21 June 2024

Reductio Ad Absurdum: Reading Freud on the Subway

The Subway by George Tooker, 1950

This is a little story, or at least the beginning of it, that I wrote for a local writer's competition. It did not get selected so I am publishing it here because I think it makes points worth considering.

Reading Freud on the Subway

In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud writes that he finds no error in the Communist economic plan, but surmises that it would not resolve one fundamental problem: the need to express aggression and direct it inward or outward. An economic system that prioritizes the equal distribution of resources might work, but human nature would still creep in and create inequities elsewhere.

Imagine a subway car with a limited number of car seats. If everything is planned accordingly, there are only as many customers as there are empty seats available at any given time. The flow of passengers into the car is subject to careful monitoring and regulation and unfolds without a hitch; there is no competition in sight because the frequency of the trains adapts to the fluctuating demand. But the train ride is long, longer for some than for others. How will they occupy themselves? Sound planning might alleviate one set of spatial constraints, but the laws of physics dictate that a train travels at an average speed over a given distance, and for lack of inventions to come, the present imposes itself in all its less than predictable vicissitudes.  

There’s a zealous knitter next to an avid reader. Although he tries his best to minimize the elbow room required to stitch his rows, sometimes the end of his thick wooden needle brushes against the flashy neon green and pink book cover on the edge of his peripheral vision. The reader, who is wearing headphones to drown out the chatter of two gregarious friends across the aisle, remains unperturbed. She shifts in her seat, crosses one leg over the other, but does not make a move. The story is engrossing after all, and a slight nudge from the left is a small price to pay for the pleasure of a subway car that is not cramped. The train pulls into a station. The demure couple sitting to her right gets off. Taking its place, in saunters an eccentric pair bundled up against the cold in what seems to be glossy astronaut suits, carrying bunches of flowers with flanking gigantic palm leaves.

Now our reader feels squished. What’s more, the flowers are casting an obstructive shadow over the pages of her book. Where should she turn? Should she reprimand the knitter for occasionally jolting her book or ask the bulky new arrivals to kindly put down their flowers into the aisle? She considers turning to the flower people. As she is about to make her move and takes off her headphones, one of them, the one immediately to her right, makes eye contact, then glances at his bouquet and shakes his head as if saying, “Not going to happen, sister. The flowers are staying put. Otherwise, they’ll roll up and down the aisle as the subway screeches to a stop and starts up again.” She reconsiders and turns to the left.

At this point, the conversation between the gregarious friends is really grating on her. She grabs the end of the needle. Its jaunty movement abruptly comes to a stop. She looks the knitter in the eye as if saying enough is enough — both say they’re sorry.

How can we explain this reaction? Aggression is how the superego, our social monitoring mechanism, copes with a recalcitrant, desirous ego, which in turn negotiates with our basest instincts to present a unified and socially acceptable image to our most immediate interlocutors. Gestures, thoughts, simple eye contact become aggressive acts that lead to painful remorse in conscientious individuals. But what happens between our reader and our knitter? Do they compromise and turn their backs to each other so as to no longer venture into each other's embattled airspace, so to speak, and thus expose themselves to new vagaries of idiosyncratic train behaviors? Do they cease and desist?

Or does one emerge victorious through subtle guilt-tripping or by occupying the moral high ground? Or does it depend on what book the reader is reading and the lessons it can impart in the serendipitous event that she reflect upon them, and perhaps shares them with her nimble fingered neighbor, who in turn offers to knit her a pair of gloves to keep her hands warm while she is reading other works of literature that provide insight into human nature and encourage conversations, thus defusing stressful factors and creating bonds? 

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