Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why I Am Not a Motorist

1) Because cars are ugly, smelly things that ravage the countryside and dictate the terms of social life.
2) Because I can't drive.
3) Because motorists spend one quarter of their lives looking for a parking space.
4) Because motorists spend one quarter of their income on petrol, parking meters, tolls, repairs and the apparently endless amount of other expenses involved in running a car.
4) Because motorists are constantly angry about the idiocy of other motorists.
5) Because all motorists ever talk about is how hard they found it to find a parking space or how bad the traffic was.
6) Because driving makes you stupid. No matter how routinely a motorist encounters heavy traffic, he lives in an apparent state of perpetual delusion that the roads will be clear and he therefore never, ever, ever takes the possibility of heavy traffic into account. ("I'm sorry I'm late, the traffic was awful!". What on earth made you think it wouldn't be?)
7) Because people who spend too long driving cars and looking at cars begin to go insane and believe that some cars are actually nice to look at.
8) Because I like public transport. I think there are few better places to read than on a bus, unless someone at the back of the bus is playing hip-hop music at ear-piercing volume.
9) Because I get to eavesdrop and people-watch on the bus-- and some very queer creatures turn up on buses.
10) Because there is no sight more beautiful than the number of the bus you're waiting for appearing on the horizon, especially on a cold Winter's morning.
11) Because cyclists must spend hours upon hours swallowing exhaust fumes, and besides, since I barely know how to cycle I would probably be a menace on two wheels.

My predicted chances of going through life without ever having to learn to drive and become one of those poor, beleaguered, deluded creatures called motorists:

0.005 to zero per cent.


  1. What, you think I DO know how to drive? Only kidding, of course I know what you mean.

  2. I couldn't speak to a lot of these points because they simply don't apply to me, but I do have some counterpoints to a few of them.

    1) I love the smell of my car. It's like an old leather jacket. I've never sniffed the tailpipes directly, but I'm pretty sure that they're actually more or less odourless.

    6) Well, yes, but that's just what I say when I've overslept. That's a feature of car ownership rather than a bug.

    7)That's a matter of opinion, but what other every day object has thousands of museums devoted to it around the world? I don't think that there are many people who look at a vintage Ferrari and think that it would be better if it were melted down for nails and door hinges.

    11) I cycle about 20 miles most days during the warmer months, and I honestly get much more angry at other cyclists while on my bike than I ever do at other motorists in my car. When you're on your bicycle, you don't have that 2nd skin of metal and glass separating you from the outside world. Everything is more personal. Also, the exhaust from a modern car is almost entirely CO2 and water, as long as it's properly tuned. It doesn't really bother me when I'm riding my bike. The large diesels are more offensive.

    And there are a lot of things that I like about cars: For instance the way that a car can embody the nation that produced it as well as the aesthetics and prevailing thoughts of the decade it was built in down to even the year. The gratuitous amount of genius that has been poured into each of the thousands of problems that were involved in creating the modern automobile. I remember taking apart an automatic transmission for the first time and just staring in shock at the baroque series of planetary gears and the labyrinth maze of hydraulic circuits in the valve body that controlled the whole thing. To me, it is still amazing that the human mind could create such a bizarre, almost arrogantly brilliant thing.

    More than that to me is the sensation of driving in and of itself. Things that you would just never see or experience without a car. I will never forget the nights that I drove through the industrial district after it had rained and the way that the reflections from the traffic lights seemed to bounce off the asphalt for miles. Or driving down the highway straight into an approaching thunder storm. The way that the clouds rolled and the lightning streaked through the sky as the speed of my own car crashing into the oncoming wind gave the uncanny sensation of flying through night with 300 horses pulling me forward. Even just waking up as a dumb 16 year old kid at 2AM in the morning and getting in to the car to experience the mixture of power, gravity, nerve reactions and adrenaline as the car cornered and accelerated through the empty city streets.. Things like these were my teenage years and the first part of my adulthood.

