Canary Islands: Tenerife

Canary Islands: Tenerife

I spent the entire plane ride in a panic. The sleep deprivation didn’t help. As usual, I had bought tickets for an early flight in order to save money; and, as often happens, I was too nervous to sleep well the night before. Several seats in front of me, Rebe was contentedly snoozing. I tried putting my hood down over my eyes and drifting off; but every time the plane dipped or turned, I was jolted awake. The art of sleeping on airplanes still escapes me. 

Our destination was Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. This is a group of volcanic islands off the Western coast of Morocco. Including Tenerife, there are seven main islands in the archipelago, along with many minor ones. These islands have been controlled by Spain since the late middle ages. They were conquered as a kind of prelude to the colonization of the New World—during which they were used as a jumping off point to cross the Atlantic.

Before the Europeans came to establish themselves, the islands were populated by indigenous peoples known as Guanches, who had originally came from Northern Africa. Their culture was either totally destroyed or absorbed by the invading Spaniards, so that nowadays only slight traces remain, along with tantalizing archaeological evidence. Today the islands are a kind of offshore European vacation spot.

Considering that I was heading to a tropical island with my girlfriend, it would be logical to assume that I was in a good mood. I was miserable—gripped by anxiety. You see, the Canary Islands are unlike peninsular Spain in at least one crucial respect: the lack of public transportation. You simply must rent a car. Luckily, in my experience car rental prices in the Canary Islands are often very low. Unfortunately, however, I was not very good at driving.

Having grown up with good public transit, I had spent my entire life without serious need of driving. Consequently, I got my license quite late: at the age of 21. And even then, I rarely used it. Moving to Madrid—a place extremely well-connected by trains, buses, and subways—did nothing to remedy the situation. Indeed, I had driven so rarely since getting my license that, before taking this trip to Tenerife, I had probably gone less than 100 miles in total—a few dozen miles a year, here or there.

What is more, I had never driven without the company of a more experienced driver. Rebe certainly did not fall under this category. She did not have her license; she had barely even touched a steering wheel. In short, she would not be any help. I was on my own.

When we arrived at the airport, I insisted on taking a few minutes to have a coffee and relax. But it was no use. As I stared down into the milky brown of the coffee, I felt sure that this was to be the last coffee I would ever taste. My mind flooded with images of gruesome crashes—a head-on collision, careening off a cliff, spinning out of control. This was it: the end. 

Finally it was time to go down to the parking garage and pick up the car. We found the desk and got in line. Behind us a loud bachelorette party also got in line—the women occasionally chanting and singing. I hardly noticed them, however, as I shuffled towards my doom. I was shivering and covered in a cold sweat. Then—suddenly—I felt a sharp pressure in my abdomen.

“I have to go,” I said to Rebe, and ran back upstairs—to the bathroom. Strong anxiety tends to upset my bowels.

Ten minutes or so later, I re-entered the line. Now it was our turn to do the paperwork. I could hardly pay attention to the man’s explanation. As I signed the paper, I felt as though I were signing the order for my own execution. We walked out to the car—a Smart car, tiny and cute. Do these things have good crash safety ratings?

Failure confronted us immediately.

“How do you open this thing?” I said, trying to get the back door opened.

“Wait,” Rebe said, and tried herself to find the handle—also with no luck. 

In shame, I had to ask the rental car guy to open it for us. Not a good omen.

We got in. I adjusted the seat. I adjusted the mirrors. I checked and rechecked my seatbelt. I turned on the car and braced myself. My head pounded, my vision narrowed, my veins felt like they were flooded with fire. And despite doing my best to not let any of this show, my voice quivered when I said:

“Ok, ready?”

The car was ignited and put into drive. Very gingerly, I pressed the gas. Nothing happened. I pressed a bit harder; still nothing.

“What’s going on?” I said. “The car isn’t moving. Why won’t it move?”

“The emergency brake is on,” Rebe informed me.

“Oh, shit.” Another bad omen.

I switch off the brake, and the car begins to move. All of my senses are focused on the vehicle. I try to remember my training—rules of the road, blind spots, when to signal. After a couple spins around the parking lot it is time to get to our Airbnb.

“Ok, what do I do?”

Rebe turns on the GPS and lets the automated voice do the rest. Soon I am merging onto the highway. Nothing difficult so far. None of the cars are going particularly fast. I just have to follow the road for a dozen kilometers or so until we reach our exit. Meanwhile, every slight adjustment of the car provokes a crisis of indecision in me. What is the proper distance to maintain? Should I pass? What is the safest way to pass? What’s the speed limit anyway? Is that guy too close? Am I going too slow?

Finally our exit appears. After negotiating a roundabout, we are speeding down the center of a Santa Úrsula, a small town on the northern shore of the island.

“The Airbnb is right over there,” Rebe says.

“So should I park?”

“Yes.”

“But where? Where?”

“Anywhere.”

“Jesus.”

We drive about a mile down the street before I manage to pull off the road and into a parking spot. By now, I am totally shaken.

Luckily, the Airbnb calmed me down. I had splurged and gotten us an entire apartment. It was magnificent—a kitchen, a couch, a television, and a balcony with a view of the ocean. Perhaps this vacation in a tropical paradise wouldn’t be so bad after all.


The big division in Tenerife is between the northern and southern shores. From what I hear, the south shore—full of golden beaches and massive resorts—caters mainly to foreigners, while Spaniards tend to prefer the northern shore. No lover of sunbathing or swimming in the ocean, I figured that I would stick to the north.

Our first stop was a little town called Icod de los Vinos. We arrived at lunch time. Still very uncertain about my driving, I parked in the first available spot I could find. It just so happened that this spot was very far away from both the restaurant and the city center.

“Are you serious?” Rebe said. “We have to walk half an hour?”

“Listen, I can’t drive anymore right now.”

“Ugh.”

In retrospect, it is absurd that I was so shaken up. The driving could not have been easier. Hardly anybody speeds, and nobody drives aggressively. And if I had not been frantically monitoring the road, I would have noticed that it was a beautiful day. Unsurprisingly, Tenerife looks nothing like Madrid. Far from the arid climate and sandy soil of Spain’s capital, Tenerife looks properly tropical—filled lush greenery, with the ocean rarely out of sight.

I was happy because I was out of the car. Now it was Rebe’s turn to suffer, since she doesn’t like to walk. The way to the restaurant took us up a sizable hill. At the top we had an excellent view of the town—spread out on the slope, with patches of fields (presumably for wine) interspersed between the houses—not that Rebe was in the mood to appreciate it.

Photo by Rebeca López. She brought her fancy new Nikon D3400. This was, as it happens, the longest my beard has ever grown.

We went to a restaurant called (if memory serves) El Frenazo, which specializes in grilled meat. This is quite common in the Canary Islands, though I don’t know where they keep all the livestock. We ordered a parrillada—which is a huge platter of meat. When it arrived, we were stunned—it was an absurd amount of food, with sausages, chicken, panceta, pork chops, ribs, as well as salad and french fries. We ate as much as we could and then saved the rest for dinner.

Photo by Rebeca López

Icod de los Vinos is most famous for the Drago Milenario. This is a massive dragon tree that is supposedly one thousand years old (though nobody knows for sure), which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Tenerife. Dragon trees, a species native to the Canary Islands, are typically small, even bush-like. This specimen, however, rises to the height of a proper tree. It is a beautiful sight: with the single, massive trunk splitting into a tangle of knotty branches.

The famous Drago Milenario. Photo by Rebeca López
Rebe with a halo of palm tree.

The old center of the town is charming, too. There is a certain architectural style typical of Canary villages: squat buildings of whitewashed granite lining plazas filled with palm trees. It is a strange combination of Latin America and medieval Europe. The local accent furthers this impression. Canarian Spanish is unmistakably different from that of the Peninsula. To me it sounds like the Spanish from Andalusia—clipped, shorn of endings, slurred together—but with a kind of jolly lilt that sounds Caribbean to my ears. I find it very pleasant, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand.

Photo by Rebeca López.

After a very long walk to the car (complicated by me not remembering exactly where it was) we were ready to see more of the island. Though I was still nervous while driving, the island’s beauty began to work on me. Every turn on the highway revealed another impressive view. Unfortunately, I could not properly enjoy these views, since my eyes were frantically fixed on the road. Rebe, meanwhile, sat in the passenger’s seat, blissfully ignorant of my mental state, taking photos through the window with her nice camera.

The Orotava Valley, with Teide in the distance. Photo by Rebeca López.

In half an hour we arrived at our next destination: La Orotava. This is a medium-sized town known for its well-preserved historical center. But anyone who has lived in Europe knows that driving in beautiful historical centers is seldom a quaint experience. The twisting, narrow, and steep streets made my already elevated blood pressure spike up to concerning heights.

“Where do I park? Where do I park?”

“I dunno, somewhere around here,” Rebe said.

On impulse, I turned down a nearby street. But a pedestrian immediately started waving at me and, in a moment, I realized that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. Luckily, a parking space was miraculously available nearby, so I avoided a head-on collision (even though it took me about seven attempts to double park my tiny Smart car).

The center of La Orotava vaguely reminded me of Toledo, both for its antique layout and for its sharp changes in elevation. The town sits splayed out on a steep hillside, making it the most uneven municipality in Spain. As in any historical Spanish town, there are many churches to see. The most noteworthy is the Church of the Holy Conception—a looming structure whose wide façade rises into a series of gentle curves. From the inside the visitor can tell that it is a properly historical edifice, with elaborately carved altars, columns, and pulpits. It is no wonder that the locals affectionately call it a basilica and a cathedral, though it is neither of the two. 

