An Existentialist, Absurdist Work
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459
Although interpretations of "The Switchman" vary, most critics agree that the story is an existentialist work with an emphasis on the absurd. On the most obvious level the story is a satire on the Mexican public railroad, which is famous for being atrocious, and an allegory for Mexican public policy in general. On a deeper level, however, the story concerns man's search for meaning in an absurd world. Despite Arreola's use of the fantastic, the story resonates with familiarity; the reader identifies strongly with the outrage of the stranger who believes in the logic that a train ticket should take him to his destination. Although, as is generally the case in Arreola's fiction, the stranger's character does not necessarily develop, he undergoes a transformation that leaves the reader hanging; without identification aside from oneself, the reader is left to consider the implications of the story on everyday life. Arreola provides the stranger, and hence his readers, with a guide, the switchman, and may offer some unorthodox advice as to how to handle the existentialist crisis. Although his credibility is dubious, the switchman offers encouragement at the very least, and perhaps advocates to the reader, as he does to the stranger, switching tracks when boarding the train of life.
The story opens with the arrival of the stranger at the train station. He is identified only as a stranger, in keeping with the tendency in existentialist literature to identify characters with function, rather than with personal details or names. The stranger wishes to travel by train to the town of T_; in fact he has a ticket for his destination. However, there is no train in sight, and he wonders if it has already come and gone. The stranger encounters an old man, a retired switchman, who reports that travel in this country is an unpredictable, arbitrary experience, and so begins their dialogue, in which the switchman informs the stranger of the perils and idiosyncrasies of the rails.
"This country is famous for its railroads," the switchman begins, and it turns out they are famous for their timetables, ticket sales, and brochures. Actual regular, prescribed train service, however, is the exception rather than the rule. According to the switchman, train travel may just as easily result in getting marooned in the jungle as it may result in death. Fortunately, though, funeral cars are available for embalming purposes in the case of the latter. As was the case throughout Mexico in the 1950s, when the story was written, as well as today, the country's rugged terrain makes for unpredictable service at best. After the Mexican Revolution, the railroads were nationalized in an effort to put public resources in the hands of the people. The result, however well-intentioned, was, and still is, a neglected and sub-operational system rather like the one depicted in "The Switchman." Such a rail system is an apt metaphor for the decline of not only public transportation in Mexico, but public services in general. Based on the premise of delivering power to the people after the Revolution, the Mexican government consistently turned such properties over to the public through the 1930s and 1940s without plans or resources for maintenance. Neglect and exploitation under the postulate of the good of the people resulted in the train system Mexico sports today: painfully like the switchman's image of the train pressing ahead without a track until, worn down to the axles, it grinds to a halt.
As an allegory for Mexican institutions, "The Switchman" is a grim portrait of the country. As an answer to twentieth-century existentialism, however, the story offers provocative alternative readings. Given that existentialism is based on the premise that life is without inherent meaning, "The Switchman" epitomizes man's attempt to project logic and reason onto life, both from the stranger's point of view and the reader's. The rail system, as an institution run in an arbitrary way by omnipotent management, is a model of the existentialist oppressor. Like Gregor's employers in Kafka's Metamorphosis, the management is all-powerful, and as for Gregor, any effort the stranger makes to fight them is hopeless. His destination is arbitrary despite the fact that he has purchased a ticket, in keeping with general human logic regarding travel, and in fact the goal of the management is to dissuade him of his imperative destination. In the switchman's words, "The hope is that one day the passengers will capitulate to fate, give themselves into the hands of an omnipotent management, and no longer care to know where they are going and where they have come from." It is entirely absurd that this should be the case, just as it is absurd that passengers who encounter a bridgeless abyss should dismantle the train, carry it down the abyss, across a river, and up the other side to reassemble it, only to receive a discount for their trouble.
The switchman delivers these fantastic tales as fact, and in so doing, identifies the reader with the stranger, who resists them as impossible, at least for a while. Although the switchman's matter-of-fact delivery is in keeping with the style of existentialist literature, the reader, like the stranger, contends with the idea that he is not in control of his circumstances; to do otherwise would be to relinquish control of not only his destination, but his destiny.
