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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Enigmatic Bullet Train

[photo: Practical Electrics, Hugo Gernsback, publisher]

Went through old stuff and found this back-number of Practical Electrics prefiguring the magnetic bullet train proposed years ago for California. The high-speed railroad is to connect San Diego with San Francisco. An ambitious undertaking and referendum for which I remember voting in 2008. Project got passed but is, given the current financial climate, surely on hold now. Maybe we could make the whole unit cheaper by modeling it after the one in old Hugo's magazine. Imagine an open-air rolleycoaster half the length of the state --a coastal coaster, from which we could wave our hats and scream.

At the time I thought it would cure road rage, the anxiety, the madness.

Recently, researchers in psychology discovered anxiety is linked to pining, which is composed of equal parts wanting and liking. Interesting as it is to learn wanting and liking are linked to separate neurotransmitters, I still wonder why anxiety is considered a neurotic response to modern life. We've seen the operation of homeowners' associations, churches, workplaces, local and federal governments fall into the hands of predators and two-bit tyrants. Everybody else is either hanging on for dear life or joining street gangs. No wonder our nerves are shot. Nobody sane is sane anymore.

When anxiety becomes our social norm we respond as cornered beasts, clawing and biting our ways to some imagined safety. Nowhere is this more keenly felt or easily observed than on roads. Freeways and surface streets become stages for a special sort of aggression. We find our homes, businesses, obligations and recreational interests connected by a gridwork of war. It involves mindless competition, tension, anger, intimidation and assault conducted with cars, which police rightly classify as deadly weapons.

Police called in consultants, urban planners, traffic engineers, psychologists and psychics, to analyze the problem. Their conclusion was unanimous: bad vibes. As always, "bad vibes", as an analysis, failed to penetrate the problem to any useful depth. Police resorted to a study of literature.

Around 1840, poet Wm. Channing wrote to Thoreau: "I see nothing for you on this earth but that field which I once christened Briars; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no alternative, no other hope for you." Afterwards, Thoreau planned and conducted his effort to "front only the essential facts of life" , to go into the woods and live deliberately.

California law enforcement used to be unclear on what Channing meant by "devouring" one's self, but now see it as having to traverse combat zones that separate all locations --peaceful enterprises divided by rolling artillery. Clearly, one can digest and eliminate those qualities that interfere with happiness, self-worth and a useful place in nature, but the process hasn't progressed beyond individual adjustment. This is not to say mechanized society is not devouring itself at large, but what will remain after it feeds would probably not write "Walden".

Things seemed at an impasse.

But fate and chance intervened. The word, surrealist, was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire and first appeared in the preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias. In 1917 M. Apollinaire was walking home from the premiere performance when he fell through a hole in his shoe into the 21st century. The opportunity was seized and police retained him as the first consulting surrealist in traffic management.

His recommendations were simple: "These cars, with their headlights squinting like wicked little eyes, their grimacing grills, make them angrier! But yes, the huge SUV with its predatory teeth and sedans crouched to dive into underground dens --make them look more than evil. Make them fanged, squat and mad enough to curl up and devour themselves. No car can change the world by looking merely upset!"

Recently, our governor released news of M. Apollinaire's return to 1917. We were told the poet had climbed back into his shoe after a series of brilliant recommendations. Cars will get increasingly cannibalistic and psychotic-looking until they are consumed and even the most adrenaline-addicted drivers give up in disgust to help lay track along the California coast.

Personally, I'm still hoping for a rolleycoaster.


  1. Hahaha!!! Great writing! We've been hoping for a monorail here for years- and it's becoming a necessity, as consultants came to town and set up traffic lights that have made getting anywhere in town impossible, and caused a truck driver to plow through a theatre marquee. Me, I'm still waiting for a Flying Manhole.

  2. Madame Austan, merci. J'approuve des trous d'homme de vol(or whatever French Surrealists call flying manholes, which might not be safely translatable)!

  3. Yes, revenons à l'inspiration foraine, loop the loop et roulottes !
    qu'est ce que Jules Laforgue aurait dit des voitures ? Les défunt, ça voyage

  4. oh, I would love to be on that rollercoaster!

  5. Arno Cahaigne, thanks! I recognize the closing lines of "Complainte de l'oubli des morts". Appropriate. "Solo de lune" would also have suffered if composed on top of a modern car.

  6. Planes, trains, buses, cars, bicycles, tricycles, little red wagons; it's all one. It isn't how you get from here to there, it's how you own the road.


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