The Celestial Railroad–1968

Editor’s Introduction:  “The Celestial Railroad” is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s satiric metaphor for an illusory shortcut to heaven that promises to free the solitary traveler from the kind of wearying, arduous journey that Bunyan’s pilgrim endured in “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

This lecture, delivered in the spring of 1968, most likely to an audience of U. of Utah honors students, develops this metaphor in the context of higher education and explores some of the modern dogmas that offer tickets on the Celestial Railroad. 

Of notable biographical interest in this speech is Jack’s extended analogy between academic striving and mountain climbing, which was perhaps his greatest pleasure in life.  By this time in his life, he claimed that he had climbed every peak in the Wasatch Range, and I’m sure it was not an idle boast (see for the text of Hawthorne’s story).

The Celestial Railroad – 1968

This year was my first experience with freshmen in the honors program, and I was a little apprehensive in preparing for it. My students, I understood, were to be freshmen: eager but inexperienced and too bright for their own good. I’m not quite sure what I expected from them, but among other things, some adolescent self-righteousness, that depressing earnestness acquired by high-school debaters, many complaints because we were studying Aristotle instead of Chairman Mao, and much bad prose written with consummate self-assurance.

I was wrong on all counts and now, looking back, I wonder what they were expecting from me. The instinct for self-preservation precludes my attempting that portrait. Before we had gotten too far into that course we all came to realize that something rather special was going on, that, in the modern jargon, there was a “happening,” if not every day at least often enough to make things worthwhile. There was a meshing of personalities and purpose that can happen only a few times in a teacher’s life.

I would vigorously deny that in any way I became a father image to the class. God forbid. Even the suggestion is sufficiently horrifying to show how antiquated Freudian clichés have become. No, it was something far more important to me than that. We, the older and younger generation, were talking to one another openly, honestly, sometimes wittily and marveling at the experience. I found to my astonishment that the younger generation have points of view which make sense; they are capable of sympathy and laughter and sometimes they may even feel affection for an older generation which is mostly a puzzle to them.

I, in turn, realized that indirectly I was getting a glimpse into the lives and minds of my own children as I never could at home and I hoped that through me the students were beginning to view a little more maturely the values their parents lived by, the values that have structured their lives and which seem to be coming unglued along with the institutions and societies of which they were a part. For me it was a rare experience and one which I think every member of my generation ought to have.

As my affection for these students grew, along with my admiration for their competence, their honesty, and their idealism, I one day found myself tempted by a monstrous thought. If I could wish one thing for these students, I said inwardly, it would be that their I.Q.’s could silently and quietly be reduced by fifteen or twenty or twenty-five points. Life would then be so much easier for them. Without that increased sensitivity which comes inevitability paired with a sharp intellect, they would, without question, have a better chance at happiness. And happiness, in spite of Carlyle’s thundering that we have no right to expect any, is not to be derided, not by mortals. With intellects only slightly reduced in quality I thought, these students would have a better chance for happy marriages, for stable friendships, for success in political or social life and for much less agony and frustration from that continual self-appraisal to which all mortals subject themselves. The PTA, the Rotary Club, church socials, fraternal lodges, golf, BYU television, Italian movies, weedy lawns, bridge, wedding receptions, commencement dinners—all these little pieces of the social matrix would be so much more endurable, perhaps even enjoyable, if they could be experienced with a little less intellect.

To be more serious, I thought of the rather alarming morbidity with which Thomas Hardy viewed people who had unusual minds. Seeing life as a continual storm sweeping over a heath, Hardy felt that any tree which reared itself too high, any flower which blossomed too elegantly on too think a stalk would be splintered, lacerated, and torn down. Similarly, in his works, every individual of advanced intellect is ultimately destroyed by the uncontrollable forces that deform their lives.

Robinson Jeffers saw it in much the same way although more comprehensively. The stream of evolution, he thought, has carried man too far, had made him too sensitive, too much aware, too full of pain to endure what life asks him to endure. his blood were like the earth’s rivers and his flesh iron,

How shall one dare to live? How has our race with the frail naked nerves So little a craft swum down from its far launching? Though his ribs were thick as the earth’s, arches of mountain, how shall one dare to live?  (Robinson Jeffers, “Gale in April”)

“Pained thoughts,” says Jeffers, may find “the honey peace in old poems,” but they will not likely find them elsewhere, not in the life our young men and women must live out, a life they can no more repudiate than they can repudiate their identities, a terrible and challenging life. They may seek to run from it, to blot it out with anodynes but the seasons will still evolve, for every birth there will sometime a death, passion will alternate with boredom, life will move in its great wheel without concern for the erratic epicycles of individuals while Nature displays her indifferent beauties.