A section of the Church of the Holy Conception. Photo by Rebeca López.

Yet my usual strategy of hunting down historical buildings was inappropriate to visiting Canarian towns. It is far more pleasurable to simply stroll about, admiring the many beautiful angles that opened up into the dramatic ocean beyond—palm trees, church spires, and tiled roofs foregrounding the blue-grey mist of the atlantic.

However, the sun was already on its way towards the horizon; and I was nervous about driving at night. So we went back to the apartment, eating the remainder of our massive meat platter for dinner. The next day was our only full day in Tenerife. We had to make it count.

Photo by Rebeca López

Our first stop after breakfast was Tenerife’s most historically significant city: San Cristóbal de la Laguna (usually just called La Laguna). The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 for being an excellently preserved example of a Spanish colonial city. Indeed, La Laguna was a model city for many of the major Spanish colonial capitals that followed—such as Havana.

The city is located on relatively flat ground, far from the shore. The wide streets are arranged in a grid-like pattern—not strict, as in New York, but still orderly and logical. This is strikingly different from most other historical Spanish cities. Also striking is the city’s complete lack of defensive structures. A wall has never enclosed the historical city center—probably because, after overwhelming the natives, there were few conceivable enemies to defend the city from. As a result La Laguna has a pleasingly open atmosphere.

Photo by Rebeca López

After a stroll through the town—full of locals, tourists, clothing shops, and restaurants—we peeked into the city’s cathedral. It is a rather recent construction, built in the early 1900s. Like Madrid’s cathedral, it is a stylistic mismatch: neoclassic on the outside and neogothic within. Still, it is a pleasing space: open, balanced, well-lit, and filled with altars, statues, and floats used in processionals. The Royal Sanctuary is a far more ancient house of worship, having been built in the 16th century, which houses a famous devotional figure of Christ (thus the name). The most beautiful work of religious architecture in the city is the bell tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception (the first parish to be established in Tenerife), built in 1511.

Rebe found a wall that she thought was a good background.

Yet the best of the visit was the street life. We ate an early lunch in a kebab place and listened to a couple of street performers do a decent rendition of some blues classics.

But we did not have long to dawdle. Today was the day that we ascended the volcano: Teide. We had to leave ourselves enough time to properly savor the experience. I had a concern, though. Friends had told me that it was very cold at the top of the volcano, and I hadn’t brought anything warmer than a light sweatshirt. When I told Rebe this, she made me even more concerned.

“Do you want to get to the top and be freezing? It’s not even warm down here.”

She was right. It was a surprisingly mild day for a tropical island. I figured that it was better to be safe than sorry, so we walked into a nearby sportswear store, where I bought a thermal t-shirt.

“I hope this is enough,” I said at checkout.

We got back in the car and, after several unsuccessful attempts, we navigated out of the town and towards the mountain. A Canarian friend of mine had suggested the route up the towns of La Esperanza and Las Rosas (basically from east to west), and it was an excellent recommendation. The road took us through bucolic countryside, with tree-shaded roads crossing grassy fields. Rebe put her camera on the dashboard and took photo after photo, while I stole sidelong glances at the scenery.

Photo by Rebeca López

The road up was long. Teide is simply massive: rising over 3,700 m (or over 12,000 ft) above sea level. The volcano is at the historical, cultural, and geological heart of the island. Most obviously, it is evidence of the cataclismic volcanic eruptions that formed the island to begin with. But the volcano has taken on additional significance.

The peak was worshiped by the indigenous Guanches as a god who held up the heavens. And I admit that I, too, am willing to worship the massive hunk of volcanic rock, if my pleas can postpone any further eruptions. One wonders what would happen to the island’s one million inhabitants if the long-dormant volcano should re-awaken. 

The German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt—a pioneer in the study of how altitude affects the distribution of life—climbed the mountain on his way to South America. And the volcano is featured on Tenerife’s coat of arms. Nowadays Teide is the most-visited natural site in all of Spain—and, indeed, all of Europe.

As we approached and then entered the national park, the environment gradually changed. The trees shifted from deciduous to evergreen, and the fields were replaced by dense forest. The road led up and up, on a seemingly endless gradual ascent, gently turning as it went. Soon we were passing little stopping-points by the side of the road, each one offering a progressively better view of the island.

Photo by Rebeca López

In less than an hour we were above the clouds. It was beautiful. A sea of white drifted in from the ocean, bathing the base of the mountain in mist. I was astonished at how high we were. The road up had not been very steep, but already the coastline below was swallowed into the far distance. And we were not even halfway to the top!

Now, I am very inexperienced with mountains; indeed, the only one that I have climbed is Peñalara, near Madrid. But I would guess that there are few eminences which give such dramatic views of their surroundings. Teide may not be the biggest; but it is surrounded by clear air and open sea; so the full extent of its height can be easily appreciated.

The peak. Photo by Rebeca López

A few signs were set up at the resting points, explaining some of the geological history of the islands. According to them, the valleys below—such as La Orotava and Icod de los Vinos—had been formed in the space of a moment, by massive landslides breaking off from a larger volcanic structure. A sign also had information about the coronal forest, and the conservation efforts to restore it after damage inflicted by severe windstorms. 

Gradually the forest shrank and all but disappeared, leaving a barren landscape, reminiscent of Mars. Now driving became truly nerve-racking. The road kept snaking left and right, with a sharp drop off at least one side at any time. If somehow I lost control, no trees would have broken the fall. We would have tumbled a long, long way. I kept my eyes glued to the road, doing my best to keep the car within the lines as we turned this way and that. Meanwhile, Rebe sat contentedly snapping pictures and oohing and aahing at the natural beauty.

Photo by Rebeca López

Eventually we came to a rest stop. We had been driving for well over an hour already, and we were only halfway up. To actually reach the top, you must take the funicular, which is called the “teleférico.” But the price for non-residents is 27€, and that seemed too steep for us. (After reading a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, who famously ascended to the peak, I slightly regret my stinginess. Maybe next time.) Instead, we decided to have a coffee and then head back towards the north shore.

We sat outside, eating syrupy torrijas (the Spanish version of French toast) and sipping café con leche and hot chocolate. And I noticed something: it was considerably warmer than it was back down in La Laguna. My thermal T-shirt was not necessary after all.

If we had continued our ascent, we could have seen the Teide Observatory. This is an important array of telescopes that have been set up because of the island’s favorable astronomical seeing conditions. (Apparently, across the earth there is a good deal of variation in the degree to which atmosphere blurs stars and planets.) Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, did his PhD research on interplanetary dust here. Thus, from Humboldt to the present day, Teide has maintained a scientific significance.

The road down was just as winding and perilous as the road up. But it was shorter. In just half an hour we were in our next destination: Puerto de la Cruz.

This place was one of the first tourist centers on the island. Alexander von Humboldt himself stayed here during his visit to the island. It remains a place of hotels and resorts—tall white buildings huddled around the beach. The city itself is, thus, not especially noteworthy (though there are many good places to eat and drink). What draws attention is the beach of black, volcanic sand right in the center.

Photo by Rebeca López

We stood for some time admiring the jagged black rock that forms the surrounding coastline. The rich blue of the waters turned a creamy white as it churned and frothed in the waves, battering against the shore and jettisoning into foamy sprays. Rebe spent about ten minutes trying to photograph it. Then, we headed towards the beach. On the way we encountered a strange sort of monument: thousands of little piles of black stones. A lot of man-hours had been spent in making this natural stone garden. It is a local tradition?

The beach was beyond. For a Saturday evening, it was not too crowded. The weather was not quite hot enough for sunbathing or swimming—at least, I thought so. However, it was beautiful. I had never seen a black sand beach before. The sand was courser than normal sand, with a smoother texture. I imagine it gets very, very hot in the summer months. Exhausted, I sat down on the beach while Rebe walked along the water. Her figure was silhouetted in the intense yellow reflection of sunlight on the waves. If I had had a good camera, it would have made an excellent photograph. 

We hung out on the beach, had a drink (well, Rebe did), and went back to the apartment. Our short time in Tenerife was almost spent. We spent the night drinking a bottle of the local wine, which was surprisingly good. I suppose the mild climate and the volcanic soil are well-suited for viticulture.

The view from our apartment. Photo by Rebeca López.

The next morning we drove to the airport. But there was a problem. The whole time we had been driving, there had been yellow warning light in the dashboard, saying “neumático presión.” I panicked when I first saw it, of course, since I assumed that this had something to do with our suspension. But when I asked the rental car agent, he said it was no problem. It had stayed yellow the entire weekend. But on Sunday morning, as we prepared to return to the airport, it turned a bright red and said “urgente.”

At this point I asked Rebe what “neumático” meant.

“You don’t know?” she said, alarmed.

“I’m not sure…”

“It means tires,” she said.

“Seriously?” I said. “Oh, shit.”

Now, to reiterate, I did not know the first thing about car maintenance. I still don’t. So I was at a loss. I had Rebe call the rental car company, who told us to take it to a gas station and use the free tire pressure gauge. We did. It took us about ten minutes to figure out how to use the machine; we must have looked like two bumbling idiots. When we checked, we found that one tire had considerably less pressure than the rest. With five minutes of pumping, balance was restored, and the warning light turned off. Soon the car was returned to the airport parking lot, and my adventure in automobiling had come to a close. 

