Last Sunday I came across a classic car show in a Seattle suburb. The bright colors and streamlined shapes were impossible to resist. I stopped to join the crowd in rapt admiration of the immaculately restored Mustangs, GTO’s, T-Birds, Corvettes and other beauties dating as far back as the 1920’s. As sculptural objects they offered the tangible pleasures of sweeping lines, voluptuous curves, and an exuberant array of intense colors. But there was more to it than the allure of shiny objects. The classic cars lining the streets were also saturated with nostalgia and myth.
Nostalgia longs for a time when nostalgia didn’t exist because everyone “then” was happily embedded in the present. As Svetlana Boym observes:
At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. (The Future of Nostalgia, p. xv)
Those classic cars were time machines, transporting us into memories both real and imagined. They did not function the way ruins do to produce a melancholy awareness that all things pass away, for these were not dented, rusting hulks. They appeared flawless and bright, impervious to decay, inviting us to re-experience lost time as if we were still there.
The soundtrack of my youth played over loudspeakers. Drive-in trays held plastic replicas of burgers and shakes. A Howdy Doody doll gripped the steering wheel of a convertible. Nostalgia all around. But it wasn’t just personal associations that tugged at me. I also felt communion with a vanished golden age. Classic cars are tangible signs of a less anxious time before fossil fuels, air pollution and climate change became universal worries. A 1980 Tom T. Hall sums up that lost era with a haiku-like refrain:
Back when gas was 30¢ a gallon,
and love was only 60¢ away.
Of course cars are more than just present objects or past memories. They are vehicles designed to propel us ever forward, down the road to whatever Promised Land awaits us. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the Italian poet whose Futurist movement obsessed over novelty, assailed the snail’s pace of the “sleepy” culture prior to the automobile. “Time and Space died yesterday,” he declared in 1909. “We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” For Marinetti, a racing roadster hurling the spirit of its driver across the earth in a headlong blur was “more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”
Not everyone was equally thrilled by a culture of ever-increasing velocity. In 1910, the French writer Octave Mirbeau called “automobilism” a mental illness with “a pretty name: speed.” It makes us “impatient to get going once [we have] arrived somewhere, because it is not somewhere else, somewhere else, always somewhere else.”
But “somewhere else” is the American dream. Pilgrim ships and covered wagons were just the slow-motion precursors of the endless road movie that drives our culture. We are a people enamored of open highways, limitless horizons and liberating journeys to the distant places where we can reinvent ourselves.
Road imagery is abundant in American song. All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood … We’re riding out tonight to case the Promised Land (Bruce Springsteen) … When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide / Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide (Jackson Browne).
And how many times have the movies put us behind the wheel of a classic car in the desperate search for self and meaning? In countless films protagonists flee an oppressive local situation at 70 miles per hour, whooshing toward Somewhere Else in an ecstasy of freedom. As Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard tell it, those drivers want to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.” Thelma and Louise were perhaps the only ones who ever made it that far. When, pursued by a posse of police cars, they run out of road at the edge of a deep canyon, they just keep going, leaving time and history behind as a freeze frame catches them in mid-air. Then they and their car dissolve into a screen of pure whiteness, where their fate remains eternally beyond our view.
It is one of the most exhilarating endings in cinema, an eschatological leap of liberation and transcendence. But many road movies detour into darker terrain, and the perpetual motion of aimless wandering can find no lasting place to dwell. Flight from culture and place constitute the classic quest for regeneration, but if you lose your way and never reconnect with something beyond yourself, you may just die in the wilderness. The American inability to dwell is part of our shadow side, with disastrous consequences for our psyches, communities and natural habitats. For more on that, read Wendell Berry.
The futility of purposeless mobility, of speed going nowhere, is perfectly expressed in the ending of Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s brilliant 1971 film about a couple of pals drifting around the country in their souped-up ’55 Chevy, picking up street races where they can. The minimal narrative structure has pretty much evaporated by the last scene, where the Driver (all the characters are nameless) revs up his engine for one more race. “You can never go fast enough” is his mantra.
