Sunday, November 15, 2009

5mph

The preamble to Cabinet's Speed Reading event:

(Picture poached from here. And a picture may or may not be worth a thousand words...)

It will be clear to anyone who knows me why I found the following text irresistible - the range of choices included everything from Gilbreth to Virilio - twenty-four of us read various bits and pieces - and in the meantime, a screen with images included an appealing and eclectic mix of stuff on the side (the film of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, record-breaking Rubik's Cube-twisting, speed stacking, cats running in an exercise wheel, etc. etc.).

Valéry Larbaud, "Slowness" ("La lenteur"; 1930)
for Paul Morand
There is a moving tribute to speed in this quote from Samuel Johnson reported to us by Boswell: “One of the greatest pleasures in life is to travel in a coach moving at full speed.”

Though this tribute seems outdated by today’s standards of speed, it touches us, first, because it brings to mind the image we hold of Doctor Johnson: a very tall man, very fat, very slow, hippopotamus-like, thus the thought is made heavy with eloquence, lexicography, and pomposity; next, because this statement was made in the middle of the 18th century at a time when modern speed only existed in the imagination and in people’s desires, as though they could sense it. A promised land toward which they strove as fast as their horses could carry them, and which they sought in this direction, through means of breeding and selection, hoping perhaps to eventually create a race of quadrupeds with winged hooves . . . Yes, this word from the ponderous Doctor summarizes for us the aspiration of those generations who, relatively close to our own, did not know our speed which we obtained through the domestication of fire and thunder, in creating bulls and soon after bees of bronze (the description of locomotives in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is equally moving).

* * *

Shortly after Doctor Johnson came Napoleon, who dashed toward this future and who still surprises us by the truly imperial speed of his maneuvers, due to the skillful economy of well-prepared stops, fast and well-fed animals, and grooms skilled at unhitching and rehitching in a matter of minutes. Had Caligula done any better? . . . He went away on a sailboat, and here, going round in circles in those remote years, in a place before railroads, riding at full speed on a “hell train,” on the high roads around the capital, the coach that carries, through fog and under the fine Parisian rain, Louis XVIII, aging, weary, and sick, sometimes closing his heavy eyelids on eyes that would never see Canaan.

* * *

The generation that was already born then enters the scene. The first steps were difficult, and the Poets sang that Man had mounted the bronze monster too soon. But in a few more years, the Emperor would sharpen the fine points of his mustache, waxed before the mirrors of the railcar-salon-throne-room that would transport him in twelve hours from Saint-Cloud to Vichy. His pretty train—which must have been blue, white, and pink, or blue, white, and mauve like the uniform of the Cent-Gardes cavalry—preceded, and for us, followed, Waltman’s snowplow locomotive, Jules Verne’s Transcaucasian railway, and Rudyard Kipling’s Compounds.

* * *

But the railway cars and the car compartments, especially the first-class compartments, the sleeping cars, and the salon cars, grew weary—one always wants more than one has—of politely following behind the monster, who had become all too familiar and who smoked too much. Like city dwellers and the high and mighty, they felt nostalgia for the country and for pastoral life. They wanted freedom, anonymity, adventure, and horizons without cities or train stations. One night, toward the end of the 19th century, taking advantage of an unexpected stop in the middle of a field and close to a railway junction that someone had forgotten to close, the first-class compartments—which were brand new but without a hallway, and displeased with having been created based on an old model—escaped, scattered, and—finally!—took to the Open Road; the road with neither tracks nor railway switches, the road that branched out in all directions, through all of Europe’s shrubberies, and through the path of school children walking home chewing their crust of bread.

Some died from it, but the others were much the better for it, and increased in strength and speed, and had many children, even more vigorous and fast than their parents, and some of which would grow until they reached the dimensions of the original railway car. The species proliferated and grew into new varieties: there was a flying race, a warrior race, an amphibious race. But it is the road race that reproduces most easily today—too easily, in fact, for our tranquility.

For the automobile’s greatest days were those when the machine already had all of its organs, which functioned without risk for man who steered it, but the species had not yet multiplied to the point of creating the traffic jams we endure in large cities. Back then, the Limousines and Landaus were coaches that had plenty of space, found the street free before them, and ruled the road.

At that time, the encounter with another automobile in the middle of nowhere—“Hey, some comrades!”—was a genuine event, like the encounter of two ocean liners on the high seas. Back then, in the cities in which one stopped in the course of a journey in an automobile, one visited train stations with a sense of scorn.

4 comments:

  1. This is remarkable.

    When I read this I thought: an Anglo-American could never have written it. The key (below) is the "must have been." I feel like that's really in the spirit of Stendhal (etc., etc.), or maybe it's just a French thing: the non-obsession with detail or accuracy.


    But in a few more years, the Emperor would sharpen the fine points of his mustache, waxed before the mirrors of the railcar-salon-throne-room that would transport him in twelve hours from Saint-Cloud to Vichy. His pretty train—which must have been blue, white, and pink, or blue, white, and mauve like the uniform of the Cent-Gardes cavalry—

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  2. Cool story as for me. I'd like to read a bit more concerning that matter.
    BTW look at the design I've made myself Overnight escorts

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  3. the image we hold of Doctor Johnson: a very tall man, very fat, very slow, hippopotamus-like

    But that popular image is largely wrong, as Johnson is now believed to have suffered from Tourette syndrome; accounts of the time say how quick-witted he was, and how constantly in motion with a variety of tics and changing postures, even when he grew fat in later life. As far as I know, there has never been a physically accurate portrayal of Johnson in the media. See Dr Johnson as he really was.

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