The Train – An Introduction

So, I’m reading Pynchon again. That’s Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day, one of his most recent novels. I always go back to Pynchon, the person that made me fall in love with writing. I remember the day and the moment of impending revelation. I remember, in fact the precise angle from which I looked up and above the racks of Fiction and Fine Arts saw that book standing open, beckoning like a monument for me to enter.  One huge letter on the cover, V with a period following, standing like a surrealistic sculpture on a plain of lines with the outlines of a woman, face hidden, standing off to the side. I remember the streets where Benny Profane wandered and those merchant sailors at the Sailors Grave brawling over the barmaids and singing strange sea shanties and perched upon the rigging of that old World War Two ‘Tin Can’ that carried them over to bizarre foreign adventure. I remember and am now reminded of the pleasure of those sentences written with such a sense of oceanic rolling beauty that it almost didn’t matter what story they told. I was too young to really understand the stories anyway.Therein were the streets that Benny Profane wandered toward that tin can tavern, The Sailors Grave where merchant sailors roiled the Sailors Grave, brawling over barmaids and singing sea shanties and later climbing the rigging of the old World War Two freighter that carried them across the oceans into foreign adventures. This was a world just after the Great War that I was too young to really understand, but I remember the pleasure of those sentences written with a sense of rolling comic beauty that made it almost irrelevant what story they told.

Later, after The Crying of Lot Forty-Nine and Gravity’s RainbowVineland and Mason Dixon I started to see a theme in all these narratives about characters wandering in a dislocated world all following clues to the pattern that held it all together, never really arriving at the source but learning that the search itself was the key to the journey. In the book I’m reading the  Archduke Ferdinand of Austria near the end of the nineteenth century is found in a negro bar on the south side of Chicago. He stiffs the bartender before leaving thus establishing his character as a precursor to the century to come. Strangely, the locations in this story are places that I’ve lived or spent time in: Cleveland, location of the famous experiment by Michelson and Morley at my old college first measured the speed of light, and the library founded by Andrew Carnegie, where I actually discovered the author, one of the first public libraries in the United States; Colorado with all of it’s mining towns filled with the relics of failed westward dreaming.  

Maybe that’s where this story begins, a flow of subversive narrative hinting at a mystery always just out of reach. Pynchon’s characters circling around the mystery, getting ever closer only to see the puzzle endlessly unravel leading to  ever greater mystery, the mystery that can never be finally solved or decoded. The key is always in these sentences, even more than the wider narrative. It’s like watching a movie where, if you know the language of movies and how to look beneath the plot a whole story is told in the structure of a single shot or in the arrangement of lines and planes, the composition of light and dark. 

The world follows a narratives based on our assumptions. Preconceived ideas  determine not only what we see but how exactly we see it. Sometimes things come at us from out of the mystery that make us suddenly drop one set of assumptions for another, and the whole world changes in an instant. Sometimes we change because we decide to, sometimes the change is forced upon us, and maybe most often the changes just seem to happen underneath at the level of chemistry, or like the slow process of erosion. We wake up one day and notice that we’ve become a different person altogether than the one we were the day before.

One of the oldest stories, and one of my favorites is at the center of The Mahabharata, one of the oldest scriptures in the world. The story is called the Baghavad Gita and it’s unique among all of the scriptures I know about as it   takes place in an instant when time itself pauses in the middle of a battlefield where two enormous armies are about to clash. Prince Arjuna  is in despair because he knows that he will have to fight and kill friends and relations in the fight that’s coming. In the ensuing conversation between Arjuna and his charioteer, who is Lord Krishna and a manifestation of the Godhead. Krishna demonstrates the inevitability of the laws of cause and effect and outlines the path of wisdom, devotion and selfless action in a world where we are ultimately responsible for our own choices.  

These teachings are the well from which the essential kernels of eastern religion pour. Krishna’s ultimate revelation is that our particular personality is merely a vehicle through which one of the myriad forms of the Supreme Being manifests. Our journeys in this life are always in relation to this single truth.  Whatever we see before us, shaped as it is by our travels through cause and effect, we respond to according to our true nature and the key to revelation is to act with clarity and commitment and  without attachment to results.   

As I move from one passionate encounter to another these lessons come back to me. It may be that the metaphor of life as a battlefield suits my particular nature.  I engage in daily struggle with my own inner demons and alien armies, and the quality of my actions proceed from the clarity of my mind. In the end, all of the angels and demons I meet are images seen in a mirror.   

The train is moving very slowly today. Some sort of ‘signal’ issue. We’re crawling toward Albuquerque at about ten miles an hour, rather than the normal eighty. It’s okay with me. This is my weekly study hall, my time for contemplation and reflection up here on the second level of the Rail Runner, looking out over the New Mexico landscape with few  interruptions, out of contact, quietly weaving across the high desert and plain, between the mesas, through the river valleys.  

 

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