The final shot shows him in silhouette from the back seat, his hair blowing wildly as the car picks up speed. This shot also freeze-frames, but instead of dissolving into the white transcendence that embraced Thelma and Louise, the image begins to burn and melt, as if jammed in the projector. Whether you see that burning frame as an image from Beckett or from Dante, it’s not a happy ending.
Those classic cars have brought me this far, but now I’ve run out of road. How do I end? FADE TO WHITE.
Perceptive, challenging, and beautifully written, as always. Two-thirds of the way through I was reminded of Gary Snyder’s words from 40 years ago:, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”
I was also reminded of “Vanishing Point” Well done, Jim a beautiful and engaging read.
I don’t know what you said but I enjoyed the ride
A perfect comment. I took the liberty of quoting you in my latest post.
My dad and I used to go to old car shows in the suburbs of Atlanta, I remember experiences like these. Beautifully put into words 🙂
I’m glad it brought back good memories.
Some deep thinking!!! Loved the perception and interpretation of a sight in a philosophical way which would have, otherwise, remained as just another car show. 👏
Thanks for reading.
Thank you, Christine. I’m glad you enjoyed the ride.
Well done. I must offer this: I very much hope your worry for the future is how it will end (unconsciousness, not to be feared any more than sleeping — same state — is the answer).
Through psycho-hypnotic-meditative-self-hypnosis to achieve recognition and cognitive control of my self, I’ve come to where I am. I live in the moment, each moment.
I did so, initially… Long story. I became an expert to not-feel fibromyalgia pain.
And did. …If only everyone could get a life-altering disorder…
…I walk. Haven’t had a driver’s license in a decade (and live in cities, downtown).
The faster an object moves, the more energy it takes to move faster than that. Moving ever-faster is increasingly energy-demanding.
And not a great way to live life. (Which also makes faster-than-light travel impossible.)
Please continue work of this quality. I shall enjoy seeing how well you are abke to extend metaphors.
Thanks for sharing a bit of your story. Given your interest in cognitive processes, you might enjoy my two posts on a book called Solitude (see the links in my current post, “The questions that matter”), by a man who spent a year alone in the Patagonian wilderness, paying close attention to the effects on his own consciousness.
Reblogged this on psasunbd and commented:
There’s more to a car than meets the eye…..awesome article
Glad you liked it. Thanks for visiting.
Thanks. I appreciate it.
That dashboard on photograph … !
Reblogged this on carlbrodhead and commented:
You are so right, mine was a 55 Chevy convertible
COULD be tempting enough to make waves to get fast
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How do you write so well? Wow!
Thanks for reading. As for where the words come from, who knows? It would be like trying to trace the source of a river of books read over the years. But I appreciate your encouragement.
Intersting point you make about Americans wanting to go elsewhere to reinvent themselves. If it only were that easy…
Never easy, and mostly not by our own design. But setting out on a way in a spirit of openness, not overdetermined by prior intention, may bring unscripted and unexpected transformations. See Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey,” and Cavafy’s “Ithaca.”
thxs for recommending Mary Oliver’s Journey.
Can you recommend some of your favorite books? I am inspired to improve my writing skills.
A vast question. So many books! The more you read, the better you write. Some of my favorite non-fiction writers or essayists who explore a subject from various angles with marvelous language and intelligence are Rebecca Solnit, Phillip Lopate, Barry Lopez, Patricia Hampl, Terry Tempest Williams, Pico Iyer, Adam Gopnik, Lawrence Weschler, and Robert Leonard Reid. Happy reading.
Uv taken it beyond the spirit of an (otherwise drab, to many) auto show! Well composed!
Thank you for reading.
I’m glad you liked it. Thanks.
Plz do see my blog post.
Would love to know ur inputs on it.
