I don’t believe in immortal souls any more than I believe in immortal automobiles. After cluttering the ground and polluting the air, car engines die and car bodies rust, and we humans likewise rot, body and soul. Omar Khayyam’s conceit, comparing us to chessmen which play and move and then are thrown back into their box to sleep until the next game, has lost any truth it may have had. We are not made of durable materials, we don’t move in appointed ways on a checkerboard of nights and days; we aren’t actors either, nor is the world a stage. There is no fate, no scripted play: all that is dead rhetoric, dishonored. Traffic is all there is and all we have. Ever-moving traffic in the cosmic lanes, if you wish, but make no mistake: like the ants, what we bore and bother is this earth.
I am standing alone on the Schoolhouse Road bridge over Interstate 90, not far from my house. Every three seconds a tandem-trailer truck swooshes by, making the air and the ground shake. The sun has set and a thin, icy rain condenses out of the mist. I am not dressed for this weather, but I had to get out of the house fast because I was feeling sick. The TV news was full of the mayhem at Fort Hood. An army psychiatrist gone berserk shot at a crowd of fellow officers and soldiers, killing many, until he was wounded by a shot from a police woman apparently. All are stunned, no one can find any sense in what has happened, unless it is a terrorist attack—that’s what the news says, anyway, which made me feel sick, so I turned off the TV and walked out, and now I’m standing at the overpass.
You can’t lean out over the rail, there’s a tall protecting wire mesh to avoid people throwing out stuff at the Interstate, as happened some years ago about this time in November, when a kid threw a whole frozen turkey over the bridge, hit a passing car on the windshield and the driver was killed. Perched atop the mesh there are a thousand starlings watching the traffic. They seem to enjoy it—a bird’s TV. Incidentally, you cannot fling yourself over, in case you want to kill yourself. But you can vomit through the mesh, I guess. Or you can stick a gun and shoot at the cars and trucks, like those once-feared snipers, one of whom was just executed in Virginia. That probably would stop all traffic here for a couple of hours. I wonder if any of my neighbors has thought about it yet.
At some point someone will. Not to gain fame, as in older times, when a guy would burn down the temple of Artemis in Ephesus so that his name would not vanish even if it would be preserved in execration, nor out of a particularly evil nature or an especially rare form of derangement, but just to stop the traffic for a while. Just for that. I remember in Jerusalem the ultra-orthodox Jews trying to stop the traffic on the Shabbat on the streets right outside of Mea Sharim. The police on horseback would try to stop them, and they would battle the police with stones and sticks. At the time I thought that they were crazy, and so they were, but when you come to think of it, you might agree that there is something impious about traffic being unstoppable. For a believer, the only unstoppable thing ought to be God.
Perhaps this crazy Muslim U.S. Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood felt something similar. He might have wanted to stop the traffic—in this case the unstoppable traffic of soldiers going through the Processing Center. The police officers who stopped him are national heroes, they will appear at the major TV shows, and he, the crazy army major gone berserk, will be the shame of Muslims and Palestinians in the U.S., and, to a lesser extent, of his psychiatric colleagues. All that’s as it should be—only, why do they keep repeating in the news that what happened is senseless, why does everybody pretend to be stunned, and the Army Chief of Staff keeps saying this was like a kick in the gut? It has happened again and again, with awesome regularity, someone trying to stop the traffic by shooting into the crowd. At colleges, at high-schools, and it wouldn’t surprise me if at kindergartens too. So why not at Fort Hood? The plot is unvarying, with the fixity of a folk motif: after the rampage, old acquaintances will appear who remember the murderer as a troubled loner, one or two people will emerge as heroes who averted worse carnage, and mental health professionals will help the survivors achieve some peace in the face of a senseless act. Senselessness is always an integral part of the plot. You’d think that something that repeats itself fairly regularly ends up acquiring some sort of sense. But no, all sense is rejected. Frank Rich of the New York Times calls the Muslim army major an unfathomable mass murderer. It is this sort of thing that makes one sick: people refusing to see sense when sense is staring at their faces. Perhaps they feel that seeing sense in a horrible action is next to condoning it.
Many will be arguing it’s the gun culture that’s to blame, our American love affair with guns. Nonsense. Back in the 1920s that French dandy, André Breton, the chief of the Surrealist Movement, was writing that the only ethical act was to shoot into a crowd. And it is no secret why. Because he too believed that it was the only way to stop the traffic, and stopping the traffic was what Surrealism was about—stopping the traffic of everyday reality, so as to expose something surprising and subversive above or underneath.
