I was on a Boeing 757, sitting in the economy section, feeling grateful for having short legs. Returning home from New York where a film I conceived and executive produced had just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, my thoughts meandered to one of the films competing with mine. The film, called “In Transit,” is a beautiful and moving documentary interweaving stories told by real passengers (i.e., not actors) on the Empire Builder, an Amtrak train whose route goes from Seattle to Chicago. The stories themselves were captivating, but I was equally captivated by the fact that the stories were told as the American landscape unwound behind it, by the essential idea that as we move rapidly through space, insulated by a machine that allows us to traverse the landscape faster than our bodies alone, we retain the singularity of our lives and the stories that make us uniquely who we are.
In the 757, I too was contained in a moving vehicle as the landscape unfurled beneath me, traveling at 514 miles per hour, about four-fifths the speed of sound, 40,000 feet above the ground. We humans, through the ingenuity provided by the evolution of our cerebral cortexes, have created and built machines that allow us to use nature in order to defy it. We find reasons to physically move, and then to move faster, over, amid and beneath the earth, partly to survive, but partly to move ourselves emotionally as well. Yet, as we travel through the space that surrounds us, we ultimately remain contained, in our bodies and the constructed shells that carry us.
In the history of this planet, I imagine the ultimate traveling-while-contained experience were the Apollo missions to the moon. In wondering what it must have been like to be one of the astronauts stepping foot on the moon, or even circling the earth and seeing it from space, I think less about the experiences themselves than I do about what it would be like to come home to a world in which the majority of people with whom you interact have no knowledge of where you have been or what you have done. You may have walked on the moon, but you still go shopping at the same grocery stores and gas up your car at the local Shell station. Some of us have moved beyond what the vast majority of humans have accomplished. Some have climbed Everest and have been inalterably moved by it, but the tailor may not know them from Adam as she alters their pants just as she would alter anyone else’s.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on an aspect of double bind theory, the theory of schizophrenogenesis propounded in the late fifties by a group of researchers led by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. The theory was based on Russell and Whitehead’s philosophical work on “logical types,” described in the massive philosophical tome called “Principia Mathematica.” The more than thousand pages can be summarized in the aphorism that you can’t mix apples with oranges. Sometimes, it seems, problems arise when one confuses the container with the contained.
The film I conceived and produced, expertly directed by Matt Fuller, follows the lives of several people diagnosed with autism as they navigate the waters of romance and love. I always disliked the title “Autism in Love,” but I could never find a better one. I felt, and still feel, that it reifies the already dubious construct of autism. Autism is merely a label we give to a cluster of symptoms, and while it does offer a few descriptors, it doesn’t say much about an individual person. It also confuses the container with the contained. Does someone who has been crowned with the label of autism live within its label, traveling through life’s vicissitudes contained and sheltered by it, as if to say, “I did that because I have autism”? Or is the container instead the individual, responsible for his or her own actions regardless of the box or label in which he or she resides? This is not merely an academic question, because there is a major practical difference between the clothes we wear and how we wear them, and whether we choose our clothes or our clothes choose us.
Regardless of the clothes we wear, there is someone contained within them. Whether we find ourselves riding the rails of Amtrak, sitting on a bus, or flying on a Boeing 757 at 40,000 feet over the Grand Canyon, however stylishly, fast, or efficiently they move us, there remains an us to be moved. Each of us will experience the landscape moving around us differently. Some will prefer to fixate on the screens in front of them while others might prefer to look out the porthole at the natural world and wonder where rain comes from or if the leak in the bathroom sink will have been fixed by the time they get home.
It may be that there must always be something to seek in order for there to be a seeker, some place to go in order to be a traveler. There must be a container in order to be contained, whether that container is the loving arms of another or a Greyhound bus that takes us to Paducah. The existential philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said that “we exist by virtue of our resistance to the world.” In that case, when we cease to resist, when the container ultimately merges with the contained, we cease to exist.