  3. Further, the kinetic energy of the car in and of itself seems to impart a meaning and purpose to even a joyride and enhances everything. Coffee tastes better to me if I drink it while I'm driving. I like the confessional nature of conversations on long drives. Staring off into the horizon while the engine hums away seems to lower the self consciousness of everyone in the car. Music to me sounds better if I listen to it while driving. I remember once listening to a live radio broadcast of Gotterdammerung while in the car. It was dreary, rainy and I had spent all day driving through the forests and hills far outside the city. Finally as I reached the prairie, beams of late afternoon sunlight began punching through the roving sky below, illuminating giant patches of the plains just as Siegfried's funeral march was playing. I don't think that I could buy a ticket to any venue in the world which could more powerfully complement the music.

    Finally there is the independence and freedom that a car gives you. It was nice to be able to yell "roadtrip!" (I would yell it even when I was going by myself because I liked the word so much) and be in the car and headed for North Dakota 5 minutes later. What other human invention has given normal people so much power and freedom?

  4. I think your comment was more informed and thoughtful than my original post! All the same I can't agree with you, even though you describe the joys of the automobile most evocatively. And yes, I have felt them myself, especially when I've been crusing down the highway in America, with its awe-inspiring sense of space and hugeness.

    I think it's really the "power and freedom" that I object to. I think we have too much power and freedom today! Well, power and freedom of a certain type; the type provided by technology and manipulation of the physical world. I do think there is such a thing as "choice that destroys choice". Anyone can go anywhere they choose in their car but what I can't choose is to go for a long walk away from all roads or the noise of engines or fumes (which I do find offensive!)

    And I do think that power and freedom, as it were, desensitizes people to quieter and more modest and contemplative joys. You can listen to Wagner in your car but it's only certain types of histrionic or bombastic music that "go" with driving-- I notice that albums of driving music tend to concentrate on bands like Aerosmith and AC/DC. True, that is one aspect of life and you might be driving to your life drawing class or yoga circle, but I do think speed and volume and bullishness are all-too-common motifs of modern life and the car has a lot to do with that.

    The part of your defence (!) I found most appealing is the "confessional nature of conversations on long drives." I do find the dramatic situation of a car very interesting-- especially the idea that two people (or more) remain cosily still and together while miles upon miles pass by outside their windows, and landscape changes, and day turns to night or vice versa. In fact, I remember being so excited by this idea, when I was reading a comic book story about two fellows in a car as a pre-teen, that I resolved to write a similar series of stories myself. Alas, it came to nothing.

  5. Well it is true that I'm not above cranking up a Zeppelin song. But if I think about it honestly (and I'm not just saying this to be argumentative) I'm also more than happy listening to Debussy, Faure, Vaughan Williams or guitar pieces played by Segovia while driving. My go to music for Sunday afternoon cruising is a cd of jazz standards played by Chet Baker. In fact, I would never have heard a lot of this music in the first place if I hadn't spent so much time as a kid wandering around with my car. By the way, there are actually a lot of subtle moments in Wagner's music. It's not all just heavy metal and the Ride of the Valkyries. But this difference between the ethereal and the moments when he calls down the thunder is what I love. You need this contrast in everyday life.

    What I said about conversations while driving is absolutely true. There's a reason that you intuited it would make a good story, and it's the same reason that so many good movies have already been made out of road trips. The conversations that occur on them happen nowhere else. I don't feel like I know another person until I've taken a long road trip with them. Beyond that though, there is also the internal dialogue that occurs when you drive alone. To me driving can also be a contemplative exercise as well as a form of relaxation. Whatever is bothering me seems like it can be significantly remedied or solved by turning it over in my mind while the scenery rushes past as I look into the horizon before me. I always feel refreshed after a long drive.

    I will grant you that I've had some of the same feelings of intrusion regarding the automobile. There have been times when I have wished that I could step outside into an empty field when I go to take my dog for a walk. My way of dealing with this is to drive to the forest or go walking either before everyone wakes up or after everyone has gone to sleep. (And walking the streets of an empty city can be surreal in and of itself.) But, speaking pragmatically, beyond that what's there to do about it? Even if everyone were to quit driving you'd still be breathing smog and worrying about being hit by ambulances, buses, taxis (a lot more buses and taxis), delivery trucks, etc. Service vehicles would have to take up a lot of slack with regards to what people do for themselves currently.

