Railway Traumas (I’m late)

I recently posted about Marcel Proust (the insomniac hypercondriac author) and his appreciation of railway timetables. Of course, Proust would never have boarded an actual train for fear of railway trauma…

This wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds; railway collisions were a frequent occurrence in the early 19th century. The fatal association between the railway and danger was established from the first. This was exemplified through the fatal injury to the MP, William Huskisson, at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830.

Exacerbating the problem, in the first instance, was the fact that railway cars were flimsy, wooden structures with no protection for the occupants. So, the railway journey was always linked to excited feelings of anxiety. Nowadays, the railways are amongst the safest forms of mass transportation. Nevertheless, these feelings of excitement and anxiety persist.

The first full length medical study of railway trauma was John Eric Erichsen’s classic book, “On Railway and Other Injuries of the Nervous System.”

Erichsen observed that those most likely to be injured in a railway crash were those sitting with their backs to the acceleration. This is the same injury mechanism found in whiplash.

Railway accidents are now known to cause “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) and other psychosomatic symptoms in addition to physical trauma.

The nature of symptoms caused by “railway spine” was hotly debated in the late 19th century, notably at the meetings of the (Austrian) Imperial Society of Physicians in Vienna, 1886.

Germany’s leading neurologist, Hermann Oppenheim, claimed that all railway spine symptoms were due to physical damage to the spine or brain, whereas his French and British colleagues, notably Jean-Martin Charcot and Herbert Page, insisted that some symptoms could be caused by hysteria (now known as conversion disorder).

The great doctor, Sigmund Freud, identified several kinds of neuroses that devolved from the railway. These were generally neurological manifestations that followed the physical trauma described above.

The main types of 19C trauma were “railway spine” (whiplash injury to the nervous system and paralysis) and “railway brain” (neurological agitation and psychosis).  Both of these were results of an association between the physical agitations of movement and the psychological anxieties attaching to that movement. Freud later described these mechanical agitations in terms of a “model of shock” and, famously, used a similar model to describe male sexual development.

The anxieties attaching to the railway were heightened, experientially and sensationally, by the evident mechanical power of the engine and the manifest speed of travel. The feelings associated to carried forward were exciting, pleasurable and discomfiting for both men and women.

It’s not difficult to understand how, for Freudians, the railway became a powerful metaphor for the traumas attaching to sexual desire….and the feelings of shock and guilt that attach to this activity.

The problem of human agency, implicit in the diagnosis of this “normal” behaviour, is a characteristic of the systems and structures of modern life. These may be economic, social and political. For Freud, especially, the practical terms of human agency were always derived from sexual desire.

The link between medicine, therapy, doctors and trains is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Alain Corbin has described the origins of the aquatic therapy of sea-bathing in explicitly sexualised terms. The historical development of the seaside  “pleasure garden” and fun fair were attempts to conjure an architecture and social space devoted to a therapeutic engagement with pleasure.

The early fair ground rides (roller coasters especially) provided for a more exhilarating version of the railway journey. Freud’s phobia of railways was entirely due to his anxieties in relation to giving up control, and to feelings of pleasure, generally.

Needless to say, these anxieties were those of “the reasonable man” confronted with the power of uncontrollable emotional feeling.

Lewis Carroll used the figure of the White Rabbit to get Alice’s dream started. The anxieties attaching to lateness and to missed connections must have run deep; even in the 19C.

We’re back at the railway timetable…(or to Neo in The Matrix).

Time to “go off the rails…”

Supplemental 200712

The psychic strain of railway travel proceeds, not from the noise, speed and vibrations of the railway carriage; but from the excitement, anxiety and nervous shock consequent on the effort to catch the last express; to be in time for the fearfully punctual train.



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