This is a post about railways and psychoanalysis. I’ve already posted about the close relationship between cinema and trains, And also about the films of Alfred Hitchcock (at least those that have trains in them). You can see my previous, here
The link between cinema and psychoanalysis is well established. It’s enshrined in a whole body of theoretical work that devolves from the obvious association between the cinematic experience with dreams and voyeurism. The darkness of the cinema and the flickering experience of the film also correspond to our notions of memory and dreaming – both important aspects of the psych0analytical interpretation of the unconscious.
You can read all this in the film journal, Screen. Check out their website, here
It’s worth recalling the intellectual genesis of film studies…
In France, cinema was quickly recognised as a significant form of cultural production with special claims on the 20C imagination. So, film studies began in France. But it arrived, by train, from Germany before WW2. The journey begins in Frankfurt and with a group of intellectuals who pioneered the critical examination of popular culture. The Frankfurt School comprised a group of philosophers and social scientists associated with the Institute for Social Research. The Frankfurters pioneered the idea that popular cultural forms made for a kind of language with rules of signification. They suggested a difference between appearance and meaning. You can find out about it all, here
It’s easy to understand why the application of Marxist social theory to the analysis of degenerate popular cultural forms, (such as jazz, western films, and shopping malls), might have offended National Socialist sensibilities in Germany. It’s harder to understand why it took until the 1970s for this approach to break into the anglo-saxon academic mainstream.
In the UK, film studies grew as a consequence of a block in opportunity within the English faculty. By the end of the 1960s, there was a much larger student population. Those with academic ambition found their career paths blocked by an older, tenured, caste of professors in the established disciplines. The new plate glass universities of the 1960s had pioneered the expansion of the social science methodology.
In the circumstances, it was natural for this methodology to apply itself to new kinds of text. Hey presto, film studies was born as an academic discipline!
It’s worth noting, again, that the older universities and the cultural establishment generally have been hugely resistant to this kind of activity. The ICA, in London, pioneered the serious discussion of popular cultural forms during the 1950s. These discussions, amongst a small group of people, paved the way for the Pop Art boom and for the emergence of a radical swinging lifestyle at the end of the 1960s.
Even today, there is a widespread misunderstanding about the distinction between film studies, media studies and a training as a film technician or journalist. These disciplines are about a critical engagement with the structures and systems of cultural production – they are not training programs.
There was a terrific example of this weird cultural blind-spot on BBC Radio 4 recently. Francine Stock was discussing the new David Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method. This is a film about the triangular relationship between Freud, his protege Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein. You can read about the film, here
Anyway, Francine directed the discussion towards the subject of the relationship between Freud and film. By that, she meant the portrayal of Freud in popular cultural film entertainment! There wasn’t a word about the formal relationship between cinema and Freud’s work in psychoanalysis (see above). No wonder we don’t really understand the world!
Anyway, back to psychoanalysis…
One of the key feelings that connects cinema and psychoanalytical interpretation is the overwhelming feeling of helplessness in the subject. This usually manifests itself through the expression of anxiety and behavioural psychopathology.
It seems obvious to me that the experience of the train journey offers many of the same characteristics as those of the cinema…
The railway train provides a distanced, and voyeuristic, platform for observation of the world. The train also provides for its own systemic organisation of the world – machinery, time and motion are integrated into a specific experience. Indeed, it is this specific experience of being on track, that is comforting and disconcerting at the same time. the train passenger abandons the usual autonomies of modernist identities in favour of being driven. There’s a powerful sense of the train being unstoppable. That’s terrifying.
It’s all very well when the landscape is picturesque and we have chosen the destination; but what happens when we are forced onto the train. Consider the childhood evacuees of WW2, or the deportations of the holocaust, or of the symbolism of train accidents and derailments. The palpable sense of danger, associated with the railway from its very beginnings and derived from machinery, force and system, heighten the usual anxieties of displacement and separation.
There’s always a sense of sadness at the end of the railway line. Indeed, the expression end-of-the-line suggests an association between distance, isolation and desolation. hence, the peculiar, and conflicting, feelings that attach to English seaside resorts.
Nowhere is the latent Freudian symbolism of the railway more evident than in the phallic penetration of tunnels by the train. This symbolism provides the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint recline in the sleeping car as the train enters the tunnel and the end-credits roll.
The association between the railway train and feelings of excitement and anxiety, and expressed through sexual desire, could hardly be more Freudian. Freud was notoriously anxious about displacements and train travel especially…hmm…
I notice that there is only one accredited university course in railway studies in the UK. I don’t imagine there is a Freudian module, nor is there any sign of the psychoanalytical-model railway!
I did notice this
which includes a chapter on Freud and the Railways, by Laura Marcus. If you google Freud and Railway, you can find this text. Otherwise it’s all a bit of a blank. Obviously there are lots of historians whose work investigates the railway and there are various cultural perspectives that can take in the railway. But, it’s surprising that there isn’t very much work on the structure and system of the railway and its cultural meanings…
Next stops; the runaway train, and the surrealistic railway…