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail Whistle about as their spontaneous cries; Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; And, in the isolation of the sky, At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make Ambiguous undulations as they sink, Downward to darkness on extended wings. (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”)

With the Honors students I read again Lucretius, a man obsessed with death; Tertullian, who loathed his life; Origen, who castrated himself; Augustine, who ate the dead-ripe flesh of pears which were sweet because they were stolen and sweeter because they were forbidden. We saw these brilliant, tortured men struggling on the river that flows downward to darkness and the students were like the mourners Achilles paid to weep for his friend Patroclus; the old women wailed and beat their breasts, ostensibly for the dead man, but inwardly and secretly each one mourned for herself.

And so the students: they studied mankind and thought of themselves, occasionally of their patients. As they read they were apprehensive and sometimes, in spite of their youth, compassionate. My best wish for them, that of a reduced intellect, was not feasible and so I forsake it and come to my second wish. I hope they will not forsake their solitary journeys and buy a ticket on the Celestial Railroad.

At last, as you see, I have come to the central metaphor of my talk and it will take a little explaining. Fortunately that is what I have been trained to do. The metaphor begins with a work called Pilgrim’s Progress, written in the seventeenth century by John Bunyan. In this work, the Pilgrim is a man who wishes to leave the City of Destruction and go to Beulah Land. He sets out on foot.

One of the worst impediments he has to cope with is a huge and heavy burden on his back. It weighs him down, makes him leg-weary and short of breath, every step a painful one. And this vast burden that he will not lay down, we are told, is the burden of his sin. That is an ancient word, still in use in the seventeenth century, which means a transgression of the law of God. I was once trying to explain to a class what this word meant and I was informed by a young woman that she knew all about it. Hesitantly I asked her to explain. She replied that it was a word which, when placed on the label of any bottle of perfume, made it cost several dollars more.

In any case, Pilgrim with his great burden struggled through bogs and swamps, climbed steep hills, fought dragons and monsters, was laughed at by fashionable men and beautiful women; he was always on the verge of giving up, but something would come along to keep him going, sometimes nothing more than a little sunshine splashed along the side of a hill. And finally he did get there, on Shank’s pony all the way.

A couple of centuries later, Nathaniel Hawthorne was contemplating the quality of religious life in his own time and he thought it had, in some ways, deteriorated. People were no longer making that solitary pilgrimage on foot, burdened by a consciousness of heir inadequacies. Rather an unctuous gentleman named Mr. Smooth-It-Away had built a Celestial Railroad and it was specially designed for the convenience of travelers. That terrible burden on the back was now checked in the baggage care; those quaking bogs were filled in with volumes of French philosophy and German rationalism. People no longer hooted at pilgrim who traveled in style on h Celestial railroad, and, although the track ran through the Valley of Death, that once dreary place was no lighted with gas jets. There was nothing to fear any more; rather better was a little fun, some profitable business and much talk about liberal reforms. These were reforms of other people, if course, never oneself. This convenient world had no place for an old-fashioned pilgrim.

But, as you have probably gathered, Hawthorne, himself an old-fashioned individualist, distrusted Mr. Smooth-It-Away and so he reveals at the end of the story that Mr. Smooth-It Away was not really Ralph Waldo Emerson,  as a student of the period might have guessed; rather he was the devil in one of his clever disguises and the travelers on the Celestial Railroad were getting a little uneasy as they scented the fumes of sulfur.

Those who sell tickets on the Celestial railroad are those who, in any age, tell the individual that his own desires fortunately coincide with universal morality, that he may have it just the way he wants it and, at the same time, know the pure joy of unqualified self-esteem. Check your burdens in the baggage car, light up a cigar, and reform other people as you travel in comfort. Such is the pitch of the ticket seller.