I should mention that the car rental experience in Tenerife was excellent. I used PlusCar, and I would recommend them to any who wish to travel to the Canary Islands. The price was cheap and included insurance. The company also had a surprisingly relaxed attitude. There was little paperwork, no deposit, no threats of being held responsible for damages, and no attempt to sell us anything extra. And when we returned the car, we just left the keys under the dashboard and walked away. If only renting a car were always like that.

My last image of Tenerife was magnificent. The plane began to accelerate down the runway, taking off and ascending away from the ground. In five minutes the windows were covered with the white of clouds. Moments later, as we broke through the layer of mist, I looked out to see Teide, with its crown breaking through the sea of fog. I could hardly believe it: the peak was still above us! This was the first time I had looked up at the ground from a plane window.

I wish that I had spent more time in Tenerife. It was one of my best trips in Europe. The landscape is beautiful, the people are charming, the food is delicious—and, best of all, the price is reasonable. I would go back.

Despite my constant terror, I also relished the experience of having a car. The prospect of car ownership has never had much appeal to me. But renting a car made me understand: a car means freedom. True, it also means having to take care of the car, as I also learned. Still, I loved the feeling of being able to go wherever I pleased, whenever I pleased. And it is always a relief to conquer one’s fears. I had driven, and I had survived—something I never thought possible. 

Of course, it was also very nice to be able to travel with Rebe. It was our first vacation together, and we managed not to kill each other. It turns out that spending a weekend on a tropical island with your girlfriend is, indeed, as enjoyable as it sounds.

Review: Pascal’s Pensées

Review: Pascal’s Pensées

Pensées by Blaise Pascal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pascal seems to have been born for greatness. At a young age he displayed an intense talent for mathematics, apparently deducing a few propositions of Euclid by himself; and he matured into one of the great mathematical minds of Europe, making fundamental contributions to the science of probability. While he was at it, he invented an adding machine: the beginning of our adventures in computing.

Later on in his short life, after narrowly escaping a carriage accident, the young man had an intense conversion experience; and he devoted the rest of his energies to religion. A committed Jansenist (a sect of Catholics deeply influenced by Calvinism), he set out to defend his community from the hostile Jesuits. This resulted in his Provincial Letters, a series of polemical epistles now considered a model and a monument of French prose. This was not all. His most ambitious project was a massive apology for the Christian faith. But disease struck him down before he could bring his book to term; and now all we are left with are fragments—scattered bits of thought.

Strangely, it is this unfinished book—not his polished prose, not his contributions to mathematics—which has become Pascal’s most lasting work. It is a piece of extraordinary passion and riveting eloquence. Yet it is also disorganized, tortured, incomplete, uneven, abrupt—at times laconic to the point of inscrutability, at times rambling, diffuse, and obscure. How are we to judge such a book?

Pascal alternates between two fundamental moods in the text: the tortured doubter, and the zealous convert. Inevitably I found the former sections to be far more compelling. Pascal was an avid reader of Montaigne, and seems to have taken that French sage’s skepticism to heart. Yet Pascal could never simulate Montaigne’s easy acceptance of his own ignorance; the mathematician wanted certainty, and was driven to despair by Montaigne’s gnawing doubt. Thus, though Pascal often echoes Montaigne’s thoughts, the tone is completely different: anguish rather than acceptance.

Montaigne’s influence runs very deep in Pascal. Harold Bloom famously called the Pensées “a bad case indigestion in regard to Montaigne,” and notes the many passages of Pascal which directly echo Montaigne’s words. Will Durant goes even further, writing that Pascal was driven nearly to madness by Montaigne’s skepticism. There is, indeed, a shadow of mania and mental imbalance that falls over this work. Pascal gives the impression of one who is profoundly unhappy; and this despair both propels him to his heights and drags him to his depths.

At his best, Pascal strikes one as a kind of depressed charismatic genius, writing in the mood of a Hamlet. Cynicism at times overwhelms him, as he notes how our vanity leads us to choose our professions and our habits just to receive praise from other people. He can also be a pessimist—noting, like Schopenhauer, that all earthly pleasures are unsatisfactory and vain. Pascal had a morbid streak, too.

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.

We also have the misanthrope, in which mood he most nearly approached the Danish prince:

What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!

But I think even more moving that these moods is Pascal’s metaphysical despair. He wants certainty with every inch of his soul, and yet the universe only inspires doubt and anguish: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” As a scientist during the age of Galileo, Pascal is painfully aware of humanity’s smallness in relation to the vast void of the universe. He struggles to establish our dignity: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Yet his existential desperation continually reasserts itself, no matter how often he defends himself against it:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness. Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety. If I saw no sign there of a Divinity I should decide on a negative solution: if I saw signs of a Creator everywhere I should peacefully settle down in the faith.

He finds neither negative nor positive confirmation, however, and so must resort to a frenzied effort. Perhaps this is where the famous idea of the wager arose. Pascal’s Wager is simple: if you choose to be religious you have very much to gain and comparatively little to lose, so it is an intelligent bet. Of course there are many problems with this line of thinking. For one, would not an omniscient God know that you are choosing religion for calculated self-interest? Pascal’s solution is that, if you force yourself to undergo the rituals of religion—fasting, confession, mass, and the rest—the belief will gradually become genuine.

Perhaps. Yet there are many other problems with the wager. Most noticeable, nowadays, is Pascal’s treatment of the religious problem as a binary choice—belief or unbelief—whereas now we have hundreds of options to choose from as regards religions. Further, Pascal’s insistence that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose is difficult to accept. For we do have something to lose: our life. Living a strictly religious life is no easy thing, after all. Also, his insistence that the finite existence of our life is nothing compared to the potential infinity of heavenly life leaves out one crucial thing: If there is no afterlife, than our finite existence is infinitely more valuable than the nothingness that awaits. So the wager does not clarify anything.

In any case, it is unclear what use Pascal wished to make of his wager. The rest of this book does not make any mention of this kind of strategic belief. Indeed, at times Pascal seems to directly contradict this idea of an intellectually driven faith, particularly in his emphasis on the role of emotion: “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.” Or, more pithily: “The heart has its reasons of which the reason knows nothing.”

This, for me, summarizes the more enjoyable sections of the book. But there is a great deal to criticize. Many of the arguments that Pascal makes for belief are frankly bad. He notes, for example, that Christianity has been around since the beginning of the world—something that only a convinced young-earther could believe nowadays. There are many passages about the Jews, most of which are difficult to read. One of his most consistent themes is that God hardened the hearts of the Jews against Christ, in order that they be unwilling “witnesses” to future generations. But what kind of divine justice is it to sacrifice a whole people, intentionally blinding them to the truth?

Indeed, virtually every statement Pascal makes about other religions reveals both an ignorance and a hostility greatly unbecoming of the man. And his explanation of the existence of other religions, as a kind of specious temptation, is both absurd and disrespectful: “If God had permitted only one religion, it would have been too easily recognizable. But, if we look closely, it is easy to distinguish the true religion amidst all this confusion.”

I suppose this is one of the great paradoxes of any kind of religious faith: Why did God allow so many to go astray? But conceiving of other religions as snares deliberately placed by God seems extremely cruel on God’s part (as well as wholly dismissive of other faiths). In any case, it is just one example of Pascal’s pitiless piety. He himself warns of the danger of the moral sense armed with certainty: “We never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.” And yet his own religious convictions can seem cruel, at least psychologically: dwelling obsessively on the need to hate oneself, and insisting that “I am culpable if I make anyone love me.”

Pascal also has a habit of dwelling on prophesy, repeatedly noting that the Old Testament prefigured the coming and the life of Jesus—which is clear if we interpret the text in the “right” way. Of course, this is open to the obvious objection that any text can predict anything if it is interpreted in the “right” way. Pascal’s response to this is that God is intentionally mysterious, and it would have been too obvious to have literally predicted Jesus and his works. The ability to see the prophesy differentiates those to whom God sheds light, and those whom God blinds. Once again, therefore, we have this strangely cruel conception of God, as a Being which arbitrarily prevents His creatures from seeing the truth.

As I think is clear from the frantic tone, and the many different and contradictory ways that Pascal tries to justify belief, he himself was not fully convinced by any of them. His final desperate intellectual move is to abandon the principle of logical consistency altogether. As he says: “A hundred contradictions might be true.” Or elsewhere he tells us: “All their principles are true, skeptics, stoics, atheists, etc. … but their conclusions are false, because the contrary principles are also true.” Yet if he had taken this idea seriously, he would have seen that it completely erodes the possibility of justifying any belief. All we have left is to go where the “heart” guides us; but what if my heart guides me towards Chinese ancestor worship?

Another reviewer on this site noted Pascal’s power to convince religious skeptics. But, as you can see, I found the opposite to be true. Pascal’s morbid unhappiness, his frantic doubt, his shoddy reasoning, do not inspire any wish to join him. To the contrary, one regrets that such a fine mind was driven to such a self-destructive fixation. Still, this book deserves its canonical status. Though at times nearly unreadable, in its finest passages the Pensées is as sublime as anything in literature. And, though Pascal falls short of Montaigne in many respects, he is able to capture the one element of experience forbidden to the benign essayist: an all-consuming despair.

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Review: Being and Nothingness

Review: Being and Nothingness
Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slime is the agony of water.

