Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Simone across the desert

Despite being someone who believes the apogee of life to be a lengthy train trip in a sleeper compartment overnight across some continent or other, I have only ever been on three such adventures. This is due to the constraints of time and money as well as, on one gravely disappointing occasion, striking public transport workers in France when the trip was to be Zurich to Barcelona.

When I was about seven I took a night train from Sydney to Melbourne, before going on to Phillip Island. Then 12 years later I was one wretch among many in lower class during a rather warped re-enactment of 'Marrakesh Express' on a 10-hour journey between Tangier and Marrakesh. Then in 2011 I went from Prague to Budapest. And that's all.

Most can surely relate to the cosy satisfaction that comes with such journeys, what with the rhythmic movements of the carriage to go to sleep by and the forced inertia acting as a holiday from any acts of doing. But upon reading Simone de Beauvoir's fascinating America Day By Day, her account of a four-month journey across the USA in 1947, I have discovered what must be the most succinct and beautiful description of why such an experience is so childish and exciting that was ever committed to print.

She writes of riding from Chicago to Los Angeles:

I pull the rough green curtains, fix them in place, hang my dress in the closet, and arrange my things in the mesh bags. The window is covered with a blind, and I switch on the little light above my head. On the other side of the thin partition, people come and go in the corridor; yet no room with thick walls has ever given me this feeling of relaxation and calm. This sleeping berth I'm stretched out on is more than a bed; it's a whole dwelling reduced to the dimensions of a bed. There are childhood memories associated with this pleasure. I remember a weeping willow in which I made a house, a large canopied country bed with heavy curtains, and that dark compartment where I loved to hide under my father's desk. Psychoanalysts see in that a desire to return to the maternal womb, but this language is too symbolic and doesn't clarify anything. My berth is not the recollection of lost happiness; it gives me a satisfaction sufficient unto itself: it is refuge, solitude separation. The tension and fatigue entailed in every existence originate in other, larger forms of existence; in these berths stacked on either side of the corridor, like tombs in the galleries of the Catacombs, each person achieves an absolute solitude. This nocturnal dwelling evokes the peace of the funeral chambers at Mycenae and Cerveteri; no appeal from the outside world can penetrate here. My life is now longer pulled in different directions or tied to anyone or anything; it has closed in on itself in the silence of death. I turn off the light and shut my eyes. I feel the rhythmic movement of the train as it rolls into the unknown; this movement also brings me peace - the peace of an alibi. Not only am I separated from everything, but I am not situated at any particular spot in the universe: I'm just passing through. I have no more ties to the earth, no more desire or curiosity. The sleep that pulls me from this world is in in harmony with the rolling of the train, which minute by minute denies me any unique place in it. That's probably why my sleep is always so refreshing on trains.

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