also check out Ege’s reaction to our transcontinental train trip, different in form with a few similar themes
Last January, the first moment it hit me that I was back on campus for another semester was in fact unfortunately that very moment I got back to campus, right when I entered the elevator to my building and saw a poster for a “conversation and clinic” with Branford Marsalis: learning from performers. Immediately, Harvard silliness—absurdity—and with it the resentment that has so often come to characterize my reaction to the vast resources unfairly distributed or nonsensically misused returned. This is no good.
I do certainly believe it is the wrong choice for Harvard’s Office of the Arts to focus its meager resources (as the OFA always claims it has when any suggestion enters the frame of rerouting money not in line with the status quo) on bringing in big-name artists for two hours here and there instead of trying to build an active program and community here on campus, an environment where students can connect with each other and with faculty. I believe many, many things like that, and disagree with a ton of what goes on here, a good deal of it even directly affecting me. And a few times, I’ve even made my voice heard (though probably not enough). But what I don’t want is to spend the time I have here at Harvard complaining about, or even, though it can be interesting, arguing about and discussing these things. At the end of the day, I don’t care how the OFA does or does not waste its comparatively enormous resources. Nor do I care, after a few conversations for the fun of conversation, how fair or unfair the housing system is, or whether the General Education program is meeting its goals or not and if those goals are even the right goals. I’m not saying these things don’t matter or aren’t interesting.
I’m not saying they’re not important. I’m just saying that I don’t particularly care, right now. I’m here at school to ask more substantial questions to my teachers and peers, read things that will shape who I am and what I care about, learn music that I will make a part of myself forever, and begin to take all of that and make some attempts at spitting it back in the form of my own creative output. Though I do get a certain high from discussing the rights and wrongs of campus life and the administration’s practices, there’s just a lot more out there that gives me a much bigger and longer-lasting high. And I find it quite easy to loose track of that while in the belly of the beast, and strangely, sometimes hard to act on even with my best friends.
In a class I took with Elaine Scarry called The Problem of Consent, she spoke of transportation often, and how the faster and more connected a citizenry is, the closer it can come to resemble Rousseau’s notion of the unified body politic. Efficient transportation means ideas move faster and local tendencies (literally) make way for the country as a whole. Perhaps this isn’t always what we really desire, but, as Scarry said in class, everyone goes along with it because of the elation of being in a powerful country—the appeal of feeling that your country (or your country’s private sector, perhaps) is doing exciting, powerful, new things. We have this in America, in the form of the Navy SEALs or Silicon Valley.
Trains are, to a humoring degree in America, not this. Amtrak is like going back in time—when train travel was that slow in the world (actually on some lines it used to be faster)—and forward in time—when train travel will probably still be that slow in America—when we Americans will experience less and less of that elation of living in such a powerful country as the rest of the world rises and we tire of and wither from our position of prominence and potency in world affairs. Amtrak is hardly an elating experience.
But trains, even the slow GE P42DC diesel locomotives and outdated Superliner passenger cars of non-Northeast Corridor North America, have a curious thing about them. In the train I took across the country with my girlfriendand roommate to get back to Cambridge after winter break, I felt, for better or for worse, a rejection of what is usually considered progress. There were people on the train who don’t like flying, so Amtrak is simply how they get around the country. What if we thought of those people not as being irrationally afraid of doing something that is statistically far safer than being anywhere near an automobile, but instead of preferring to give up speed and power for the ability to determine for one’s self when “You are now free to walk about the cabin.” When we take planes, it is entirely chosen for us when we sit, when we can walk, when we can pee, when we can drink, when we can eat, and when we make emergency landings, too.
This last point I do truly owe to Professor Scarry. Scarry loves trains, or at least loves thinking about trains—I can only be sure of the latter—because each passenger gains another kind of agency. There is an emergency brake in each car, right above the trash bin, a fire-engine-red lever, pathetically easy to pull and bring 10 double-decker passengers cars to a halt. Each single citizen has the power to stop the whole train; each individual has the power to affect all. But this distribution of power is also a responsibility. It is a crime for which you can go to jail to pull the lever out of self-interest. Only if acting out of the interest of the whole, in a real emergency for example, is this act of the individual permissible by law.
Of course, most Amtrak passengers probably don’t even know that that red lever is there. But I still believe that when we are on a train, as opposed to a plane, we feel that we are more in control of ourselves and certainly more in touch with our fellow citizens. This, I think, is not only because we are all stuck in a rectangular metal tube together for much longer than the circular type of metal tube. I also don’t think this is because the train is somehow “quaint”—the people we met on the train don’t seem the type to care much for the “quaint,” nor did they in any way contribute to a “quaint” atmosphere… The Amtrak is anything but quaint. There begins to form a feeling of identity with ones fellow passengers, even the ones you don’t even make eye contact with; there is a sense that you are participating in a mini-society. This, I believe, comes from, loosely as Scarry puts it in her book that I read on the train, On Beauty and Being Just, the availability of perceptible beauty to everyone on board.
The images outside of the train window were fantastic. Nothing like this can be seen from a plane, and only the passengers with window seats can really see much at all anyway. (I got some good pictures in the perpetual summer light of my recent flight from Los Angeles to Moscow, but nothing of the sort from our train trip.) Perhaps phenomenally comparable to and thus socially binding like the awe of living in a powerful country, each passenger on the train identifies with the awe in each other passenger when passing through Glacier National Park in Montana or the California coast north of Santa Barbara. This beauty makes us pause, stop caring about where we are going or in how long we’ll get there, and ask: what is all this land doing here? what are the people like here? what does it mean to physically be somewhere? am I physically here right now or “just passing through”? how much empty space does this country have? is this space empty? what is filled space? what questions does the train’s passing through cause the people out there to ask? are those people part of the same country that I am part of?