I first heard of this book from my dad. “I had to read this in college,” he told me. “We looked at every type of being. Being-in-myself, being-for-myself, being-of-myself, being-across-myself, being-by-myself. I went crazy trying to read that thing.” Ever since that memorable description, this book has held a special allure for me. It has everything to attract a self-styled intellectual: a reputation for difficulty, a hefty bulk, a pompous title, and the imprimatur of a famous name. Clearly I had to read it.

Jean-Paul Sartre was the defining intellectual of his time, at least on the European continent. He did everything: writing novels and plays, founding and editing a journal, engaging in political activism, and pioneering a philosophical school: existentialism. This book is the defining monument of that school. An eight-hundred-page treatise on ontology which, somehow, became widely read—or at least widely talked about. Nearly eighty years later, we are still talking about this book. In 2016 Sarah Bakewell released a best-selling book about Sartre’s movement; and a new translation of Being and Nothingness will be released next year. Interest in existentialism has not abated.

Yet what is existentialism? And how has it weathered the passing years? This is what I set out to determine, and this review will show whether my attempt bore fruit.

One should begin by examining the subtitle of this book: “A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology.” Already we have a contradiction. Phenomenology is a philosophical school founded by Edmund Husserl, which attempted to direct philosophers’ attention back “to the things themselves”—that is, to their own experience of the world. One of Husserl’s most insistent commandments was that the philosopher should “bracket,” or set aside, the old Cartesian question of the reality of these experiences (is the world truly as I perceive it?); rather, the philosopher should simply examine the qualities of the experience itself. Thus, Sartre’s promise of a phenomenological ontology (ontology being the investigation of the fundamental nature of reality) is a flagrant violation of Husserl’s principles.

Still, it does have a lot to tell us about Sartre’s method. This book is an attempt to deduce the fundamental categories of being from everyday experience. And this attempt leads Sartre to the two most basic categories of all: being and nothingness. Being is all around us; it is manifest in every object we experience. Sartre defines existing objects as those which are self-identical—that is, objects which simply are what they are—and he dubs this type of being the “in-itself.” Humans, by contrast, cannot be so defined; they are constantly shifting, projecting themselves into an uncertain future. Rather than simply existing, they observe their own existence. Sartre calls this type of human existence the “for-itself.”

Already we see the old Cartesian dualism reappearing in these categories. Are we not confronted, once again, with the paradoxes of matter and mind? Not exactly. For Sartre does not consider the in-itself and the for-itself to be two different types of substances. In fact, the for-itself has no existence at all: it is a nothingness. To use Sartre’s expressions, human consciousness can be compared to “little pools of non-being that we encounter in the heart of being,” or elsewhere he says that the for-itself “is like a hole in being at the heart of Being.” The for-itself (a consciousness) is a particular privation of a specific in-itself (a human body), which functions as a nihilation that makes the world appear: for there would not be a “world” as we know it without perception, and perception is, for Sartre, a type of nihilation.

Putting aside all of the difficulties with this view, we can examine the consequences which Sartre draws from these two sorts of being. If the for-itself is a nothingness, then it is forever removed from the world around it. That is, it cannot be determined, either by its past or by its environment. In short, it is free—inescapably free. Human behavior can thus never be adequately explained or even excused, since all explanations or excuses presuppose that humans are not fundamentally self-determining. But of course we explain and excuse all the time. We point to economic class, occupation, culture, gender, race, sexuality, upbringing, genetic background, mood—to a thousand different factors in order to understand why people act the way they do.

This attempt to treat humans as things rather than free beings Sartre calls “bad faith.” This constitutes the fundamental sin of existentialism. He gives the example of a waiter who so embraces his role as a waiter that his motions become calculated and mechanical; the waiter tries to embody himself in his role to the extent that he gives up his individual freedom and becomes a kind of automaton whose every movement is predictable. But of course life is full of examples of bad faith. I excuse my mistake by saying I hadn’t had my coffee yet; my friend cheats on his girlfriend, but it was because his father cheated on his mother; and so on.

This is the basic situation of the for-itself. Yet there is another type of being which Sartre later introduces us to: the for-others. Sartre introduces this category with a characteristically vivid example: Imagine a peeping Tom is looking through a keyhole into a room. His attention is completely fixed on what he sees. Then, suddenly, he hears footsteps coming down the hall; and he immediately becomes aware of himself as a body, as a thing. Sartre considers experiences like this to prove that we cannot doubt the existence of others, since being perceived by others totally changes how we experience ourselves.

This allows Sartre to launch into an analysis of human interaction, and particularly into love and sexuality. This analysis bears the obvious influence of Hegel’s famous Master-Slave dialectic, and it centers on the same sorts of paradoxes: the contradictory urges to subjugate and be subjugated, to be embodied and desired, to be free and to be freely chosen, and so on. However, Sartre’s best writing in this vein is not to be found here, but in his great play No Exit, where each character exhibits a particular type of bad faith. All three of the characters wish to be looked at in a particular way, yet each of them is stuck with others whose own particular sort of bad faith renders them unable to look in the “right” way.

Sartre concludes from all this that our most fervent desire, and the reason we so often slip into bad faith, is that we wish to be an impossible combination of the in-itself and the for-itself. We want to be the foundation of our own being, a perfect self-identical creature, and yet absolutely free. We want to become gods. But, for Sartre, this is self-contradictory: the in-itself and the for-itself can never coexist. Thus, the idea of God arises as a sort of wish-fulfillment; but God is impossible by definition. As a result, human life “is a useless passion”—a relentless striving to be something which cannot exist.

All this may be clearer if we avoid Sartre’s terminology and, instead, compare his philosophy to that of Buddhism (at least, the type of Western Buddhism I’m acquainted with). The mind is constantly searching for a sense of permanent identity. Though the mind is, by nature, groundless, we are uncomfortable with this; we want put ground under our feet. So we seek to identify ourselves with our jobs, our families, our marriages, our hobbies, our success, our money—with any external good that lets us forget that our consciousness is constantly shifting and flowing, and that our identities can never be absolutely determined. So far, Buddhism and Sartrean existentialism have similar diagnoses of our problems. But Buddhism prescribes detachment, while Sartre prescribes the embrace of absolute freedom and the adoption of complete responsibility of our actions.

No summary of the book would be complete without Sartre’s critique of Freud. Sartre was clearly intrigued by Freud’s theories and wanted to use them in some way. However, Freud’s unconscious motivations and superconscious censorship is clearly incompatible with Sartre’s philosophy of freedom. In particular, Sartre found it self-contradictory to say that there could be a part of the mind which “wants” without us knowing it, or a part that is able to hide information from our awareness. For Sartre, all consciousness is self-consciousness, and it therefore does not make sense to “want” or “know” something unconsciously.

In place of Freud’s psychoanalysis, then, Sartre proposes an existential psychoanalysis. For Sartre, every person is defined by a sort of fundamental choice that determines their stance towards the world (though, strangely, it seems that most people are not aware of having made this choice). It is the task of the existential psychoanalyst is to uncover this fundamental choice by a close examination of everyday actions. Indeed, Sartre believes that everything from one’s preference for onions to one’s aversion to cold water is a consequence of this fundamental choice. Sartre even goes so far as to insist that some things, by virtue of being so clearly suggestive of metaphor, have a universal meaning for the for-itself. As an example of this, he gives “slime”—viscous liquid which Sartre thinks inspires a universal horror of the weight of existence.

This fairly well rounds out a summary of the book. So what are we to make of this?

The comparison with Heidegger is unavoidable. Sartre himself seems to have encouraged the comparison by giving his metaphysical tome a title redolent of the German professor’s magnum opus. The influence is clear: Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness after reading Being and Time during his brief imprisonment in a prisoner-of-war camp; and Heidegger is referenced throughout the book. Nevertheless, I think it would be inaccurate to describe Sartre as a follower of Heidegger, or his philosophy merely as an interpretation of Heidegger’s. Indeed, I think that the superficial similarities between the two thinkers (stylistic obscurity, disregard of religion and ethics, a focus on human experience, a concern with “being”) mask far more important differences.

Heidegger’s project, insofar as I understand it, is radically anti-Cartesian. He sought to replace the thinking and observing ego with the Dasein, a being thrown into the world, a being fundamentally ensconced in a community and surrounded by tools ready-to-hand. For Heidegger, the Cartesian perspective—of withdrawing from the world and deliberately reflecting and reasoning—is derivative of, and inferior to, this far more fundamental relationship to being. Sartre could not be further from this. Sartre’s perspective, to the contrary, is insistently Cartesian and subjectivist; it is the philosophy of a single mind urgently investigating its experience. Further, the concept of “freedom” plays almost no role in Heidegger’s philosophy; indeed, I believe he would criticize the very idea of free choice as enmeshed in the Cartesian framework he hoped to destroy.

In method, then, Sartre is far closer to Husserl—another professed Cartesian—than to Heidegger. However, as we observed above, Sartre breaks Husserl’s most fundamental tenet by using subjective experiences to investigate being; and this was done clearly under the influence of Heidegger. These two, along with Freud, and Hegel, constitute the major intellectual influences on Sartre.

It should be no surprise, then, that Sartre’s style often verges on the obscure. Many passages in this book are comparable in ugliness and density to those German masters of opacity (Freud excluded). Heidegger is the most obvious influence here: for Sartre, like Heidegger, enjoys using clunky hyphenated terms and repurposing quotidian words in order to give them a special meaning. There is an important difference, however. When I did decipher Sartre’s more difficult passages, I usually found that the inky murkiness was rather unnecessary.

