Even the most simplified and superficial reception of psychoanalysis in mass culture has highlighted the sexual symbolism of cars and trains, unconsciously perceived as replacements for the penis. The modern, all too modern phallic symbolism attached to the means of transport becomes further accentuated with a car parked in a garage or a train entering the tunnel: those are the consummations of a sex act, transferred onto a safer terrain of objects, whether they are toys or full-scale things in the world.
Just think of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller North by Northwest (1959)—above all, the film’s ending. As Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) hangs onto her dear life, dangling from a cliff, she is pulled up to safety by Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant). Then, the scene seamlessly cuts to inside a sleeper train compartment, where Thornhill helps Kendall to the upper berth, just as the train enters the tunnel in an ironic version of Hollywood’s “happy end.” Hitchcock’s earlier movie Strangers on a Train (1951) transposes this structure onto a boat ride called “Tunnel of Love,” where a mock sexual act is played out as though in a shadow theater while the boat glides through the tunnel. The real consummation of cheery pretense is, however, death: Bruno (Robert Walker), who had followed the “love boat” through the tunnel, strangles Miriam (Kasey Rodgers).
It is thus obvious that there is more to the recent case of newly commissioned train cars for Cantabria and Asturias, which turned out to be too big for the existing tunnels in these northern Spanish regions. Indeed, as many have pointed out, the fiasco highlights dysfunctional communication and discoordination within and between various public companies (such as Renfe and Adif) and levels of government. But, at a deeper level, irreducible to precise engineering calculations and good management practices, it draws the curtain on the operations of the unconscious. The dysfunction is sexual, in keeping with Freud’s description of a human being’s entire being as sexual: the act consummated when a train enters the tunnel cannot be carried out. Not due to impotence or a lack of desire (here: funding, money, liquidity, financial flows), but thanks to the mismatch, the mutually unfit nature of the two fetishized actors, standing for public administration and companies, on the one hand, and the general public itself, on the other.
Beyond the symbolic connotations of trains, we can also point to what Freud himself wrote on the subject in his 1901 book on The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. There, the father of psychoanalysis deals with bungled actions, slips of tongue, the forgetting of names or other words as symptoms of unconscious processes. Interestingly, in the section on “errors,” including errors of judgment, Freud analyzes various cases of people who have taken the wrong train, missed their train connection, and so forth. Never shying away from self-analysis, he recalls a railway and boat trip he took through Germany and the Netherlands to England in order to visit his “strict elder brother.” Freud’s host did not agree to him staying in the Hague and Amsterdam on the way to the UK and, instead, suggested making the stop of the way back to Vienna. Freud obeyed, but he missed his train connection (walking away from the sign that pointed to it) and was forced to travel to Rotterdam, spending the following day in the Netherlands. This error allowed him to view Rembrandt’s paintings exhibited in the Dutch museums.
Freud interprets the train-related error as an instance of unconscious wish fulfillment: without his realizing it at the moment, the unconscious gave him an excuse to do what he had wanted to do in the first place (make a stopover in the Netherlands and enjoy its cultural treasures) despite the rigid injunctions deriving from conscious psychic life (and the superego, represented by the strict brother). To return to “our” case, could it be that something similar is at stake in the mismatch between new train cars and tunnels in Northern Spain?
Although this question or hypothesis may sound outlandish—who, after all, would want to waste public money and to deprive passengers of much-needed new means of public transport?—it may hold more than a grain of truth. Besides the high-level political resignations that happened in the aftermath of the fiasco, it has been decided that train rides in the affected regions will remain free until at least 2026. The suppressed wish that is fulfilled in a distorted form is that of free and well-functioning public services, including not only transport but also housing, schooling, and medicine. As in Freud’s analysis, the error gave us an opportunity (an excuse, really) to enjoy free public trains, while bypassing the conscious demands of managerial reason. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel. One can only hope that such a wish will not linger in the murky regions of the unconscious, but will have a chance to be expressed and satisfied directly, without the outright objections and accusations of harboring utopian dreams.