The switchman, from the beginning of the story, is clearly a guide for the stranger. He carries a lantern, in effect a light, which generally symbolizes knowledge. He also tells the contentious stranger that, "Frankly, I ought to leave you to your fate. But just the same, I'll give you some information." In effect he offers to lead and counsel the stranger, in keeping with his occupation as a switchman, which is essentially a guide for a train at a junction. However, the switchman's credibility is called into question by certain details. The lantern that he carries is tiny and likened to a toy, suggesting that he is not an authority, but a caricature of authority. Also, his lantern is red, which is in keeping with his job as a switchman, but traditionally symbolic of danger or warning. The fact that logic and, consequently, tradition are called into question in the story makes the switchman's role even more a mystery. Above all, however, the switchman's credibility is called into question at the end of the story when he reveals that he is retired and no longer works on the railroad. He reports, " … I just come here now and again to remember the good old days. I've never traveled and I have no desire to. But the travelers tell me stories."
The stories relayed by the switchman would appear to undermine the stranger's imperative, especially by the climax of the story, when the switchman suggests, "Wouldn't you like to end your days in a picturesque unknown spot in the company of a young girl?" According to most of his narrative, he might as well be part of the management, committed to dissuading the public of their projected destinations. However, throughout the text the switchman offers sporadic encouragement, such as "You need to pluck up your courage; perhaps you may even become a hero" and "All right! I'm glad to see you aren't giving up your project. It's plain you are a man of conviction" and "Try it anyway." These affirmations ring contrastingly throughout his discouraging stories, and reach a peak when the train arrives. He breaks into a run for the train and calls back to the stranger, "You are lucky! Tomorrow you will arrive at your famous station." The meaning of this statement is ambiguous, since it is followed by the question, "What did you say its name was?" The stranger replies with a different destination from his original, suggesting that he has, in fact, capitulated to fate.
The stranger's transformation into a traveler is, in keeping with the entire story, ambiguous. On one hand it can be viewed as the ultimate submission to the management, and unwillingness to "At least try." On the other hand, the fact that the stranger's name changes to traveler suggests an active role. As reported earlier in the story, "passengers' lives suffer important transformations" and the stranger/traveler is willing to submit to change. The switchman tells the stranger, "While you travel, have faith," suggesting that the author advocates willingness to board the train of life, however meaningless and arbitrary it may be, regardless of destination. As the old man counsels, "Once on the train, your life will indeed take on some direction. What difference does it make whether it's T_ or not?"
Source: Jennifer Lynch, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Lynch is a freelance writer in northern New Mexico.
This is No Way to Run a Railroad: Arreola's Allegorical Railroad and a Possible Source
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3683
The well known short story by Juan José Arreola, "El guardagujas" from Confabulario (1952) gives pleasure on at least two levels. On the surface it offers a humorous treatment of a literal railroad where almost everything imaginable seems to go wrong regularly. Beneath the surface it possesses a thoughtful allegorical nature which has been widely recognized. The only thing about the allegory for which there is considerable agreement is that more is intended than a mere chronicling of the inadequacies of Mexico's railway system. Interpretations vary greatly, ranging from a Mexican reply to a materialistic view of life (Menton), through an allegory of the lessons taught the soul before birth (Echevarría), to a satire on politics (Bente). Yulan M. Washburn, the most widely known critic of Arreola's work, ends his discussion of the allegory by admitting that perhaps the only adequate summary is the sweeping declaration "that it has to do with the irregularities of our whole world." (Since all these discussions deal with "allegory" in one way or another, let us understand by the term to mean: "A form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons in a narrative, either in prose or verse, are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. Thus it represents one thing in the guise of another—an abstraction in that of a concrete image" [Thrall]).
Even though allegorical literature has been with us for centuries (Plato, Prudentius, Dante, Quevedo, Cervantes, Bunyan and many more), the selection of a railroad by Arreola strikes a peculiarly modern note, and seemingly suggests a contemporary, "machine-age" turn of mind.
On the surface the story of "El guardagujas" tells of a weary traveler who has reached a deserted station, exhausted from bearing his heavy baggage which no one would help carry ("su gran valij a, que nadie quiso cargar, le había fatigado en extremo"). A little old man, the Switchman, appears as if from nowhere ("salido de quien sabe donde"), and begins conveying a strange set of revelations about the workings of the railroads in the unnamed country where the traveler now finds himself.