Believe me when I say that I am no lover of Heidegger’s writing. Nevertheless, I think Heidegger’s tortured locutions are more justifiable than Sartre’s, for Heidegger was attempting to express something that is truly counter-intuitive, at least in the Western philosophical tradition; whereas Sartre’s philosophy, whatever novelties it possesses, is far more clearly in the mainline of Cartesian thinking. As a result, Sartre’s adventures in jargon come across as mere displays of pomp—a bejewelled robe he dons in order to appear more weighty—and, occasionally, as mere abuses of language, concealing simple points in false paradoxes.

This is a shame, for when Sartre wished he could be quite a powerful writer. And, indeed, the best sections of this book are when Sartre switches from his psuedo-Heideggerian tone to that of the French novelist. The most memorable passages in this book are Sartre’s illustrations of his theories: the aforementioned waiter, or the Peeping Tom, or the passage on skiing. Whatever merit Sartre had as a philosopher, he was undoubtedly a genius in capturing the intricacies of subjective experience—the turns of thought and twinges of emotion that rush through the mind in everyday situations.

But what are we to make of his system? To my mind, the most immediately objectionable aspect is his idea of nothingness. Nothing is just that—nothing: a complete lack of qualities, attributes, or activity of any kind. Indeed, if a nothingness can be defined at all, it must be via elimination: by excluding every existing thing. It seems incoherent, then, to say that the human mind is a nothingness, and is therefore condemned to be free. Consciousness has many definite qualities and, besides that, is constantly active and (in Sartre’s opinion at least) able to choose itself and change the world. How can a nothingness do that? And this is putting to the side the striking question of how the human brain can produce a complete absence of being. Maybe I am taking Sartre’s point too literally; but it is fair to say that he provides no account of how this nothingness came into being.

Once this idea of nothingness is called into question, the rest of Sartre’s conclusions are on extremely shaky ground. Sartre’s idea of freedom is especially suspect. If human consciousness is not separated from the world and from its past by a nothingness, then Sartre’s grand pronouncements of total freedom and total responsibility become dubious. To me it seems unlikely to the highest degree that, of all the known objects in the universe, including all of the animals (some of which are closely related to us), humans are the only things that are exempt from the chain of causality that binds everything together.

Besides finding it implausible, I also cannot help finding Sartre’s idea of total freedom and responsibility to be morally dubious. He himself, so far as I know, never managed to make his system compatible with a system of ethics. In any case, an emphasis on total responsibility can easily lead to a punitive mentality. According to Sartre, everyone deserves their fate.

Admittedly I do think his conception of “bad faith” is useful. Whether or not we are metaphysically “free,” we often have more power over a situation than we admit. Denying our responsibility can lead to inauthenticity and immorality. And Sartre’s embrace of freedom can be a healthy antidote to an apathetic despair. Still, I do not think an elaborate ontological system is necessary in order to make this point.

Reading Sartre nowadays, I admit that it is difficult to take his conclusions seriously. For one, the next generation of French intellectuals set to work demonstrating that our freedom is constrained by society (Bourdeiu), psychology (Lacan), language (Derrida), and history (Foucault), among other factors. (Of course, these intellectual projects were not necessarily any more solid than Sartre’s.) More importantly, Sartre’s system seems to be so completely bound up in both his times and his own psychology—two things which he denied could determine human behavior—that it ironically belies his conclusions. (As an example of the latter influence, Sartre’s revulsion and even horror of sex is apparent throughout the book, especially in the strange section on “slime.”)

In the end I was somewhat disappointed by this work. And I think my disappointment is ultimately a consequence of Sartre’s method: phenomenological ontology. It is simply incorrect to believe that we can closely interrogate our own experiences to determine the fundamental categories of being. Admittedly, Sartre is not entirely averse to making logical argument; but too many of his conclusions rest on the shaky ground of these narrations of subjective experience. Sartre is, indeed, a brilliant observer of this experience, and his descriptions are worth reading for their psychological insight alone. Nevertheless, as a system of ontology, I do not think it can stand on its own two feet.



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Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Like so many people, I went through a dinosaur phase as a child. It was almost inevitable. Growing up on the Upper West Side, I could visit the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. Natural selection has overcome many engineering problems—flight, sight, growth, digestion—and it has certainly not failed in its ability to awe little boys. I picked up this book to finally learn something about these ancient beasts.

Any fair evaluation of this book must conclude that it does its job: it summarizes new discoveries about dinosaurs in accessible prose. Brusatte goes through the entire chronology of the group, from their beginnings as unremarkable reptiles which emerged after the great Permian-Triassic Extinction, to their gradual rise, growth, spread, and diversification, and finally to their eventual end—wiped out by an asteroid.

There are many interesting tidbits along the way. Dinosaurs had the efficient lungs we find in modern birds, which are able to extract oxygen during the inhale and exhale. They also had primitive feathers, which looked more like hairs. Indeed, modern birds are dinosaurs in the strict sense of the word. I was particularly surprised to learn that Tyrannosaurus Rex lived and hunted in groups; and that they achieved their massive size extremely quickly—growing several pounds a day for years on end.

I also appreciated Brusatte’s descriptions of the methods that paleontologists use—new statistical techniques for analyzing fossils, or piecing together ancient ecosystems, or determining rates of evolutionary change. Nowadays paleontologists to not merely look for old bones, but they study living animals to make hypotheses about the speed, strength, and size of these extinct creatures. One researcher even studied fossils under a microscope to deduce the color of the feathers from the indentations. Brusatte also covers some of the history of dinosaur research, which is surprisingly colorful—especially the tragic life of the Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás.

So the book undoubtedly accomplishes its goal. My only complaint is the style. When Brusatte sticks to the science, he is clear and engaging. But whenever he chooses to embellish the story—which is rather too often—the prose becomes strained and grating. Here is a description of a seagull that opens his chapter on birds:

When the sun breaks through for a moment, I catch a glint reflected in its beady eyes, which start to dance back and forth. No doubt this is a creature of keen senses and high intelligence, and it’s onto something. Maybe it can tell that I’m watching. Then, without warning, it yawns open its mouth and emits a high-pitched screech—an alarm to its compatriots, perhaps, or a mating call. Or maybe it’s a threat directed my way.

In fairness, I did enjoy his description of what the dinosaurs would have experienced in the first few minutes after the asteroid impact.

More irksome, however, were the thumbnail sketches of his colleagues, which are interspersed throughout the book. I would have understood the necessity of these passages if Brusatte were introducing a researcher who would play an important role in the book. Yet inevitably these researchers were introduced with fanfare only to be immediately dropped. What is more, Brusatte always focuses on the quirkiest aspects of these researchers, in a superficial attempt at coolness; and he also makes sure to tell us that he is one of their best friends.

In one particularly aggravating example, Brusatte describes one researcher’s fashion (“leopard-print Lycra, piercings, and tattoos”), ethnicity (“half-Irish, half-Chinese”), hobbies (“raving and even occasionally DJ-ing in the trendy clubs of China’s suddenly hip capital”), and conversation style (“delivering caustic one-liners one moment, speaking in eloquent paragraphs about politics the next”). Does this add anything of value to the book?

These stylistic irritations mar what is otherwise an excellent popular book about dinosaurs. And since these offending passages do not add anything to the substance of the book, my advice is just to skip on until he gets back on the subject of dinosaurs—a topic which brings out the best in Brusatte.

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Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Keats: Poems by John Keats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever

As a dedicated book reviewer, it is my job to say why I like certain books and dislike others. When it comes to nonfiction, this is reasonably straightforward: if the exposition is clear, if the arguments are logical, if the ideas are reasonable—then it is a worthy book. Nonfiction aims for truth, and truth can at least be tested. With literature, however, the task is somewhat more fraught. Beauty is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. We can break down a novel’s strengths and weaknesses by category—good prose, bad pacing, fine dialogue, shallow characterization—but ultimately these evaluations, however much we justify them, rest upon gut reactions.

Why does one sequence of musical notes create a pleasing melody, another a forgettable ditty, and a third a nonsensical jangle? Why do certain combinations of words strike the ear as just right, and others as discordant? Formal analysis can clarify and categorize the sorts of sounds and structures that people tend to enjoy. But it can never explain why we enjoy them in the first place, nor why different people enjoy them to different extents. If literary criticism is to be a worthwhile exercise it requires, then, that the gut reactions of the audience members are at least roughly alike—that we are similarly constituted as regards to beauty.

Shared education contributes towards this similarity; as does, presumably, the basic resemblance of our natures. But does this bedrock of shared taste constitute something durable and permanent enough so that we may say a great artist hits upon the “truth” of art—appealed to something permanent in ourselves—in the same way that a scientist may hit upon a “truth” of nature? Many have thought so. And it strikes me that something like this must be the case if we wish to call any form of art “universal”—namely, that it is a true expression of what we share.

I mention this because the relationship of beauty to truth is one of the great themes of Keats’ poetry. At the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he tells us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—a line that has been endlessly analyzed. Certainly the widespread and steady popularity of his poems may argue that, indeed, Keats hit upon some basic truth of art. But what could that mean?