    Further I don't know that driving contributes to any increased aggression and ferocity in society. Take New York and LA for instance. Even rich people in New York take the subway and New York is famous for being a city of jerks. LA is a car city and of course it's supposed to be laid back (I've never been to either place, so I don't really know). I could grant you that a jerk will probably be an even bigger jerk if you give him a car, but that's hardly the car's fault.

    Let me ask you, though, to what extent have you thought this out to? Would you rather live (and I'm asking this seriously) as a Catholic Amish? I myself have sometimes thought that the best life would be that of the palaeolithic, hunter gatherer sort where you move around in a small band until you die of a hunting wound or old age at 40. The technology and time are more than enough to enjoy the full range of human experience and emotions in ways that are perhaps much rawer and truer than we do, and what earthly thing isn't superfluous beyond that?

  6. I have thought it out! Well, to a certain degree. My own position is that, if I was the moral leader or ideological leader of a whole society (and thank goodness I'm not), my rules would be:

    1) Technology may be used for humanitarian, medical, industrial and other practical uses (life-support machines, incubators, pacemakers, sewerage plants, and so forth).
    2) Technology should not be used for the purposes of entertainment or amusement. So no television, radio, recorded music, mass produced art, and so forth.

    At least, these would be the guiding principles. Since I am the benevolent dictator of this hypothetical community, I couldn't help softening my approach a bit, though. I would keep the absolute ban on television and radio, even though we would lose a lot of good stuff thereby-- my reasoning being that the things TV and radio drown out are more valuable than any good they supply. I do genuinely believe those organs of mass communication have eroded popular storytelling, balladry, riddle-telling, games, toy theatres, barn dances and so forth. I would rather have a million living rooms enjoying fifth-rate entertainment of their own making than all watching one superb comedy show on the goggle-box.

    Here is where my arbitrary despotism comes in. I really can't bear to preside over a society without books and the cinema. Of course I would have a rationalisation; books leave so much more to the imagination of the reader than TV and radio do to the imagination of the viewer or listener. As for cinema, it is a social and even communitarian medium. That's my justification.

    And yes, I would ban cars. It's not that I'm a complete philistine and killyjoy who doesn't appreciate the points you made about all the folk who visit car museums, the joy of road trip conversations, etc. I just don't like the way they atomise society, erode the integrity of time and space, conform the landscape to their needs, and so forth. The price seems too heavy. I think the essence of my objection to the car is to be found in these words from Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis:

    "I number it among my blessings that my father had no car...The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his own two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine …The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space.” It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given...Of course if a man hates space and wants it annihilated that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there."

    It is the cheapening and taming of time and space, as achieved by the car, that vexes me. The world becomes a smaller place. Communities are not thrown together as much as they would be without the car. Towns and villages don't need to develop their own local economies and institutions. Of course there are plenty of other technologies that also erode the healthy, life-giving barriers of time and space (and I would gladly see the disappearance of the telephone), but the car seems to me the worst because it is the most privatized and omnipresent.


  7. I understand why Russell Kirk described cars as "mechanical Jacobins!". Tolkien said this about cars in a letter to his son:

    “It is full Maytime by the trees and grass now. But the heavens are full of roar and riot. You cannot even hold a shouting conversation in the garden now, save about 1 a.m. and 7 p.m. – unless the day is too foul to be out. How I wish the 'infernal combustion' engine had never been invented. Or (more difficult still since humanity and engineers in special are both nitwitted and malicious as a rule) that it could have been put to rational uses — if any.”

    But, of course, the people have voted with their steering wheels, and perhaps humanity should be allowed its own choice of pleasures, after all.

    I do think Catholics could learn a good deal from Amish, though I also know it is easy to sentimentalise the Amish. I just wish we had a more judicious and discriminatory attitude to techology-- myself included!

  8. In all seriousness, though, I think it is worthwhile to lodge a protest against excessive technology, even if it is a completely futile protest. Even if it is hypocritical in the sense I myself obviously use technology more than I have to. I think the principle to be insisted upon is that more productivity, more efficiency, more speed and more choice are not necessarily good things. That slower might be better. That less reliable might be better. That more restrictive might be better. That there might be social costs in terms of face-to-face interaction, community, serendipity, patience, personality, creativity, and so forth. Even to be aware of that trade-off is, I think, important.