My travel companion for my train trip to St. Catharines to read at the Grey Borders Series was, it turns out, allergic to travel. Looking out of train windows gave him an overwhelming feeling of ennui, though he expressed his neurasthenic tedium with poetic melancholy. He was Fernando Pessoa (or rather, one of his many heteronyms, Bernardo Soares) in the form of The Book of Disquiet, a series of short, introspective prose pieces. I had thumbed through it at Nicholas Hoare Books, and Pessoa’s sensibility in these fleeting but often brilliant meditations reminded me of Emil Cioran’s existential darkness in A Short History of Decay. Even though travel, which I love, was anathema to Pessoa’s Soares, I decided the book would be ideal train reading: something I could dip into, put down, ruminate on, and pick up again. Flashes of philosophical introspection and train travel were made for each other.
There’s a visceral poetry to the experience of riding a train, which Blaise Cendrars understood so beautifully in his long poem “Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France.” And my journey with The Book of Disquiet was the richer that Pessoa’s poetic prose harmonized with the rhythmic sways and bumps of the train:
The idea of travelling nauseates me.
I’ve already seen what I’ve never seen.
I’ve already seen what I have yet to see.
. . .
Landscapes are repetitions. On a simple train ride
I uselessly and restlessly waver between my inattention
to the landscape and my inattention to the book
that would amuse me if I were someone else. Life
makes me feel a vague nausea, and any kind of
movement aggravates it.
Only landscapes that don’t exist and books I’ll
never read aren’t tedious. Life, for me, is a
drowsiness that never reaches the brain. This
I keep free, so that I can be sad there.
I also brought along my new video camera, which became an extension of my fascination with the constantly-shifting scenery from train windows. There’s something infinitely expansive about the poetic, otherworldly, and metaphorical possibilities of the view from a train window. Visually, views within and outside trains are multi-layered. The view outside is a palimpsest of successive layers moving at different speeds depending on their distance: the blur of rails and gravel, the telephone poles flowing by and their wires complexly crisscrossing against the sky, the foreground (slagheaps, warehouses, rows of trucks or crops, houses, other trains), and the horizon (greenery, water). Then there’s the window itself, which might be streaked with rain but which always reflects a ghostly veneer of the interior scene: the ceiling lights, the young woman reading a book opposite me, the frames of windows on the other side of the train.
And there’s a difference between watching the scenery rush toward you and watching it get sucked away from you, and that difference translates into contrasting psychological states, at least for me. Since our cognitive metaphors shape our experience of time (the future approaches us and the past recedes into the distance), the head-on perspective creates the optimism of moving into the future and the other, the melancholy of watching the present frittering away from you and your ability to change it.
I think what I love so much about train travel is its artifice, its literary qualities. And it’s the metaphorical and philosophical dimensions of travel where Pessoa and I find common ground. A passage I found myself returning to during my trip:
Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no
landscape but what we are. We possess nothing,
for we don’t even possess ourselves. We have
nothing because we are nothing. What hand
will I reach out, and to what universe? The
universe isn’t mine: it’s me.
Like Borges and his insistent refrain that “There is no whole self,” Pessoa set about dissolving the notion of a unitary Cartesian identity. And like the ephemeral scenery from a train, the self relentlessly renews itself and enters the present with continually shifting points of reference.
The video below is a short film I made from scenes between Toronto and St. Catharines. As I edited the film I found that I was creating a somewhat artificial narrative of the trip: the departure, the stops along the way, the rain followed by blue skies. The film doesn’t have an arrival; it ends with a long view of puffy clouds. And the final scene reminds me of a passage in The Book of Disquiet describing Soares’ business trip:
The train slows down, we’re at Cais do Sodré.
I’ve arrived at Lisbon, but not at a conclusion.
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