The issue of translation may bear on the question. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable; and the bilingual edition I read ironically proved the point. The Spanish consistently failed to evoke the sublimity of the original. Here, for example, are two famous lines from Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken

And here is the Spanish translation:

Entonces me sentí como un astrónomo
cuando ve frente a sí un Nuevo planeta

Translated back into English this reads something like: “Then I felt like an astronomer when he sees a new planet in front of him.” Despite preserving the literal meaning, this obviously loses all of the magic of the line. “Watcher of the skies” is infinitely more romantic than “astronomer,” and “sees in front of him” has none of the mystery of “swims into his ken.” In short, the rich beauty of the language does not survive; and the poem becomes a rather bland statement about enjoying a new edition of Homer, rather than an evocation of the grandeur of nature and art.

(I do not think it was the translator’s fault. Spanish is very different to versify than English; and the literal Spanish translation would preserve meaning at the expense of rhythm.)

Yet if Keats’ poetry is truly untranslatable, then how could it contain truth? After all, one could translate Newton’s work into Spanish, French, German, or Japanese, and it would contain just as much truth (or untruth) as in the original. Science is not linguistically bound. Admittedly, the boundary of translation is not equivalent for all forms of poetry. Homer’s works are still riveting in English; and Dante’s vision survives (at least partially) its journey from Medieval Florentine. Lyrical poetry seems to fare the most poorly.

The obvious difference between Homer and Keats is that Homer’s appeal lies in the story, while Keats’ relies on his linguistic brilliance. And, for my part, it is easier to see how a story can contain a semblance of “truth,” rather than a beautiful string of words. Assuming that some experiences in life are universal, that some emotional crises are recurring, that some existential state is inescapable, then a great story may be able to capture something common and durable about the human condition. A beautiful poetic line, on the other hand, has a purely formal appeal—charming not in what it says, but in how it says it—and this perfection of expression, being untranslatable, must fall short of universal art.

Nevertheless, to describe Keats as merely a brilliant wordsmith would be an absurd underestimation. As his letters prove, he was thoroughly educated and keenly intelligent. His poems abound with perplexing classical references. And, in any case, words are never mere sounds; they are laden with meaning; and even the briefest of lyrical poems are pregnant with thought. Contemplation permeates Keats’ work. In his poems we find the focused musings of a highly original man as he meditates on entirely common occurrences: Autumn, Melancholy, Nature, Art—the list goes on.

Here is where Keats’ art may be said to be “universal”—and, in some sense, “true” to the human condition. For many of us have stood, amazed, before a work of art, or felt thrilled upon opening a book, or listened yearningly to a bird singing outside a window—or any number of comparable experiences. Yet only Keats and his ken have taken these fleeting twinges of emotion, reflected deeply upon them, and captured them in words so felicitous that they are impossible to forget once heard. Like the revelers on the Grecian Urn, Keats has frozen time.

It may be that this lyrical form of art, being so bound up in brilliance of expression, is less universal and less durable than works of narrative. But for those who are, by chance, linguistically equipped to enter Keats’ world, then his poems contain just as much artistic “truth” as the oldest tales and the finest melodies.

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Madrid: Trains & Planes

Madrid: Trains & Planes

I went out of my way last week to praise Madrid’s excellent metro system. Yet this is only a part of the city’s generally superb transport network. Aside from municipal and intercity buses—of which there are many, even at night—the city has an excellent train network.

Madrid, the political, economic, and geographic center of the country, is naturally the country’s train hub. Many of the long-distance trains run at nearly 200 mph (over 300 km/h). These high-speed trains run north, south, east, and west, to nearly every corner of the country. Indeed, Spain has the most miles of high-speed rail in Europe, and the second in the world after China. They are affectionately referred to as AVE (literally “bird,” but short for Alta Velocidad Española), and they leave from Madrid’s two biggest train stations: Atocha and Chamartín. The trains are extremely convenient and are certainly more comfortable than flying; however, they are often more expensive than a flight.

Atocha Cercanías on a typical day

But no resident of Madrid could long survive without the city’s Cercanías, or short-distance trains. These service the city and the surrounding community, covering 370 km and stopping at 89 stations. There are 10 lines, and each of them stops in Atocha before separating off into a different direction. This is the best way to visit Aranjuez, Alcalá de Henares, and El Escorial—three UNESCO World Heritage sites in the outskirts of Madrid. It is also this network which takes you up into the mountains, to the Guadarrama National Park. For those without a car, it is a lifesaver.

The Cercanías map

The trains are not only useful for tourism, however; they are an essential part of basic city transport. The trains are oftentimes quicker than the metro for certain inter-city trips, such as from Atocha to Chamartín, or Nuevos Ministerios to Príncipe Pío. I rely on the Cercanías every time I need to re-enter bureaucratic hell for my visa, since the office is located down south; and I take the trains whenever I have a flight from the Airport’s Terminal 4. They are, in short, extremely useful—especially because the same transport card works for the trains, the metro, and the bus. For a New Yorker used to paying separately for a monthly rail pass and a monthly subway card, it is extraordinary.

An abandoned station building, near the Méndez Álvaro station

For those who wish to learn more about the country’s railroad history, there is the Museo del Ferrocarril. This is a very reasonably priced museum located near the Delicias Cercanías station. Indeed, the museum is located in the old Delicias station building, which was opened in 1880 to serve as the Madrid hub for the trains to Ciudad Real. It is a typical station building—a huge, cavernous space filled with platforms and tracks. And it is still filled with trains, though all of these are antiques nowadays.

What first caught my attention was a massive steam locomotive. Half of the engine car has been cut away, to reveal the curious arrangement of valves, tubes, and chambers inside. I have been cursed with a rather unmechanical mind, so the enormous intricacy of machinery tends to leave me respectfully silent. However, the basic principle behind steam power is easy to grasp: A fire in one chamber heats the water in an adjacent chamber, which evaporates into steam, which is then channeled down to a piston near the wheels, where a valve lets in the steam at intervals, pushing the wheels forwards. Yet for such a relatively simple process, the mechanical design of the cutaway train seemed extremely complex. The sign revealed that this was one of the latest models of steam-power locomotives, constructed in 1960.

Most of the other steam locomotives on display are much older, and considerably smaller—some dating from the 19th century. To a modern eye, many of these ancient, chimneyed contraptions can seem exceedingly quaint and romantic; they are filled with gritty personality, and remind me of movies of the Wild West and of Old Europe. Still, I am glad we have evolved past these clunking, crawling machines, which had a bad habit of exploding (before the invention of reliable pressure valves). Even so, one must admire such an innovative and durable design. The steam locomotive is a landmark in the history of the Industrial Revolution.

The rest of the trains on display (and there are several dozen) are diesel or electric, and more or less approach the sleek, rocket-like aspect that we associate with trains today. The visitor can enter a few of these to experience an echo of train travel from the past. One of these is an old dining car, apparently made of wood. The tables are set with elegantly folded napkins and fancy silverware. Yet unless the train was going quite slowly on a straight path, it is difficult for me to imagine the dining experience was free of sliding silverware, clanging dishes, and sloshing drinks. Still, it must have felt civilized to glide through the countryside while enjoying an expensive meal.

Though the wide variety of trains are undoubtedly the main attraction—the hulking, slumbering beasts that fill up the space—the museum has much else on display. There is a great deal of railroad infrastructure, such as switchboards (mechanical, hydraulic, and electronic), a central control panel, and a little pushcart which was used for repairs. There is also a room dedicated to train models, hundreds of them, as well as models of certain trajectories. I was particularly gratified to find a model of the route that runs from León to Gijón, through the mountains of Asturias—a beautiful line that I had seen in person.

Henry David Thoreau, the great luddite, famously said: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” What he meant is that the technology we construct to make our lives more convenient ends up dominating us. He was prescient. Nowadays, how many modern luddites speak of our phones the same way that Thoreau spoke of the railroad that ran behind Walden Pond?

Nobody can deny that this occurs. Nevertheless, who would argue nowadays that our lives are dominated by trains? To my eye, they are marvelous inventions: both beautifully designed and eminently functional. They use space and resources efficiently; and the tracks and bridges they ride upon blend in far more harmoniously with the landscape than our cars, asphalt roads, and parking lots. Who knows but that, in one hundred years, visitors with cerebral implants might be visiting a Museum of Smartphones, waxing nostalgic about a simpler time.


Air travel in Europe can be startlingly cheap. And since my job blesses me with ample vacation days (thanks to the Spanish school schedule) I find myself waiting in the airport more than is probably healthy.

Airports are not famous for being comfortable places. The lines are long, the food is overpriced, the atmosphere is completely anonymous. At times airports can be sad places, totally empty of intimacy or human warmth; at other times they can be exciting, the portal to exotic domains; but most often they are simply dreary—filled with tacky commercial trash, listless and sleep-deprived passengers waiting on rows of seats, or nerve-wracking encounters with security personnel or border-control officers.

All of this being said, I think that Madrid’s airport is one that the city can be proud of. Confusingly, its full name is the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport. Adolfo Suárez was Spain’s first post-Franco president; and it is called Madrid-Barajas because the airport is actually outside the city of Madrid, in the suburbs called Barajas.

In any case, the airport is easily accessible from the city center. A ride in a taxi takes only about fifteen minutes, depending on traffic and your exact destination. I typically avoid this option, however, since the taxis charge a flat rate of €30. Instead, I either rely on the metro or the Cercacías. Metro Line 8 leaves from Nuevos Ministerios and arrives at Terminals 1-2-3 in about 25 minutes. Meanwhile, the Cercanías Line 1 or 10 leaves from Atocha Station and reaches Terminal 4 in about 45 minutes. Both options are covered with my transport card, though people without a transport card will need to buy a special supplement.

