Ride Em Cowboy!

Posted: March 10, 2012 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

I listened to The Soldier’s Tale (French: L’Histoire du Soldat) by Igor Stravinsky recently and mused lightly over the narration where the Soldier and the Devil board a train that steams perilously out of control.  It reminded me of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called The Celestial Railroad with a similar episode: a runaway locomotive. Both are allegorical morality tales told through use of heavy and obvious metaphor, dating from the Early Modern Period when the Mechanical Age was getting into full swing. Without getting bogged down in their differences, the locomotive as a transporter of large masses of people is a curious commonality, which on reflection may be an expression of a very human desire to harness power that insightful artists warn may ironically turns on us and take us on a ride.

The desire to ride something starts early in childhood: playing horsie. It’s reinforced over and over with wagons, shopping carts, miniature trains at the zoo, carousels and Ferris wheels, water slides, and in late adolescence, really aggressive amusement park thrill rides. Cars become thrill rides for new drivers, who invariably push limits to test and develop their skills. Horsemanship and rodeos find us engaging with animals rather than machines, but the underlying symbolism of taming animal wildness or harnessing machine power are present in all these examples. Another “ride” possessed of latent power is human sexuality, and many of us have found our behaviors — even those heavily restrained — turned against us.

Connecting all these instances into a cohesive thesis is probably beyond my patience or expertise, but I sense there is something there, lurking beneath the surface. In the world we now have, most of us city dwellers have little or no experience riding animals but lots of ridership on/in machines, especially cars and airplanes. The symbolic act of taking a ride extends much further, though, e.g., casino gambling, the stock market, the course of personal relationships, accelerating technological and demographic change, and the tumults of history. Some of us with nothing left to lose, no view of an improved future, or an abiding nihilism might actually be inclined to insist, “Let’s go! Ride that bitch!” It’s not just the mechanical bull in a Western-themed bar for fun and games.

  1. kulturcritic says:

    I would venture that the “thrill” of riding the horsie goes back to a very primitive (phylogenetically and ontogenetically) desire to enter into trance, the giddy-up rocking motion of the horse (real or wooden) giving one a sense of being beside oneself (an ecstatic flash, if you will). In fact, in shamanic trance, the horse headed stick is used across diverse cultures to represent the shamans ecstatic flight. Just a thought….

    • Brutus says:

      Good insights. Rocking horses and hobby horses definitely fit the idea I’m hinting at. I didn’t mention bicycles and motorcycles, which have horse-like aspects. And the fact that the train engine was called the Iron Horse may perhaps be suggestive of something deeper than the direct comparison between power sources used in 19th-century modes of transportation.

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