On The Train

The other day I came back home from London on the train, as I regularly do. I took the train from Waterloo which divides at Salisbury before it arrives at my station. Normally the front six coaches go on to Exeter, the last three to Bristol, though this can vary, and the recorded announcements are sometimes wrong; so although I’ve done this journey many times, there is usually a moment somewhere along the line where I have a sudden anxiety I’m in the wrong part of the train. This time it was triggered by the doubts of other people in the carriage. Even though, rationally, I had no reason to doubt, I was not fully at ease until after the train had divided and I knew I was on the right track.

As long as they’ve been around, trains often seem to have been a locus for anxiety of one sort or another. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggests in The Railway Journey, this may be at its root because the train traveller is distanced from the means of propulsion and of direction, becoming in effect a small and powerless part of a great machine. I know trains appear in my own dreams with disproportionate frequency, and generally associated with anxiety – I’m rushing to catch a train, unable to find the right platform, unable to get the seat I want. And I usually arrive at railway stations far too early, though not as early as Sigmund Freud, whose phobia about missing trains was so pronounced that he would be marching up and down the platform at least an hour in advance. Freud analyzed this as a fear of object loss, connected with the fear of losing his home and his mother’s breast, and maybe Freud was right, though this explanation didn’t seem to help him get over it.

Freud also had a vivid memory of going by train at the age of three from Leipzig to Vienna; as the train passed through Breslau he saw gas flares burning for the first time, which reminded him of the tales of hellfire and damnation his nanny used to tell him. Certainly I too, as a small child, found the experience of travelling by train both exciting and terrifying; I think I was equally impressed by the immense power, noise and stink of the steam engines, and the powerlessness of my parents to control any of it.

Because travelling by train requires you to play your part as a part of the machine, which is simultaneously the physical machinery of rails and locomotives and timetables, and the bureaucratic machinery of tickets, reservations, and individual conduct. Jean-Paul Sartre had a recurrent nightmare from the age of seven about being on a train without a ticket, an experience which he later equated with personal annihilation or loss of identity. Trains also play a large part in his trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom (the French title, Les Chemins de la Liberté, even echoes the sound of chemins de fer, or railways). The final volume, Iron in the Soul, ends with a long and tense sequence in which a trainload of French soldiers, who have surrendered to the invading Germans, are travelling through the countryside without knowing where they are headed. Most are optimistic – they will be taken to another camp in France, they may even be on their way to be released. It’s a fine day and the doors of the trucks in which they are carried are open. Then the train takes an unexpected turn at a junction: one prisoner panics and in despair throws himself down the embankment. He’s at once shot and the train stops: armed German soldiers surround it. Before the doors are locked for the rest of the journey, a prisoner who speaks German is able to ask one of the guards where they are going – they are bound for Germany.

There’s a sense in which being on a train is always to be a prisoner; you go where the train goes. Heidegger used the words geworfenheit (generally translated as ‘thrownness’) and faktizitat (‘facticity’– maybe these sound better in German?) to express the idea that we don’t control the circumstances of life: we’re stuck on the train, unable to change where it’s going, unable even to change the people we’re with in the carriage. At the same time, to miss the train, or to be refused permission to travel, to be without documents, is to risk annihilation, non-existence. We’ve got to be on that train because that train is existence. Even if we’re not sure where it’s going.

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