The Interpretation of Trains (Freud on the Train, part two)

This is another post about psychoanalysis and the railway.

It’s about the correspondence between the emotional experience of train travel and the language we use to describe these feelings. So, it’s also post about language.

Both, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud would surely have agreed that, in the end, it is always about words. Or maybe, it’s in the beginning? I guess it depends on your perspective.

You can see what I’m talking about in the picture by Ravilious, above. The landscape, with its evident historical and antiquarian meanings, is used to provoke powerful emotional feelings of familiarity…

Anyway, I’ve posted before about the obvious similarity between train-travel and the slightly otherworldly and detached sensations we have when dreaming. That similarity suggests that we could transfer ideas and interpretations from psychoanalysis to railway travel. This transfer has worked in relation to cinema and psychoanalysis; so, why not?

The point about Freud, as I’ve mentioned before, is that he provides a vocabulary for talking about and describing hidden things. In psychological terms, this is all the stuff that is buried in the sub-conscious. The interpretation of inner-feeling, in relation to environment and experience, is entirely appropriate in the traveller.


I would say that the relative detachment of the railway traveller (from the world through the window) is one of the most singular pleasures of railway travel. It’s all very well, until you see something you shouldn’t have…

There are a number of films that explore the consequences and moral ambiguity of voyeurism. Some of these films even explore these themes in the context of the railway carriage.

I want to use the example of Carol Reed’s great film, The Third Man (1949). There a scene on a fairground ride that exemplifies what I’m talking about.

The Third Man is one of a number of films directed by Reed based on the work of Graham Greene. Greene’s story is set amongst the war-torn ruins of Vienna. Representatives of the victorious powers have partitioned the city. The resulting administrative confusion, along with the inevitable shortages of essentials, are exploited by a criminal underclass.

An American writer, Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotton, arrives in Vienna at the invitation of Harry Lime. Matins is shocked to discover that Lime is dead. His attempt to investigate the death of his friend reveals the unpleasant truth that Lime was well known as a racketeer involved in the sale of corrupted penicillin.

The film is divided into two main parts. In the first, Lime’s personality is recalled as charming and compelling. At the same time, the facts of his duplicity begin to be pieced together by Martins.

In the second half, Lime suddenly reappears. His death is revealed to have been another fraud, aimed at escaping justice. Lime attempts to justify himself to his friend before fleeing through the sewers. Eventually, he is cornered and dies like a rat.

The Third Man shares a number of themes with Greene’s other work. The circumstances of war, along with the terrible revelations of brutality and genocide, combine with Greene’s Catholic belief to suggest a world where corruption and original sin are commonplace. For Greene, the struggle against the forces of evil remained largely futile. Greene’s Catholicism retained, accordingly, a particularly bleak sort of outlook.

Perhaps the most famous scene in The Third Man is the discussion on the giant Reisenrad Ferris wheel. Lime attempts to justify himself to his friend Martins by looking down at the small dots of humanity below and asking whether, at twenty thousand dollars each, any of them would really be missed. Finally, Lime suggests that Switzerland, with its centuries of peace and cuckoo clocks, is a poor alternative to the Renaissance of the Borgias. At that point in history, suggests Lime, were combined bloodbath and genius in equal measure.

You can watch the scene, here

It is entirely appropriate that, in the end, the fugitive, Lime, runs to the Viennese sewers. The subterranean caverns, reminding us of Pirenesi and by implication excrament, become the setting for the doomed endgame where Lime is hunted down. Lime’s pursuers are implacable. Eventually, they corner him and a short gunfight comes to its inevitable conclusion.

There are several other points that need to be made in relation to this film. The Third Man was a triumph for a young lighting cameraman, Robert Krasker. Krasker devised an art direction for the film based on German Expressionist film-making from the 1920s and from the Noir thrillers, of the 1940s, in America.

Krasker, filming amongst the rubble of Vienna, used powerful directional lighting to create a world of exaggeratedly sinister shadows and weird perspectives. The result was a morally ambiguous and visually destabilising world in which Lime and his cronies seemed all too believable.

The film belongs, through its visual associations, to what may be identified as a NeoRomantic film language. The 1940s reinvention of romanticism was based on the rejection of a form of modernity that has led to two world wars and genocide. This brings us neatly around again to Ravilious; who may be associated with this group.

Artists and poets were amongst the first to find an alternative value in the landscapes, places, feelings and values of particular locations. For many, these were identified as traces of a lost England. For others, the ancient Mediterranean culture provided a route out of the contemporary nightmare. Baroque Vienna, in ruins, became a powerful symbol of a lost civilisation.

Obviously, the ferris-wheel is not a train. But the fair-ground entertainment provides for a kind of ride. So, the analogy holds, and the sense of moral detachment can be applied. Indeed, the fairground is another environment replete with hidden (Freudian) meanings.

In the context of the railway, this Freudian stuff plays itself out through the combination of detachment and voyeurism in the subject along with the implicit contiguity of the machine assembly.

This usually depends on a train traveller observing something, in passing and from a distance (usually another train) and at a particular time. In order for these actions to be intelligible from a distance, they usually involve forceful male protagonists and (unwilling) female victims. That’s the sex and violence.

The point is that trains insulate from any direct moral involvement in what we are observing. This moral detachment provides for a kind of voyeurism. Nowhere, is this more compelling that at those moments in the railway journey when houses back up against the track. The obvious intrusion of this kind of voyeurism is mitigated by the fleeting nature of passing by train.

At the same time, we have a powerful feeling of inevitability. The machine assembly and the rigorous punctuality of the railway system, suggests both mechanical causation and destiny.

Now, this is an idea that Slavoj Zizek describes in his Lacan and Hitchcock (1992) book. The idea originates with Henri Bergson who suggests that something completely new retroactively creates its own possibility – that’s Terminator (1984) or the Matrix (1999). In the more prosaic world of railway travel it’s Sliding Doors (1998).

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