Now I have another monstrous thought tonight and this one I shall not reject; rather I shall share it with you. I think that, in the 20th century, the churches are not the principal sellers of tickets on the Celestial Railroad. That honor, I believe, must go to the universities. I will be disappointed if I haven’t astonished someone, at least a little bit. If I have, you will recover quickly and ask a sensible question: “Doesn’t everyone really see most clearly the ticket sellers and the comfortable journeys that are available in his own profession? Consequently, isn’t it possible that I find the in the universities simply because I know the university life best? Aren’t all institutions about equally shot through with their own peculiar hypocrisies?It’s a good question, quite persuasive, but I’m not ready to surrender yet, not until we have examined a few of the rides currently being taken.

The first kind of ride being offered is the big trip, the journey into inner space, the light of the alone to nowhere. In every age men have sought transcendence, some kind of escape, if only for a moment, from the dull and heavy weight of the flesh, the dismal routine of ordinary perception. And they have developed various ways of achieving that transcendence: the painful self-mortification of the Christian ascetic; the arduous intellectual effort of the traditional humanist who tries to perceive through sheer intellect the relatedness of all things; or there is the Hindu way of love and devotion, bhakti. A man who has successfully followed that path radiates what he is. All you have to do, said Gandhi, is come into the presence of a saint and you know you are there.

But all of these ways require effort and there is the unpleasant risk of failure, so Mr. Smooth-It-Away tells us of the quick trip; like a bad writer for a travel magazine he tells us that waiting to be discovered at any old time is the wonderful world of you: Disneyland and go-go girls right in your front room. Do you want to be a poet, an artist, a great lover, perhaps? Just swallow the pill or the sugar cube or the snake oil. It takes some swallowing all right if we believe that we may buy a ticket to Beulah Land, for we will wake up some day to face the fact that we have been nowhere, that we are our same shabby, sweating selves, but worse. Because we really know already that nothing comes without some combination of talent and effort. The poems we wrote on the railroad, the pictures we painted, the visions we had were all phony; they were just trading stamps that went along with the ticket and the junk we bought with them was not the taste of the glue. I am all for the inward journey. I think everyone should have the courage to descend into the cavern of his heart, but he should have his senses alert; he should take his intellect with him and he should have the courage to live with what he finds. Who knows? Beyond the quick, running feet and the pink tongue, of our animal natures there may be signs of something better if we go deep enough.

For an example of another kind of ticket being sold on the Celestial Railroad, let us take the delicate matter of bigotry, an ugly word itself, almost a pure evil. But Mr. Smooth-It-Away, for a price, will tell us otherwise. I remember once a great liberal, not from this university, whose students inevitably discovered that he had a hidden agenda, that he was obsessed with hatred of a certain religion. Once, in fact, he remarked that orthodox membership in that religion was prima facie evidence that a student was unsuited to receive a higher degree from his department. I was once speaking of this strange phenomenon to a young man who, with a wide-eyed innocence that made me wonder if he had a navel, or if rather he had not come into the world without sin (that is, not having been born of woman) – with just such innocence he explained to me that this was all right because the religion in question was not a liberal one. I thanked him for this because it confirmed what I had suspected, that universities harbor many ad hoc idealists whose principles may be conveniently adjusted like seat belts to accommodate any biases, however lumpish.

Or take the matter of rationality. We learn, as we pursue our education, that anger has never really been a satisfactory response to complex human problems. Rather because it diminishes the role of reason it usually leads to violence, surely the most brainless way of settling anything. And so the Western humanistic tradition has always preached and occasionally practiced the necessity for rational approaches and solutions. But Mr Smooth-It-Away has a ticket for that one, too. The means, he says, are justified by the nobility of the end. Therefore, if your cause is noble, you may be both angry and violent and, at the same time, full of self-congratulations. Others, however, must not become angry and violent in return. You are liberal; the police are not. Ad hoc idealism and seat-belt- principles.

We all remember Voltaire’s old saying, “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it,” and we think of students in Germany trying to shut down a newspaper because they disagreed with it. Imagine the storm of protest that would have arisen if the neo-Nazi party had attempted a similar thing. And yet in all this outrageous attempt at suppression, not one clear voice has cried out in protest from the academic community. I think that what we are seeing is a resurgence of the dangerous dogma that the holding of right opinions releases men from the burden of integrity. Columbia University students therefore, whose opinions are surely right, may decree that only “liberated” professors shall hold classes. And what about the unliberated ones? Select one, any one will do, break down the door and destroy his manuscripts, the labor of five years that he can never recover. If it sounds like the tactics of storm troopers, it isn’t really, as Mr. Smooth-It-Away can tell you. It’s all part of the Greater Freedom. I need not carry this on.

