The Rhythmic, Sedative Pull of the Motorways
In the issue of the London Review of Books that just arrived in my mailbox, I opened it to find this extraordinary passage by Andrew O’Hagan, which magnificently encapsulates the existential pleasures of driving (he deals with some of the ambivalence later). The piece goes on to say a few kind words about some recent books, including my own.
Behind all this stands the culture of driving and the fact of traffic. We love driving and we hate it, we praise it and we slate it, but our relationship with cars is a lively element in our relationship with ourselves and other people. The downturn in the industry chills us, but mainly because – and we don’t feel this way about pharmaceuticals or petrochemicals – it makes us imagine we might have to stop being who we are. I speak as a fairly late convert to the life-enlarging potential of cars: for 36 years I was happy to go around the country on buses and trains, taking the Tube to any destination I ever wanted or needed to visit, to work and to cinemas, on dates and on expeditions, without ever feeling at a loss. When I took taxis it was just another form of being in the hands of others. It meant listening to speeches I found actively aggressive and paying over the odds for the privilege. Then I began taking driving lessons and the world suddenly opened up to me in a way I now depend on. The first long drive I took after I passed my test was a kind of baptism: I put down the windows and let all life’s unreasonable demarcations fly behind the car, enjoying the illusion that I now had a friend who cared for my freedom.
I could easily say I loved my car – I missed it when I went to bed at night. On that first long drive from London to Wales and thence to Inverness – which took 14 hours – I believe I discovered my autonomy. As with all illusions, I didn’t care that others found the enchantment funny: the feeling was new, and its newness is something that millions of people express rarely but understand fully. In American fiction, a great number of epiphanies – especially male epiphanies – occur while the protagonist is alone and driving his car. There are reasons for that. One may not have a direction but one has a means of getting there. One may not be in control of life but one can progress in a straight line. When your youth is over and definitions become fixed, even if they are wrong, it might turn out that the arrival of a car suddenly feels like the commuting of a sentence. It may seem to give you back your existential mojo. That is the beauty of learning to drive late and learning to drive often: it gives you a sense that life turned out to be freer than it was in your childhood, that time agrees with you, that your own sensitivities found their domain in the end, and that deep in the shell of your inexpensive car you came to know your subjectivity. Of course, one may find these things in the marriage bed or in a gentleman’s club, but those places have rules and your car is your own bed, your own club. Music? Yes. Tears? Yes. Singing? Yes. Stopping under the stars? OK, if you must. And here is Tintern Abbey. And there is Hadrian’s Wall. And should I stop in Glasgow for a drink? If you read the novels of Joan Didion, you will see there can come a time in anybody’s life, women’s as much as men’s, when they climb into their car and feel that they are driving away from an entire kingdom of dependency. The motorways don’t offer a solution: they offer a welcome straitjacket. Your car will get all the credit for bringing you home to yourself, for showing you the only person you can truly depend on is not merely yourself, but yourself-in-your-car, a somatic unity. Those who spend most of their lives being alert to the demands of others – and that’s most employees, most husbands, wives, parents, most believers – will know the rhythmic, sedative pull of the motorways as the road performs its magic, pulling you back by degrees to some forgotten individualism that the joys and vexations of community always threatened to turn into an upholstered void. Virginia Woolf was almost right: all one really needs is a car of one’s own, the funds to keep it on the road and the will to encounter oneself within. Though most of those men aren’t listening to Virginia Woolf – they’re listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.
So far, so sad. And so far, so essential…
This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 at 1:47 pm and is filed under Cars, Drivers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.