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Author Topic: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife  (Read 307 times)

Sefiru

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Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« on: May 01, 2018, 07:37:07 pm »
Putting this here because modern mythology.

What is with the association between trains and death? Why, out of all vehicles, are trains the most common choice of afterlife transportation? (TVtropes has a whole page of examples).

What have trains got that, say, a bus doesn't?

This has been on my mind because I recently got my hands on some model railroad supplies, and was undecided about whether to shell out for the expensive part (ie a locomotive) until it occurred to me that I could make it into an ancestor shrine, partly due to this trope.

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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2018, 07:50:24 pm »
This has been on my mind because I recently got my hands on some model railroad supplies, and was undecided about whether to shell out for the expensive part (ie a locomotive) until it occurred to me that I could make it into an ancestor shrine, partly due to this trope.

My father was a massive model railroad fan (two rooms in the attic of the house I grew up in, and a layout in the basement, too, parts of the former are in a museum near me.)

One of the things about trains is that they're cyclical. Not a dusk and dawn thing, not a seasonal thing, precisely, but they run on a schedule, that ebbs and flows, but has a sense of coordination and planning and direction behind it. And you're going to a fixed number of places, along the line, rather than  being able to go anywhere. (I mean, a bus normally goes to the scheduled stops, but it could do something else! Trains, that works for a very very short distance, very badly.)

My father had a set round of trains he'd run (and I gather, this is totally normal in the hobby, it wasn't just him) plus a bunch of other specific customs - the first time we had a snowfall in the winter, he'd come home and run the snowplow. Things like that.

(Incidentally, model railroad layouts can do really cool things: my father had stops named on each of his (the attic ones were two different eras) for his children, we each appear once (and only once) on each layout, there are all sorts of other little injokes and things that mattered to him, and amusements.)
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Eastling

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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #2 on: May 02, 2018, 01:51:40 am »
Putting this here because modern mythology.

What is with the association between trains and death? Why, out of all vehicles, are trains the most common choice of afterlife transportation? (TVtropes has a whole page of examples).

What have trains got that, say, a bus doesn't?

This has been on my mind because I recently got my hands on some model railroad supplies, and was undecided about whether to shell out for the expensive part (ie a locomotive) until it occurred to me that I could make it into an ancestor shrine, partly due to this trope.

Trains are a particularly fascinating symbol to me. I've never lived that far from train tracks, and I've ridden on many trains. They are their environs strike me as a potent liminal power.

Jenett has a lot of good insight on this above, but there's another factor that I've mused on: anyone familiar with train travel (at least in the US--I don't know what it's like elsewhere) will have noticed that trains often go through "bad neighborhoods." More than that, train tracks tend to mark undesirable areas for living in the first place--they're noisy, they can be inconvenient to get around, they decrease an area's sense of privacy. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy--once you've built a train track, the neighborhood may change around it, but the track stays and the train keeps going. In any case, trains frequently run through places that someone driving or walking (or otherwise determining their own path) would avoid, just the same as they run through fancy, appealing town centers.

So there's a factor of social leveling in train travel--all the passengers are in it together, going through all of society, at the whim of a higher power. Granted, that higher power is usually just the train schedule, which is usually not that arcane in real life, but you never know in dreams and metaphor.

The mid-'00s television series The Wire frequently used trains as a metaphor for the machinations of society as Fate for a lot of the above reasons.
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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #3 on: May 02, 2018, 06:47:23 pm »
trains frequently run through places that someone driving or walking (or otherwise determining their own path) would avoid, just the same as they run through fancy, appealing town centers.

It occurs to me that, unlike airplanes, trains are very much in the environments they pass through, while still being separated from it. Also, unlike road vehicles, a train is usually alone on its track, which also increases the separation aspect.

I think another thing is that trains feel powerful, being both big and fast.

I've done quite a bit of train travel myself, in my case mostly in Europe while visiting relatives. So there's quite a strong association with family in there for me, too.

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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #4 on: May 04, 2018, 03:02:28 pm »

So there's a factor of social leveling in train travel--all the passengers are in it together, going through all of society, at the whim of a higher power. Granted, that higher power is usually just the train schedule, which is usually not that arcane in real life, but you never know in dreams and metaphor.


Oh interesting! And you almost never, as a passenger, see the person driving. And a train could sort of be as big as you can imagine, in some ways--in that dream logic of mythology, it can just have the number of cars it needs to carry however many people. (Unlike a car, say, or a bus, which is small enough that you can see everyone onboard, and the driver too.) And somewhere, up front, an engine you mostly don't see.

And a train has to follow its tracks. There's a sense of inevitability. A train, barring accident, WILL go where it's supposed to. That works better as a notion of afterlife travel than a horse-cart or a jet or a cruise ship or a station wagon, in a lot of ways.
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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #5 on: May 04, 2018, 05:47:04 pm »
And a train has to follow its tracks. There's a sense of inevitability. A train, barring accident, WILL go where it's supposed to.

Maybe. Maybe not. I'm remembering one particularly vivid dream where I was driving a train. There was a switch off the main line which veered away to the left; I knew that I was supposed to follow it as the tracks up ahead on the main line had been lifted and were "uncharted territory." I went straight, and as the tracks ended...I woke up.
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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #6 on: May 04, 2018, 06:43:47 pm »
And a train has to follow its tracks. There's a sense of inevitability. A train, barring accident, WILL go where it's supposed to. That works better as a notion of afterlife travel than a horse-cart or a jet or a cruise ship or a station wagon, in a lot of ways.

Do you think this puts trains closer (mythologically speaking) to forces of nature, rather than works of humankind?

Morbid

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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #7 on: May 05, 2018, 10:25:27 pm »
Do you think this puts trains closer (mythologically speaking) to forces of nature, rather than works of humankind?

The one thing that I wanted to add to this overall conversation is that train tracks are fairly absolute.  Once they're laid, it takes a lot of manpower in order to remove that absolution.  There are portions of track in the US that have been operation since the earliest days of the locomotive (Wikipedia has an article).  I'm sure that the tracks themselves have been maintained and updated and brought up to modern standards, but nonetheless trains have been riding those tracks for a long time.

Not only that, but to me a train offers a one way ticket feeling.  Even if you travel to a destination, and you want to come back, you often have to take an entirely separate track.  Obviously in life and death, there's no train back. 

And move over, I wonder if it is perhaps an aesthetic feel, as well.  Trains feel classic, hardy and tough, in it for the long haul. 
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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #8 on: May 06, 2018, 01:14:33 am »
Do you think this puts trains closer (mythologically speaking) to forces of nature, rather than works of humankind?

I don't know--maybe they're more like a human-made imitation of a river, where we've taken and refined pieces of the world into long gleaming flows up and down which we and our goods and material travel, but which go where the rivers will not, and which are not, like rivers, full of non-human life.
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Re: Modern mythology: trains to the afterlife
« Reply #9 on: May 09, 2018, 06:30:43 pm »
Not only that, but to me a train offers a one way ticket feeling.  Even if you travel to a destination, and you want to come back, you often have to take an entirely separate track.  Obviously in life and death, there's no train back. 

Huh, I never would have made that connection, because the train lines I'm most familiar with do run in both directions on the same track. Still I think you might be on to something.

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