Free association rocks.
To me, one hallmark of a well-turned essay is the writer’s ability to introduce several themes, then bring them together convincingly for the killer closing punch.
This essay is well-turned. It is not “about” trains and public transportation, which is the passage I’ve chosen to highlight. However, the dining car reference is a pillar supporting the conclusion.
Take ten minutes and read this essay. Think about it: “Thoreau, no stranger to solitude, posed a helpful question, in Walden: ‘what sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?’ The answer, these days, is profit maximization.”
Why do we tolerate this aberrant condition?
The Visitor: Wizards of Loneliness, by Lucy Schiller (CounterPunch)
… Though breadless, I am not an ingrate or sadsack, particularly when I get out of the house, get moving, get on the S-Bahn. Taking the train here in Germany is a perpetual reminder of how inferior any such system is in the United States. For some time in Iowa, I would take the Amtrak from Fort Madison, a town in what someone once termed to me the “teat of Iowa,” to New Mexico, where my family lives. One of the joys of that experience was the dining car, in which the staff, with deliciously impenetrable logic, assemble groups of strangers at the tables. Amtrak, attempting deference to a new, millennial audience (but mostly cost-cutting), is now phasing the dining car out. Millennials, a Washington Post article went on the subject, are “known to be always on the run, glued to their phones and not particularly keen on breaking bread with strangers at a communal table.” I met some unsettling characters at the communal table, true, but I remember, too, an elderly lady with a wicked laugh, and a man I saw two separate times, on two separate train journeys, with whom I was randomly seated both times. He was returning from taking care of a close friend with multiple sclerosis and was a retired train engineer. We stared out of the panoramic window over our steaming baked potatoes and he talked at length of engine repair.
There’s a current in American letters these days, particularly among millennial writers, of writing in a high literary style about solitude, about loneliness. I’ve attempted it, though it’s never amounted to much and I frustrate myself quickly with how little there is to say. The treatment of loneliness in contemporary literature often feels like how it felt to live in the Spinster’s Cottage—a little obvious, boring, and cramped. Which is not to say the subject itself is unworthy. Much has been written about loneliness and solitude, and the relationship between the two, that has not been boring. (“It might be lonelier without the loneliness,” wrote Emily Dickinson, recognizing that the feeling provides its own company, of a kind.) Vivian Gornick, Banana Yoshimoto, Mark Fisher spring to mind. Some of their lonelinesses are more painful. I do not recommend reading Mark Fisher, who took his own life in 2017, if you’re looking for a salve:
We need to abandon the belief in the autonomous individual that has been at the heart, not only of neoliberalism, but of the whole liberal tradition. In a successful attempt to break with social democratic and socialist collectivism, neoliberalism invested massive ideological effort into reflating this conception of the individual, with its supporting dramaturgy of choice and responsibility.