Apart from these options, there are also buses. One municipal bus leaves from Avenida de América and requires no additional cost. And a special Airport Bus leaves from either Atocha Station or the Plaza de Cibeles (depending on the time of day), and costs €5 to ride—a good option if you’re going to the airport very early, before the metro or the trains start working. In short, Madrid’s airport is extremely well-connected.

Once you arrive, you have four terminals to choose from. Terminals 1, 2, and 3 were built at around the same time, and are all next to one another. As buildings they are nondescript: functional, clean, and efficient. Terminal 4 was built considerably later, in the early 2000s, and for that reason it is somewhat isolated from the other terminals—2 kilometers distant. It also looks entirely different: support beams jut out at angles and spread leaves the branches of trees, holding up the undulating roof that hangs over the open space. It’s not exactly worthy of Gaudí, but it is an attractive airport.

Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

I have had nothing but good experiences at the Madrid Airport. Even so, every time I am there I find myself edge. Despite having flown almost monthly since my arrival in Spain, I still find the process unsettling. I worry about checking in, getting through security, weighing my bags—even though none of this has ever been a problem. Yet more frightening is the simple prospect of flying. Planes may be quite safe, statistically speaking; but I still feel that I am risking my life every time I take a flight. I look out the glass windows at the aerodynamic machines waiting on the runway, and I think of all the things that could go wrong. It just goes my intuition to think that I should get on a box of metal that uses explosions to accelerate into the air.

To combat this persistent fear of flying, I set out to learn more about the history of aviation. Luckily, Madrid has an excellent—and free—aeronautics museum: the Museo del Aire. It is located in the south of Madrid, near the Cercanías stop Cuatro Vientos. To get there you must walk about twenty minutes along the highway from the train station, and then cross a bridge over the tracks. On your left you will see another of Madrid’s airports, the Aeropuerto de Madrid-Cuatro Vientos. Opened in 1911, this is the oldest airport in the country. Originally it was used as a military air base, though nowadays it is mainly used for light civil aircraft and flight classes. As a result, the air surrounding the museum is full of small propeller planes circling around. It is a wholly appropriate setting for an aviation museum.

(This is not the only other airport in Madrid, by the way. There are military air bases in Getafe and in Torrejón de Ardoz, to name just two. I have been told that when foreign leaders come to Spain on state visits they land in these bases, not in Madrid-Barajas.)

The Museo del Aire used to be a part of the old airport. The original brick buildings of the air force base still sit next to rows of hangers. And military aircraft are still present in abundance, though nowadays it is all obsolete and, presumably, out of commission. Still it is an impressive sight. Dozens and dozens of aircraft are on display in the museum—helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, water planes—from every era, stretching back to the beginning of Spanish aviation. I admit that I arrived with low expectations, if only because the museum is free and seldom talked about. But it ended up becoming one of my favorite museum experiences in the city.

No short description could give an adequate summary of the museum’s contents. But here are some highlights. The biggest plane on display—a massive defiance of the law of gravity—was for mid-air refueling. In one corner were about ten helicopters, ranging from bare skeletons of metal encasing a clear plastic bulb to intimidating hunks of metal used for transport and evacuation. Planes specialized for water landings had bodies shaped like boats, with the wings elevated on a little platform. On the far end the fighter jets were on display. Of these the most noteworthy was the F-4 Phantom II, an American fighter that was extensively used during the Vietnam War. I simply cannot imagine what it is like to fly one of those things: it is little more than a pair of wings, a jet engine, and several tons of explosives.

The hangers also had much of interest. The first one contained an extensive and expertly made exhibition on the history of aviation. There are replicas of early flying devices, including the Wright brothers’ Flyer. The museum also has a copy of one of the lesser-known paintings of the Prado. It is a depicting of the ascent of the Montgolfier hot air balloon in Aranjuez, in 1784. This was a major event. The Montgolfier brothers were the Wright brothers of lighter-than-air travel, and pioneered the first piloted hot air balloons.

The museum also has informative panels on the earliest forerunners of air travel. Leonardo da Vinci is mentioned, of course, with his imaginative sketches in his notebooks. But I had not previously heard of Abbas ibn Firnas, a polymath from Moorish Spain who, in the 9th century, attempted flight by covering himself in feathers, holding onto wings, and jumping off a high building—and he lived, at least according to the story.

The rest of the hangers were no less interesting, containing all sorts of flying paraphernalia, from radios to helmets. I was particularly captivated by the many jet engines on display. As I said above, I have a rather unmechanical mind; so I tend to stare in uncomprehending awe at these intricate machines. But more than anything I wanted to see the museum’s many examples of Autogyros.

The autogyro is a rather strange combination of a plane and a helicopter, designed by the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva. Like a helicopter, it has a rotating blade on top; but the air moves up through the blade as the vehicle goes forward, causing the blade to generate lift on its own (without power). This seems quite impossible to my untrained physical intuition; but it worked. And Juan de la Cierva (of whom my coworker wrote a biography) is undoubtedly one of Spain’s great engineers.

An autogyro

This concluded my visit to the Museo del Aire. And, surprisingly, I did feel somewhat better about the prospect of air travel. Our species has been trying to invade the air for about 1,000 years. For most of that time we have, admittedly, been highly unsuccessful. But in the last 100 years we have made such great strides that, nowadays, a man can board a plane, fall asleep watching a movie, and then get off on the other side, excited to see some old buildings—the entire engineering miracle of flight hardly registering.

It is curious that in both the Museo del Ferrocarril and the Museo del Aire most of the visitors are young children. They play excitedly among the antique machines, dragging their parents this way and that, pointing and asking questions. Most adults, on the other hand, are bored even by the mention of a museum dedicated to the history of transport. We are so used to efficient transportation that it is invisible and uninteresting to us. And yet if we were to bring Plato or Aristotle back to life, I suspect they would be more amazed at our metros, trains, and planes, than at any of the things they connect us to.

Review: Henry V

Review: Henry V
Henry V

Henry V by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Men of few words are the best men.

This is a masterful play, likely one of Shakespeare’s most effortlessly enjoyable. Aided by the chorus, the story moves quickly; and there is none of the artificial machinery of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies—mistaken identities, secret plots, and the like—but, instead, a story focused on one man’s glorious ascent. This is Henry; and his character is undoubtedly one of the greatest portrayals of a charismatic leader we have. He is the play. Just as he dominates everyone on the stage, so he dominates us, the audience.

The result is a mesmerizing patriotic spectacle. Even if you have grave reservations about the justice of invading France, and even if you can see through Henry’s rhetoric, it is impossible to resist his call to follow him. But how did Shakespeare himself feel about the hero king? One cannot be sure. Nevertheless, there is enough irony in the play to suggest that the playwright entertained his own doubts. Most telling, for me, was the conversation between the disguised Harry and the soldier Williams. After the soldier expands upon the horrors of war—limbs chopped off, men crying for a surgeon, wives and children left alone—he concludes that the king will be responsible for a great evil if the cause be not just. Harry then responds with a fine bit of extremely specious reasoning:

So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon the father that sent him. Or if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, by assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation.

Anyone, I suspect, can see the clear difference between a misfortune befalling a servant and a wound suffered by a soldier sent into battle. And this is just one example of Henry’s refusal to consider the ethical ramifications of his decisions. Later on, when Henry discovers that the baggage train has been attacked, the noble king orders his soldiers to cut the throats of every prisoner. He is, in short, remorseless in the pursuit of what he considers his birthright.

The central question that the play asks, then, is whether Henry’s brilliant, charismatic leadership in some measure excuses all of the bloodshed that results from his choices. Now that the idea of monarchy has lost its hold on our imaginations, the argument that any land belongs to a king “by right” sounds barbaric. It thus seems difficult to justify the invasion of France on any reasonable ethical grounds. After all, France is not ruled by a cruel tyrant; and the people of France will likely be no happier under Henry than under Charles VI.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to root for the young king. And this is true of many historic conquerors, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. They cloak themselves in glory and promise to inaugurate a new world, if only you follow them through the breach. Indeed, Fluellen explicitly compares Henry to Alexander, noting how the latter killed one of his best friends while drunk, just as Henry rejected his friend and mentor Falstaff. (And Mistress Quickly’s narration of Falstaff’s lonely death is one of the more affecting moments of this play.) It seems strange that these military conquerers have commanded so much praise throughout the ages. Plutarch’s Lives is little more than a compendium of so many Henrys. Yet as Voltaire said:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

All this being said, it must be noted in favor of these conquerors that their less charismatic counterparts are not necessarily better in terms of the common good. In Richard II, the beginning of this tetralogy, Shakespeare gives us a portrait of just such an ineffectual king, a man who has the sensibility of a poet but not the strong will of a commander, and whose poor decisions result in a civil war. Historically, peace at home has often been kept at the cost of war abroad, and vice versa. Conquered land is seldom kept, but the state is strengthened in the meantime; and a country united against an enemy may be preferable to one divided by faction.

Clearly, a country at peace at home and abroad is preferable to either alternative. But historically speaking, this option has not often existed. I do not think this excuses the bloodshed of conquests, but perhaps it goes some way in explaining why these warlike men have so often been treated as heroes, when nowadays we are apt to see them as villains. That, and a play about Isaac Newton would likely not be as entertaining.

