Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The driver and the signalman

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In his landmark book Design With Nature, the architect Ian L. McHarg shares an anecdote from the work of an English biologist named George Scott Williamson. McHarg, who describes Williamson as “a remarkable man,” mentions him in passing in a discussion of the social aspects of health: “He believed that physical, mental, and social health were unified attributes and that there were aspects of the physical and social environment that were their corollaries.” Before diving more deeply into the subject, however, McHarg offers up an apparently unrelated story that was evidently too interesting to resist:

One of the most endearing stories of this man concerns a discovery made when he was undertaking a study of the signalmen who maintain lonely vigils while operating the switches on British railroads. The question to be studied was whether these lonely custodians were subject to boredom, which would diminish their dependability. It transpired that lonely or not, underpaid or not, these men had a strong sense of responsibility and were entirely dependable. But this was not the major perception. Williamson learned that every single signalman, from London to Glasgow, could identify infallibly the drivers of the great express trains which flashed past their vision at one hundred miles per hour. The drivers were able to express their unique personalities through the unlikely and intractable medium of some thousand tons of moving train, passing in a fraction of a second. The signalmen were perceptive to this momentary expression of the individual, and Williamson perceived the power of the personality.

I hadn’t heard of Williamson before reading this wonderful passage, and all that I know about him is that he was the founder of the Peckham Experiment, an attempt to provide inexpensive health and recreation services to a neighborhood in Southeast London. The story of the signalmen seems to make its first appearance in his book Science, Synthesis, and Sanity: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Living, which he cowrote with his wife and collaborator Innes Hope Pearse. They relate:

Or again, sitting in a railway signal box on a dark night, in the far distance from several miles away came the rumble of the express train from London. “Hallo,” said my friend the signalman. “Forsyth’s driving her—wonder what’s happened to Courtney?” Next morning, on inquiry of the stationmaster at the junction, I found it was true. Courtney had been taken ill suddenly and Forsyth had deputized for him—all unknown, of course, to the signalman who in any case had met neither Forsyth nor Courtney. He knew them only as names on paper and by their “action-pattern” impressed on a dynamic medium—a unique action-pattern transmitted through the rumble of an unseen train. Or, in a listening post with nothing visible in the sky, said the listener: “That’s ‘Lizzie,’ and Crompton’s flying her.” “Lizzie” an airplane, and her pilot imprinting his action-pattern on her course.

And while Williamson and Pearse are mostly interested in the idea of an individual’s “action-pattern” being visible in an unlikely medium, it’s hard not to come away more struck, like McHarg, by the image of the lone signalman, the passing machine, and the transient moment of connection between them.

As I read over this, it occurred to me that it perfectly encapsulated our relationship with a certain kind of pop culture. We’re the signalmen, and the movie or television show is the train. As we sit in our living rooms, lonely and relatively isolated, something passes across our field of vision—an episode of Game of Thrones, say, which often feels like a locomotive to the face. This is the first time that we’ve seen it, but it represents the end result of a process that has unfolded for months or years, as the episode was written, shot, edited, scored, and mixed, with the contributions of hundreds of men and women we wouldn’t be able to name. As we experience it, however, we see the glimmer of another human being’s personality, as expressed through the narrative machine. It isn’t just a matter of the visible choices made on the screen, but of something less definable, a “style” or “voice” or “attitude,” behind which, we think, we can make out the amorphous factors of influence and intent. We identify an artist’s obsessions, hangups, and favorite tricks, and we believe that we can recognize the mark of a distinctive style even when it goes uncredited. Sometimes we have a hunch about what happened on the set that day, or the confluence of studio politics that led to a particular decision, even if we have no way of knowing it firsthand. (This was one of the tics of Pauline Kael’s movie reviews that irritated Renata Adler: “There was also, in relation to filmmaking itself, an increasingly strident knowingness: whatever else you may think about her work, each column seemed more hectoringly to claim, she certainly does know about movies. And often, when the point appeared most knowing, it was factually false.”) We may never know the truth, but it’s enough if a theory seems plausible. And the primary difference between us and the railway signalman is that we can share our observations with everyone in sight.

I’m not saying that these inferences are necessarily incorrect, any more than the signalmen were wrong when they recognized the personal styles of particular drivers. If Williamson’s account is accurate, they were often right. But it’s worth emphasizing that the idea that you can recognize a driver from the passage of a train is no less strange than the notion that we can know something about, say, Christopher Nolan’s personality from Dunkirk. Both are “unlikely and intractable” mediums that serve as force multipliers for individual ability, and in the case of a television show or movie, there are countless unseen variables that complicate our efforts to attribute anything to anyone, much less pick apart the motivations behind specific details. The auteur theory in film represents an attempt to read movies like novels, but as Thomas Schatz pointed out decades ago in his book The Genius of the System, trying to read Casablanca as the handiwork of Michael Curtiz, rather than that of all of its collaborators taken together, is inherently problematic. And this is easy to forget. (I was reminded of this by the recent controversy over David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s pitch for their Civil War alternate history series Confederate. I agree with the case against it that the critic Roxane Gay presents in her opinion piece for the New York Times, but the fact that we’re closely scrutinizing a few paragraphs for clues about the merits of a show that doesn’t even exist only hints at how fraught the conversation will be after it actually premieres.) There’s a place for informed critical discussion about any work of art, but we’re often drawing conclusions based on the momentary passage of a huge machine before our eyes, and we don’t know much about how it got there or what might be happening inside. Most of us aren’t even signalmen, who are a part of the system itself. We’re trainspotters.

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