Very beautifully written. You are a true lover of cars. And you made me feel the ride with you.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the age of classic cars, how could I not love them? Artist Ed Ruscha once said that Los Angeles is meant to be experienced at 35 mph. And Randy Newman would insist that it be in a convertible.
Hello Jim – thank you for writing that.
Your nostalgia for classic cars sounds something like the British nostalgia for steam trains – moving, but moving more sedately than our present travel options. Trains are considered virtuous forms of travel these days. If you watch a British documentary you’ll see plenty of shots of the presenter gazing out of the train window – we, as viewers, understand that shot as ‘deep philosophical thoughts taking place’ rather than ‘drug-induced stupor’. You’ll never see a shot of the presenter suddenly turning their head as they catch sight of a burglar breaking into a house or a wild party taking place in a garden. Train windows always frame languor and ‘intelligent consideration’. The ‘outside’ is always mistily out-of-focus or so green and rural that it represents ‘old Englande’ or suggests our common idea of our green and pleasant land.
Travelling by train in a BBC documentary is viewed as worthier and more ‘serious’ than travelling by car. Travelling by motorbike or bicycle is considered worthier still. Somehow, travelling by bicycle beats travelling by foot in the virtue stakes.
You made me think of the imagery of cars in my own country. Have you ever seen Patrick McGoohan’s 1960s series The Prisoner? The title scene, where he drives his Lotus 7 to hand in his resignation, said ‘speed, energy, individualistic’ in the blink of an eye to any viewer at the time (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AL7npkSXZE). Inspector Morse’s red vintage Jaguar 2.2 said ‘intelligent, aspirational, individualistic, ponderous’ to his viewers. Like Lady Penelope’s Rolls Royce in Thunderbirds, Morse’s Jag could go fast when necessary, but slow enjoyment of its high-class engineering was its real visual purpose.
I’ll stop here, before I get carried away! Just two quick thoughts – your final point about ‘fade to white’ driving into infinity endings made me think of Quadrophenia. Due to the small size of our island, we have no real concept of driving and driving (unless it’s through the Scottish Highlands) because we don’t have the long straight roads that you do. Any film that showed a protagonist speeding up and driving into oblivion would crash into the viewers’ immediate question – ‘Where on earth is he that he hasn’t come across a roundabout/traffic lights/a t-junction yet?’ Oblivion would have to arrive very, very quickly to be believable in the UK. Which is one reason why the final moped scene in Quadrophenia works so well. On two small wheels you have plenty of time to drive along Beachy Head with your hair flowing behind you.
My other thought – it’s a great shame that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti put his thoughts at the service of Mussolini’s fascists.
All best wishes
Elaine, what marvelous comments. I myself inherited a love of trains from my father, who wanted to be an engineer when he was a boy. He got to know the engineers on the line that ran through his Minnesota town, and as a teen once caught a ride in the cab to a dance in the next town. Although he ended up as an Episcopal priest and film producer, he never stopped loving trains. We rode a lot of trains together in my own childhood, including the Daylight up the California coast and the Super Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago, and he had an custom O-gauge train layout, with brass engines from Germany, that was featured in Model Railroader magazine. I totally get the philosophical gaze out the window. I can see that I need to do a post about trains. As for The Prisoner, I watched it faithfully when it played on American television in the summers of ’68 and ’69. We would always be sure to be around the tv in time to see his Lotus start the show. I actually used some excerpts from The Prisoner in a tape collage that was part of a multimedia sermon I did in seminary. Funny thought about the absence of unobstructed space on UK roads. I once drove 2700 miles on English roads in 16 days to photograph 95 churches, cathedrals and abbeys, so I know what you mean. In my newest post I quote Don DeLillo on American space and include a bit of video of an open road I drove last week in Montana. Thanks for giving me lots to think about.
