The Railroad Rides Upon Us: On the Pursuit of Uneventfulness

We embody a type of greatness.  We are of capacity.  We are of potential.

And yet we are nearly entirely imbecilic in body and mind.  Of what, on what, in what do we spend our days?  Nothing…or rather, it might be contended that our days are spent without consent.

Is this a new order mode of being?  Possibly.

It is difficult to look beyond the blinkered sight of one’s own experience.  Living in an age of machines and technology creates minds sculpted by those manifestations of human will (or world spirit?).  But once loosed upon an age these creations recreate, revise, our very selves, and recast our imaginings.

I have become more Melville than Emerson of late (a believer in an error-prone demiurge) while yearning to be of Thoreau’s tribe.  These men, though, operate on the cusp of our abyss.  They see our future–futures are a part of our now the way that pasts are, possibly with more tidal push than we understand–and though each offered their distinct and individual response, offered primarily as “temperament” and mood, each saw that the species would be dominated by mind’s belief in its separateness from the natural order–a distinction dominated by an imaginary in which human life was “ridden” by machines.

From Emerson’s “Ode, Inscribed to William H. Channing”:

What boots thy zeal,
O glowing friend,
That would indignant rend
The northland from the south?
Wherefore? To what good end?
Boston Bay and Bunker Hill
Would serve things still:
Things are of the snake

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The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

There are two laws discrete
Not reconciled,
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.

Further there is a type, and I am one, likely, condemned in the same breath, in the same poem, by Waldo, as those who bow to the technologist.  The type to be concerned with the “news” of the day (as it is this that also “rides” us).

Henry, to this point, in chapter two of Walden, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For:

Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.


Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches to-day to save nine to-morrow. As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, that is, without setting the bell, there is hardly a man on his farm in the outskirts of Concord, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, nor a boy, nor a woman, I might almost say, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since bum it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire,– or to see it put out, and have a hand in it, if that is done as handsomely; yes, even if it were the parish church itself. Hardly a man wakes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?” as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half hour, doubtless for no other purpose; and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed.

Perhaps better to cast our being aboard a whaler, a toothpick cast upon the darling depths?

There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner — for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable.  (Moby Dick, 153)

If not actually aboard a whaler (and especially not the Pequod!), one can at least imagine the dividends paid when “a sublime uneventfulness invests you.”

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