But for goodness sake, what’s so bad about the traffic, and why should anyone feel like stopping it? Traffic means rushing along, no lingering. Sure, we look at a mountain stream, and it feels idyllic, all those rushing water droplets. We look at a rainbow and it looks wonderful, all those beams of light, all those rushing photons impinging upon our eyes. But, other than the fact that the rainbow will soon vanish into thin air, and winter will come and freeze the mountain stream, there is this fundamental difference: those cars and buses and trucks which rush and swoosh under the bridge are not drops of water or photons, they contain people like you and me. Those are consciousnesses which rush by. Or rather, we surmise that they are consciousnesses, those drivers and passengers, but we cannot feel them to be so because they do not linger before us, and we cannot be conscious of a consciousness unless it lingers before us. When we are driving, we perceive that the driver to our left is talking on his cell phone, and we curse him; and anyway, to participate in the traffic we must be constantly aware of the intentions and signals of the other consciousnesses around us. Even in a crowded city street, the passers-by, seemingly oblivious of each other, are, as each of them is aware, obliquely perceived and cursorily appraised. Even in hell, Dante was recognized by the damned as someone alive who could stop for a while and bring news from above or listen to a sad story. And even when we spy on someone unaware, we recognize a consciousness going about its business, that is, lingering before us.
Here on the bridge, I feel like something’s not right. All those me’s rushing by, they pull me down to a state of failed and hopeless consciousness. You say: —Oh come on now, there is order in that flow, there is beauty in all those white or yellow lights coming toward us and all those red lights rushing away from us, there is reason to admire a system which allows so many to move from place to place in this wide country with so few casualties, only forty or so thousand per annum. Traffic means freedom. What would you have instead, people staying at home watching TV? —No, but I wonder, I just wonder, what happens in the mind of a psychiatrist working at an Army Processing Center, confronted by the unstoppable traffic of soldiers going away to Iraq or Afghanistan and soldiers coming back to us from those countries, and he doing his job, pretending that he can detect that those are consciousnesses which rush by, and even more, that he can see into them, and determine what they need to calm their yellow fear or red anger, and help them make sense of the whole thing. Muslim, Christian or Jew, how long can one live with such deception? As for me, just watching the traffic here from the overpass makes me sick. It makes me want to stop pretending that I’m anything like a consciousness, it makes me feel that if this is what being a human being is—se questo è essere un uomo—then it is just like—
With the best will in the world, Latin is sometimes impossible to avoid and one must bring up etymology to complete a thought. Traffic is a word with a very problematic origin. Here is the final Note in the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. traffic:
“It is clear that the verb and noun arose in the commerce of the Mediterranean, and in the language of one of the nations by or with whom this was carried on. The earliest uses yet found are trafficare and traffico in the Pisan Breve dell’ ordine del mare, cited above, which show both verb and noun in full established use in 1325.”
This, remarkably, shortly after Dante wrote about the Pisans in the Inferno, in the horrible episode of Count Ugolino:
“Ahi Pisa, vituperio delle genti / del bel paese là dove’l sì sona.”
And the OED goes on:
“Etymologists are generally agreed in regarding the word as Romanic, and in seeing in the first element tra the regular Italian representative of Latin trans, across. Italian scholars also see in -ficare the derivative form of Latin facĕre, to do, make; transficare would thus be parallel to transigĕre, to transact, or engage in transactions. But there are difficulties: see Diez, traffico, Körting, transvicare, etc. Some have suggested for the word an origin in Arabic, referring it to the verb taraffaqa, which sometimes means ‘to seek profit’.”
Understandably with a term born to such a thoroughly nauseating destiny, some scholars blame the Arabs, and the Italians are reluctant to go to the bottom of the affair and stir the muck. The late Berkeley scholar Yakov Malkiel dived fearlessly into it. In his article “The Etymology of Spanish Tras-[h]egar ‘To Decant’, Italian Trafficare ‘To Trade’: a New Balance Sheet,” published in Zagreb, 1985, by the Jugoslavenska Akademija Znanosti I Umjetnosti, Malkiel made a strong argument for dismissing all euphemistic, namby-pamby etymologies of traffic, and for retaining the only one standing up to scrutiny: it comes from Latin transfaecare, to move about the faeces, the dregs, the refuse, the excrement.
And so now I can complete the thought. How do I feel when watching the traffic on Interstate 90 rush by? I feel like the whole world, including me, is just like shit being moved and splattered around.