Basically, what I’m saying, is that trains in America, not because of their slow speed but really because of the nearly boundless “empty” space they must traverse, slow the world down, sometimes even to an illusory standstill. Louise Glück’s opening poem “Parable” from her newest book was our guide for those three days and nights. We read it early on and came back to it a number of times. She depicts a group of travelers going through life’s trek having agreed, approximately it seems, to search for truth and meaning, but they are in stark disagreement about the appropriate means. Are we by the word purpose “consecrated as pilgrims” or should we “remain free in order to encounter truth”? The life-long journey continues through natural beauty and also loss of life at the hands of nature, questions its own ambitions, and even temporarily seems as if agreement has been reached. Finally,
(after many years) we were still at that first stage, still
preparing to begin a journey, but we were changed nevertheless;
we could see this in one another; we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. …
Glück’s band of meaning-seeking trekkers are noticeably still. Just in this small passage, she points out twice in the speaker’s voice and once in a comrade’s voice, that even “after many years” they are “preparing to begin a journey,” they “never moved,” and they “travel[ed] … neither forward nor sideward.” Stillness is further suggested by the appearance of the word “still” in its alternate meaning—something ongoing presently—twice in the first line.
Still, something is, or at least “seem[s] / in a strange way miraculous” here. The image of traveling but not moving is a curious one, I would say a beautiful one. It is first and foremost a rejection of the utility of travel, which the poem probably establishes in its opening line, “First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches”. It seeks to not be satisfied with that feeling of elation that comes from powerful things. It also purports a conception of the self as the center of the world, the self traveling through the world by means of the world moving around the self. The self is certain and the world and its contents transient. This suspended state where we are moving inside while effectively frozen with regards to what is outside—a kind of running in place; a journey without a destination—makes asking difficult or strange questions suddenly easier.
The poem is very much concerned with what is the ethical way to live. Ethics cannot make sense when being powerful feels too good, clearly. What is “miraculous” is that the feeling of elation from power can be replaced by another elevating feeling that is based much more on the attempt to understand one another, to speak the same language, to worship the same things, and to be in the presence of the same beautiful objects and ideas. On the long-distance train, a sometimes verbalized sometimes unstated empathy based on large windows miraculously prevails.
Amtrak’s long-distance timetables, already unimpressive in theory, are nothing more than a laughable what-if in practice partially because of freight companies and mainly because of Republicans. (The full story of Amtrak’s history and how Nixon set it up to fail is here.) But actually, America shouldn’t invest in a high-speed cross-country rail service. Corridor service is another story, of course, and is urgently needed all over the country. But frequent comparisons to Europe’s transcontinental high-speed line are not exactly apt because there are smaller countries all with important cities in them that need to be connected. If you were to take a direct train (with at minimum five transfers) from London to Moscow, though it’s under three fifths the distance of the train we took, one possible route would pass through Paris, Strasbourg, Stuttgart, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Warsaw, and Minsk along the way, or an alternate route through Brussels and Berlin and on to Warsaw. The only even semi-significant cities our train passed through from Portland, OR to Boston, MA, a whopping 3,274 miles of track, were the single corridor of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Chicago, a stretch of the trip where the feeling on the train drastically changed as commuters and other short-distance travelers interested primarily in their destination came aboard.
Should Havre, MT (my favorite pit-stop along the trip because I still don’t know how it is supposed to be pronounced) be serviced by a train that goes 200 mph and costs tens of billions of dollars? It shouldn’t. It doesn’t need it. Amtrak is cheap comparatively, less than half the price of cross-continent train travel in Europe for the passenger, not to mention the enormous costs to government. America is too big with too much unpopulated space for a transcontinental high-speed train to make sense. The London to Moscow train doesn’t make sense either of course, even though it would take only just over two days, as flying that distance is usually a fraction of the price. On Amtrak, in terms of efficiency, you get what you pay for, and in terms of the experience, it’s a pretty sweet deal.
I do plan to take Amtrak across the country again. But chances are it won’t be a frequent indulgence. It is by no means practical (though it is usually roughly the same price as flying). But trains are important. Tony Judt thought so, praising trains as the “symbol and symptom of modernity.” In fact, they are so constitutive of modern liberal society that in abandoning them as a nation we have in some way “acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively.” This is certainly true in that the presence of efficient and well-functioning trains indisputably manifests a “collective project for individual benefit … something that the market cannot accomplish.”
But for a largely expansive and vacuous North America, I feel personally about trains closer to the way Edward Abbey felt about nature conservation. In his essay Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom, Abbey argues for wildlife conservation in the name of and for the sake of not nature itself—he even says at one point “ ‘Ecology’ is a word I first read […] twenty years ago and I still don’t know what it means”—but for the sake of the very urban modern society that threatens it. It is not even the practice of experiencing land untouched by humans that is essential to his pro-people argument. It is knowing, perhaps even just sub-consciously, that lands exist foreign to civilized man where we always have even the remotest option of escape. That is what is essential to urban man’s survival. Having done the cross-country train trip just once, having the tangible option to do it, knowing it is there, as Abbey might say, helps me always remain on that train, if but in small but hopefully important ways.
(July 14, 2015)