Transcendence on the train
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
June 7, 2017
Boarding the TGV last Sunday in Nimes, I intended to spend the three-and-a-half-hour journey to Barcelona working—with any luck writing, or at the very least making progress on a slow-going book I’ve been reading. Through a dry, sun-soaked landscape that turned overcast and wet, and rolling past a patchwork of vineyards in towns whose names seemed to belong more on a wine list than a map, I felt the familiar resistance. There is a short passage in Borges’s 1953 story “The South” that I often remember in such moments, whether in southern France or on an Amtrak wending up the Hudson Valley. In the story, Borges’s protagonist, Dahlmann, leaves Buenos Aires for the pampas:
When the train started off, he took down his valise and extracted, after some hesitation, the first volume of The Thousand and One Nights. … Along both sides of the train the city dissipated into suburbs; this sight, and then a view of the gardens and villas, delayed the beginning of his reading. The truth was that Dahlmann read very little. The magnetized mountain and the genie who swore to kill his benefactor are—who would deny it?—marvelous, but not so much more than the morning itself and the mere fact of being. The joy of life distracted him from paying attention to Scheherezade and her superfluous miracles. Dahlmann closed his book and allowed himself to live.
There is so much to read and learn and do—and this will always be the case. We should welcome, then, a reminder that even the most ingenious thought and the most pressing questions fall apart in the face of the simple splendors unfurling outside our windows.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
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