You have those lovely double-decker trains in America, don’t you? There’s a wonderful frisson of excitement when you come from a country where trains only ever have one layer, to be able to climb stairs at the beginning of a train journey. A bit like being bumped up to First Class on a plane. To a British person, there’s something regal about sitting upstairs on a train – not that the Queen has an upstairs http://bit.ly/1NC6AHc There’s something psychologically pleasing about taking a few steps upwards during a journey. (I’d guess, in the old days, going upstairs for the first time in a red double-decker London bus, as a tourist, might have provided something of the same feeling).
Do you have trainspotters in America? I don’t know if the idea of having a notebook and standing on a train platform to record train serial numbers would fly there. http://bit.ly/1K6UXHT It would take longer to collect numbers standing still in the US, wouldn’t it, because you have the same trains going up and down the same lines, I think – like the Daylight? Maybe your trainspotters collect some other bit of information about your trains – they say that collecting rare objects is a human instinct because those who survived long enough to build up a collection were hardier specimens of humanity and better prospects as mates. (Over the millenia, the tide of irresistibility seems to have turned away from trainspotters – or twitchers somewhat! Perhaps the invention of the electric guitar was the thing that did it).
Sorry – I’m writing as I’m thinking, but your comments section probably isn’t the place for me to think. Thank you again for writing your piece – I have a small question – do you think that a perception of ‘the futility of purposeless mobility’ is a throwback to a time when all mobility was purposeful? (I’m thinking, not just of noamdic tribes, but of rural folk in Portugal and Spain who were totally bemused by the nature-loving tourists who would cross mountains or walk through woods just for the fun of it, when they themselves would only set off along the tracks their ancestors had formed if they had a visit to make or something to sell or some work to do).
All best wishes
The subjects multiply! I always go upstairs, whether a double-decker London bus or a train, though next time I will reflect more on the psychological effect. The California Zephyr, which I rode years ago, was famous for its 5 Vista-Dome cars in each train. A 1950s ad read: “Scenery Unlimited! Only the Vista Dome gives you so much to see …! You look up, look down, look all around as you enjoy day-long views of the colorful Colorado Rockies and California’s famous Feather River Canyon through the High Sierra.” I’m not sure about American trainspotters compared to the UK practice, though we do have railfans who wait expectantly along the tracks to see what they can. James Benning’s film, “RR,” consists of 2-minute shots of passing trains in a wide variety of locations, making it a film about American landscape as well as trains themselves. Each shot uses a fixed position – up close, far off, straight-on, at an angle. Viewing 43 trains over 90 minutes in long single takes with the fixed gaze of an unmoving camera is a contemplative experience. A nice interview with Benning here. Your question about purposeless travel is worthy of a separate post, but in the meantime you might enjoy some past posts: Footsteps and Shadows and Sauntering. Cheers.
Thanks for the recommendations, Jim. I’ve visited 2 and I’m saving the Benning for later.
I love the line about the American dream is always “somewhere else.” That’s so true!
Thanks, Leah. It all comes down to paths or centers. There is, thankfully, a counter-tradition to “going elsewhere” in America, about staying home and dwelling within a sense of place. Wendell Berry writes a lot about it, in the tradition of Thoreau, who said “I have traveled widely in Concord.” And Mary Chapin Carpenter sings about the longing for community and rootedness in “Jubilee”: “it’s habit alone that keeps you turning for home / Even though your home is right here / Where the people who love you are gathered …”
Jim, all good thoughts(and true! Thank you for this insightful article😊 Also,you have to learn to trust God’s timing in your life. It is when we learn to trust, that We can enter rest.therefore, reach contentment and notice the good things about our lives.👍🏻
See the Kafka parable, “My Destination.” A man setting out on a journey is asked his destination. “Away from here” is his reply.
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Wow! I’ve never felt so grateful to a classic car! It’s really great that you notice tthe significance of little things in life. Good for you!
Thanks, Crimson. Paying attention in our own way is a gift we all give to one another. Thanks for reading.
“You can never go fast enough”….and i can never go fast enough to read it…
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