And I'm surprised that someone as young as he has made such a connection. Which fills me with hope.
For someone of my advanced age, trains have always been a romantic background, rarely the star but always a sense-laden spur of memory and emotion precisely because a pure "force mixed with orientation" is such an apt metaphor of modern life. You can hop on or off, but the train keeps going, and its power is both primeval and intelligently controlled. Trains are mankind itself, forever moving, fuelling the business of a species that builds nonstop and runs over anything and everything in its way. That's the romance. They're big, relentless, and full of sound and fury, signifying something, maybe everything.
You don't ever think about trains. You just experience them. They're the unicorns of the industrial age, mythic but more real than myth. Everything about them is weighted with symbolism -- locomotives, tracks, rails, boxcars, cabooses, whistles, clanging bells, steam, bridges and tunnels, signal lights, switches, iron, steel, and iron -- and they're simultaneously impersonal and curiously intimate. Sexual but remote and metaphysical in their massive physicality.
Boys in my day were entranced with trains. My grandparents had a store of 50 years of National Geographics. Before I even realized that these magazines had pictures of naked women, I fell in love with the ads for trains. Gleaming passenger cars and the locomotive headlight beaming in the night. I clipped the ads and made a scrapbook for school called, simply, "Trains."
Later, when I was away at school, late at night I used to hear the distant chugging and moaning whistle of a freight train I never saw. It was life to me, the going somewhere I couldn't do while I was chained to a campus and a regimen of duties Trains meant freedom, momentum, reach of superhuman scale.
Like other boys, I'd had a Lionel train set, which is the illusion of control, but I never thought of the toy train when I heard the faraway whistle at night. I was able to visualize it, though, because I knew about whistles and cattle cars and boxcars from earliest childhood. The metaphor pool was deeply established.
Odd, isn't it, the roles trains play in our favorite cultural touchstones? Bogey in the rain at the Paris train station in Casablanca, heartbroken and bitter about the remorselessness of history in the making. Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, and Eva Marie Saint being naughty in a sleeping car in North by Northwest. Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield duelling over life and art in The Train. Neo killing the Agent via subway train in The Matrix. More recently, Denzel Washington battling trains in Pelham 123 and Unstoppable. What's Atlas Shrugged about in the final analysis? Trains. And my own choice, so many years ago, of a name for the ultimate punk writer band, The Shuteye Train.
Actually, I could go link crazy if I started searching past posts for train references. Why I'm not doing that. You can feel free to do so.
Trains. What do you see when you are obliged to stop at an intersection and let one pass? Do you see life, your life, the story of Casey Jones, the history of your own affluence in a blessed country, the golden spike, How the West Was Won, or a mere gigantic inconvenience in your day?
I see trains. The beautiful bigness of human life, rasty, noisy, and irresistible.