The BLOG: Voices

Moving trains and the meaning of life

Some people try to avoid sitting backwards on trains, and they find it worth wandering for a few minutes between the cars in search of an empty seat facing in the direction of their destination, and preferably, next to a window.

These people likely experience the sensation of moving forward as a kind of relief, almost always provoking a deep breath at the moment when the brakes release. Since the smoothness of steel on steel makes for a slow friction that builds, certain kinds of people have plenty of time to look out the window and configure the whole thing as an externalization of the emotional transition they are experiencing from one place to another, likely leaving someone behind, whether they want to or not. In fact, that’s the draw: No sooner than when the window scenery starts to blur do these people become heroes who, with simultaneous courage and resignation, look straight into the blaring uncertainty of their present circumstances while silently reciting, it’s time to move on. Of course I’ve never done this, but I imagine that some pensive types find the train metaphor tempting enough to complement their roving travel narratives, and give themselves full license to assign boundless significance to the whole episode.

A cliché is infamously known as a phrase or spoken image repeated so often that it becomes not only tiresome, but also inept as a vehicle for conveying its intended meaning. A related concept is bathos. As opposed to pathos — which involves sympathy, as in the characters in a play that inspire sympathy — bathos is the literary sin of reaching very high toward meaning and failing to achieve the sublime; it’s an embarrassing creative gesture that leaves an audience member cringing a bit in their seat.

Speaking only for myself, and, for every other person about my age that I know, I think that we are painfully aware of both of these phenomena. They are the sins we commit to varying degrees in the privacy of our own heads. But since the so-called significance of any given moment is a luxury that we create for ourselves, the least we can do is admit to the indulgence. If my characterization of “a certain kind of person” on a train has been transparent enough, then at least I have done just that — admit it. I have to give my parents props for the credibility that they gave to me as a 4-year-old asking about the existence of Santa Clause: “Well he’s not real,” they said, “but you can pretend as much as you want.” Fair enough. But does what goes for Santa go for symbols? Are all real-life experiences of symbolic significance, at best, forgivably trite?

If the term “narrative” can refer to events chosen and placed in a sequence, and “symbol” can be used to illuminate individual events or objects, this question of meaning is brought to the surface in both. The question should we assign our lives narrative/symbolic significance? is itself tiresome, however, because we unavoidably do this. I won’t go into the deterministic aspect of this phenomenon on a neurological level because I can’t; I only know enough to say with vague matter-of-fact-ness that this tendency to create narratives is a hardwired physiological aspect of being human. So what? We can still show rational suspicion toward this thing our brains will go on doing anyway, and in so doing, keep the sensationalism in check. However, while striving against the use of repetitive clichés may push me toward more creatively apt modes of expression, I’m not sure that this sheepish sort of cynicism toward all instances of perceived meaning is doing the richness of the material world justice.

To bring in another voice, philosopher Paul Ricoeur gave much attention in his works to the function and potential of language as able to access meaning. He writes: “That a stone or a tree may manifest the sacred means that this profane reality becomes something other than itself while still remaining itself” (Figuring the Sacred, 49). Ricoeur is not here making some sort of religious pronouncement about reality, nor is he speaking about institutionalized religion. Rather, the term “sacred,” as he is using it, may be more broadly understood as “meaning,” and “profane,” as a reference to material objects. Illustrating this relationship between our physical surroundings and their symbolic significance, Ricoeur uses the image of a house. He writes, “The threshold of the house, for example, is a visible expression of the discontinuity that occurs between the sacred interior and the profane exterior … every establishment practically reiterates this centrality” (51). Again, far from showing moral preference to the inside of a house, Ricoeur is calling attention to both the concrete presence of the house, and its universal significance as a point of division between the abstract concepts of safety and exposure. In this way, Ricoeur would say, that the logic of meaning is a logic of correspondences.

A few years ago, I spent several months living and studying art in an old Catholic monastery in Orvieto, Italy — a small town just north of Rome. During my time there I became fascinated by an outdoor courtyard of the monastery, where we were not allowed to go. So for my final large-scale drawing project, I spent a week standing in the open doorway of the courtyard, sketching every detail I could of the crumbling stone structure, softened now by decay and the overgrowth of wheat-like grass and reddish purple ivy. On the final night before the drawing was due, I hesitated, then closed the gate and dragged thick charcoal lines across the paper according to the placement of the bars. During my week in that doorway, I experienced what felt like multiple levels of meaning through the dual process of realistic observation and my own created symbolic rendering. I felt safe in that monastery; and I saw beauty in the courtyard both blocked and framed by the iron gate.

According to Ricoeur, the human need for the sacred, what I am also calling meaning, sends us back in search of the scene of our birth and first love, to the door and the threshold. “ … We return to such places”, he writes, “because there a more than every day reality erupted and because the memory of what took place there preserves us from being simply errant vagrants in the world” (64).

If symbolism and narrative can’t be confined to the category of overused hackneyed expressions, why do they keep provoking us? My belief would be that in creating these events of meaning in our minds, we are also participating in something that is already there. If traveling from one place to another simultaneously involves the sadness of departure and the exciting newness of the unknown, the suddenly chronic desire for meaning and for a meaningful sequence of events is what binds the tension between beautiful significance and the felt presence of absurd loss. So then, might a moving train actually give mass to an otherwise abstract concept, and a particular sensory image to a universal human experience?

Susanna Young studied fine art and creative writing. She has a strong curiosity about other people and a tendency to haunt coffee shops and find excuses to travel as often as possible.