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Celebrating Madrid’s Metro

Celebrating Madrid’s Metro

This year marks the 100th birthday of Madrid’s metro system, and the city is celebrating the occasion. Stations are being decorated, special exhibitions mounted, and festive trains displayed. And I think that we all should celebrate the metro—not just in Madrid, but everywhere—for it is one of those rare human inventions which has worked so well that it has become invisible. Though so often overlooked, the metro system of any city serves as both spine and arteries to the urban body: supporting and guiding development while moving the stuff of life from place to place.  Chances are that, if you live in a city, you depend on the metro many times a week: to commute, to see friends, to run errands. Yet we only stop to notice this subterranean network when, for whatever reason, it stops working.

Like so many inventions in our modern world, the metro has been integrated so seamlessly into our lives that it can be difficult to realize what an enormous engineering triumph it represents. Thousands of workers had to tunnel through hundreds of miles of solid earth in order to lay down tracks and build stations; and the resulting network of subterranean passages has to be used every day, all year, without any cave-ins, collapses, explosions, asphyxiations—in short, while being absolutely safe and reliable. As a result of this collaboration of politicians, architects, engineers, designers, construction workers, and too many others to name, I can walk out of my apartment, down a flight of stairs, and then ascend on the other side of a city. For a very reasonable price.

Madrid’s metro is, in my opinion, especially impressive. Opened 56 years after London’s underground, 19 years after Paris’s métro, and 10 years after New York’s subway, Madrid’s metro has grown to become the ninth largest network in the world (and it is the network with the second-most escalators and elevators, only surpassed by Shanghai). The first line stretched a mere three and a half kilometers, traveling at 15 mph between eight stations. Nowadays, the network has 12 lines, 302 stations, and covers almost 300 kilometers. Very few places in the central zone of the city are more than a fifteen minute walk to the nearest metro. I am lucky to live near two of the most useful lines: the original Line 1, which goes through the heart of the city, and the circular Line 6, which makes a giant loop around the outside.

The entire sprawling network

Counting repeat rides, over two million people take the metro every day—well over half the city’s population. Notwithstanding all this, the metro remains clean, timely, and dependable. After four years of living in this city, I can recall very few times when I have been frustrated at the metro service (a constant occurrence in NYC). True, Madrid’s metro does not have a strong personality. It has none of the gritty charm of the New York subway or the endearing retro-ness of London’s tube. The metro is not especially futuristic, quaint, or beautiful. But it works—without screeching and howling, without unpleasant smells, without delays or derailments.

True to form, the metro’s celebrations have also been quiet, efficient, and unobstructive. They have largely consisted of decorating Metro Line 1, the so-called Centennial Line, with antique photos of the metro’s early days—riders in top-hats and trench coats, besmattered workmen excavating the tunnels, old-fashioned entryways amid a cityscape filled with vintage automobiles. One of the more amusing of these is of the King Alfonso XIII inaugurating the metro: the king stands in a pinstripe suit with his hands folded on a cane, a top hat hanging from its end, wearing a bipartite mustache; and surrounding him are dozens of men dressed and groomed identically. Fashion was very strict in those days. Apparently the current King Felipe VI has been so good as to repeat the voyage taken by his great grandfather.

For those who wish to get a deeper sense of the metro’s history provided by the photographs, there are two free museum spaces run by the metro: the Estación de Chamberí and the Nave de Motores.

Chamberí was one of the first stations opened on Line 1. But like the City Hall station on New York’s Line 6, it was eventually closed down because the station’s curve was too sharp to be used with the newer, longer trains. As such, it became something of a time capsule, preserving the appearance of the first generation of train stations. Unlike the City Hall station, Chamberí was never designed to be an architectural showcase; it is simple and functional. Upon entering one passes the antique ticket-collecting booths, and descends to the old platform. Trains on Line 1 still scream past every five minutes or so.

When I arrived a guide was giving a free tour. Apparently, the station has a reputation for being haunted. You see, like many metro stations it was used as a bomb shelter during the Spanish Civil War, and the souls of victims are said to manifest occasionally to frighten visitors. Well, I did not see anything supernatural, but I did see many charming old advertisements—for cafés, hair gels, jewelry shops, and purgative mineral water. Few things are so evocative of the past as an ad for a product that no longer exists. These are the real ghosts.

The other museum is, by chance, right in my neighborhood: the Nave de Motores. This is a cavernous building made to house three giant diesel engines, which used to provide power to the metro system. Just as the contemporary power grid was too feeble for the first generation of trains along the Hudson line, so Madrid’s electricity infrastructure did not support the power necessary to propel the metro. Thus, these engines had to be built especially for the purpose.

The Nave de Motores, in Pacífico

They are gargantuan contraptions, about half the size of a house. For a time this was the most powerful power plant in Spain. I cannot even fathom the noise they would create, much less the amount of fuel they burned. The current produced by these mammoth machines had to be converted by another array of motors before being wired down to the tracks below the station for use by the metro. On a balcony overlooking the engine space there is a control panel, where dozens of little gauges and meters informed the engineers of the state of affairs. (Apparently it is possible to sign up for a hard-hat tour of the tunnels below, but I cannot find the link on the metro’s website.)

This month (May 17 to June 15) there is a special exhibition in the Nave de Motores, and the opening hours have been extended. The massive wheels have been decorated with lights, and informative panels have been put up all around the space. There are antique ticket machines on display, as well as different generations of metro tickets. One can even put on virtual reality goggles and look around a metro stop of the future. Videos of scenes from metro life are projected from the ceiling onto a table, while television monitors play informative mini-documentaries about the network. I was particularly impressed to see the testing and repair center, a huge warehouse where all the equipment is checked and fixed by a team of engineers and mechanics.

There were even a couple models on display, one of the tunnel-boring machine used to chew out the subterranean passages, and one of Sol’s metro station (one of the largest in the network). These miniatures help to give a taste of just how vast is the scale on which the network is built. Whole mountains of material had to be moved to dig out what is, in effect, another city underneath the city above.

The city beneath the city.

Work continues on the metro. Many of the lines have been adapted to allow for cell-phone service, which is much appreciated. Two years ago, Line 1 was closed for a few months for repairs; and Line 2 was recently closed for the same reason. (It has just reopened.) Every night, from 2:00 to 5:30 in the morning, the metro is closed down for repairs. It strikes me as strange that in Madrid, where people go out all night, the metro stops working, while in New York, where most people are home by 2:00, the subway runs all night. Maybe this is why Madrid’s metro runs so much more smoothly; but it is rather irritating on a Friday night.

The network has, for the most part, been entirely updated and transformed from its early years. However, one strange holdover remains. When the system was constructed, Madrid’s roads were like England’s: people drove on the left. Though the road orientation was switched in 1924, the metro kept is left-ward orientation, and so the trains always approach the station from the right as you are facing the train.

Madrid’s metro, like that of any city, serves a vital economic function: many people would not be able to get to their jobs without it. Aside from its economic function, however, the metro also serves as a center for social life. One becomes a native madrileño while riding on the metro: smushed up against bodies, eyeing strangers with anxiety or curiosity, respecting other people’s personal space with navigating the public space of underground transport. It is a place owned by everyone and no one, and so requires special rules to use. Don’t take up more than one seat. Take off your backpack. Give up your seat to the pregnant, the elderly, or the disabled. And don’t be a creep.

One also becomes socialized in more elusive ways. For example, the level of eye-contact considered acceptable on the Madrid metro can be unnerving for an American. Many newcomers to the city report feeling stared at. More than likely, they are just not used to the constant surveillance of Spanish city life—from shop windows, park benches, and balconies—and so misinterpret disinterested glances as either aggressive or suggestive, or both. Adapting to Spanish life means adapting to different standards of proximity and scrutiny. And much of this adaptation happens on the metro.

The metro can be a place of danger. Pickpockets are common, and their roaming hands are apt to relieve the unwary traveler of his wallet. It can also be an aggressive place. The only fight that I ever witnessed in Madrid was on the metro, between a young hothead and a homeless man. But the community quickly intervened, tearing the two kicking combatants apart. And this is the secret to the metro: that the citizens take an active role, however subtle or even invisible, in keeping it a safe place for everyone.

We can also ride the metro to get a taste of culture. In several stations there are miniature libraries, bibliometros (though I’ve never seen anyone actually use them). And apart from the decorations in some of the stations—such as in the stations of Paco de Lucía, Goya, and the Estación del Arte—there is the music. Hardly a station in the entire network is without its performer, singing and dancing in a busy corner, their hat covered in coins. Other musicians ride the metro, going from car to car, playing the pan-flute, singing duets, or rapping over a recorded beat. Admittedly this is not always welcome. Most of the time when I am on the metro I am trying to read. But city life is intrusive, in good ways and bad, and it isn’t for the rider to choose when and which.

Indeed, you might say that the metro represents Madrid in microcosm—both the frustration and the joy. There is the uncomfortable crowding, the long and wearisome commute, and the occasional bad apple. But just as often there is the snippet of overheard conversation, the random acts of kindness, and most of all the quiet assurance that you can get where you need to go.

So I say we should don our caps to the Madrid metro. We are lucky to have a system that is extensive, clean, cheap, and reliable. Take a ride on Line One. Visit the two free metro museums. And, most importantly, don’t be a creep.

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