If I have made anyone uncomfortable, I am glad. Mr. Smooth-It-Away, 1968, will sell you a ticket which enables you to ride on a Celestial Railroad where you may be bigoted without shame, violent without condemnation, immortal without remorse, and successful without effort. I know of no institution other than the university where one can buy so many and such wonderful tickets.

If you were one of my Honors students you would ask about now, “How do you know so much about the Celestial Railroad?” I will not dishonor the question. I know about it because I have been riding it for years, buying tickets at the university, sometimes, unknowingly, sometimes with the pungent scent of sulfur in my nostrils. I am not proud of it but I will not deny it. When I first began to perceive what I had done, I was guilty of a final hypocrisy: I exonerated myself and blamed Mr. Smooth-It-Away for selling me the tickets. But I was ultimately forced to confess the truth of what Cleopatra had said long ago to Mark Antony: It takes two to tango and where there is a seller there must also be a buyer. And so I have taken my burden out of the baggage car again and I have joined the walkers, at least I think I have, even though I am a little skeptical about Beulah Land and suspect that the road may lead downward into darkness.Never mind, it is better than the railroad.

That was my second wish for my students; and now I would like to mention a third, for that is the proper number in any fairy tale. As I began to see academic life through the eyes of young students, 12 years of unremitting grind for medical students, seven for law, as many or more for advanced work in any other discipline, work done at the edge of their strength as well as at the edge of poverty, the prime decade of their lives in which they hardly lived at all, but only prepared to live, the image arose in my mind of a middle-aged mountain climber, slightly out of shape, standing at the bottom of a brute of a mountain three miles high and covered with rock faces. Surely the best thing to do would be to forget it. But there is another possibility; every many on a mountain has at least the hope of finding a rhythm. That rhythm is the most complete and intimate expression of his physical being; lung capacity, heartbeat, metabolism musculature; everything meshes into a certain rhythm that is right for that man on that mountain. And if one finds it, one is almost unstoppable. That, however, is not the principal reason for finding it, although those who call themselves “assaulters” don’t know that. The real reason, rather, is that in the rhythm you feel a oneness with the mountain, a moving with it rather than against it. It is exhilarating, a way of being turned on; to borrow a phrase from an ancient book, it is to be lifted on eagles’ wings. To hold one’s own pace sometimes requires humility, another ancient word. For in that slow, deeply satisfying, swinging pace that is looking hours away and miles up, there will always be the temptation to speed it up. Yet, as every climber knows, an increase of even fie percent over his rhythm will wear him out in a few hours.So it is a little difficult when smirking Boy Scouts go by, leaving a trail of litter and laughter, moving with the disgusting ease of the very young; perhaps little old ladies in tennis shoes go past or a clergyman in a wheel chair. Then the temptation is to break that strong rhythm, to push the button, to prove something to oneself (which proof is never acceptable anyway) or to someone else who doesn’t care in the slightest. So the climber who wants the confidence and the delight will stay within his own rhythm and the going will be as good as the arrival.

I think I have learned from young students that the world is wound up too tight, the academic world in particular; it is too frantic; one who would run with it must break the rhythms that are normal to mankind, must force himself against impersonal obstacles in the conquest of which there is neither joy nor self-mastery but only desperation and iron will. I think they taught me that the excessive, never-ending quest for excellence, the merit examinations, the pressures at home and in school, the dehumanization of the processes of learning are repugnant. If so, I agree.

And so my third wish for them is that they might wait for the gift, find the rhythm and know the delight in the journey. But mostly I hope that they will not give up, even if they don’t find the rhythms and buy a ticket on the Celestial Railroad, checking their burdens in the baggage car. As to that burden, that heavy load of sin Bunyan talked about, it may, in truth be a little out of date. At least I think of it in another way. The burden every man should carry is simply the burden of his own integrity. That word will never increase the value of a bottle of perfume, but it may still be the better part of our humanity.

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