The ambiguity of the story lends itself easily to numerous possible interpretations. The traveler can be 'Anyman' journeying through 'life,' and the fact that he has reached a momentary, deserted way station reflects the isolation of the 'moment' (a pause) which we all feel from time to time in life. The baggage for which he is unable to find help is almost certainly his own personal past and concerns. The Switchman is his 'conscience,' or that part of his mind which sees life objectively, as if at a distance. The sections of track alluded to by the switchman are 'paths of life,' and the destinations are the 'careers and goals' reached by other "travelers" before. With these thoughts in mind the following interpretation becomes clearer.
Item in the story Deserted station Heavy luggage Traveler Switchman Inn (fonda) for travelers Tracks New sections of track Track sections lacking 1 rail Trains Tickets Train Company (empresa) Police Spies "T" "F" "X"
Possible meaning [Elements of a "Christian" interpretation are in brackets] A given moment of life/the present. One's personal past. [sins] Anyone. One's conscience/unconscious mind. [soul] Momentarily "dwelling" in the present. Life. New careers, destinations, goals. Some destinies are more difficult for certain people to reach Movement through life. Degrees/training for life's careers. Fate/destiny. [God's will] The protection of the establishment. Spiteful people. A specific goal in life. "Felicidad"—serendipity/unexpected happiness. Acceptance of fate. [Christ]
The few suggestions above for a tentative (somewhat forced) Christian interpretation (as well as the use by Arreola of the metaphor of the railroad) bring to mind the allegorical presentation of another railroad written almost a century and a half ago by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a story entitled, "The Celestial Railroad" (1843).
In comparing the two stories, one is struck almost at once by the similar, lightly ironic tone of both works (as well as the similar use of the railroad to symbolize the journey through life). One wonders at this point if further investigation might reveal more than the expected surface similarities resulting from their common use of the one central metaphor. To find the answer let us undertake a more detailed comparison.
Because the two works share a good number of qualities, it is possible to compare them schematically:
HAWTHORNE "The Celestial Railroad" (1843) A Christian Allegory in which the traveler tries to choose his fate. Language explicitly contains religious overtones. The railroad makes several stops which are more important than is the act of traveling. The story cites John Bunyan, and in part is a light-hearted continuation of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. The goal for the travelers is the Celestial City, but many stop at Vanity Fair and do not manage to leave again. Two pilgrims on foot reach the Celestial City long before those on the Train do. (Mr. Stick-to-the-right and Mr. Foot-it-to-heaven.) A Major part of the story deals with Vanity Fair and the market which sells illusions and vanities. The whole story is deliberately shown to be a dream—narrator establishes dream state at beginning and end. The purpose clearly is to point out a Christian moral: "Railroads do not constitute an 'easy' way to get to heaven." Mr. Smooth-it-away has an answer for almost every question the traveler can raise. The result of these answers finds the traveler able to see the dichotomy between life's reality and the illusion of the train journey. This is emphasized by the Traveler' s relief felt upon awakening at the end of the story. Mr Smooth-it-away is the director of the Railroad corporation and is revealed at the end to be either the devil himself or his agent.
ARREOLA "El guardagujas" (1952) An allegory of life in which the traveler learns to accept fate's choice for him. Very little in explicitly religious overtone. Railroad traverses various sections which symbolize paths through life. An acceptance of movement as fate is understood. No previous writer or work is mentioned. Only our traveler has specific goal—"T." Stops are fortuitous or "predestined" by the Company ("empresa"). The only foot travelers mentioned are those who advance the Company over sections not traversed by anyone before. Most of story is a dialog between the Switchman and the traveler over the illusions and realities of travel. The whole story is perhaps an illusion with an ambiguous beginning and an unclear end (unclear as to the intended meaning of the illusion if there is one). The purpose is ambiguous—in the interpretation suggested in this study, a choice is made at the end to accept the vicissitudes of life. The Switchman has an answer for almost every question the traveler can raise. The result of these answers finds the traveler able and willing to accept any destination the train may take. The Switchman is a lifetime employee of the railroad, and is revealed at the end to be (little more than) an inspirational beacon showing the way to where the traveler can rejoin life.
By establishing some of the principal elements of plot and motivation in which the stories seem to agree or disagree, it has been shown that there is a good deal of similarity—much of it plausibly stemming from the use of a common metaphor—the railroad, and from the use of a common technique—a dialogue between an "innocent" traveler and a sophisticated, seasoned veteran of the tracks.
To carry the comparison one step farther it will be useful to compare specific images as well as choices of language.
Hawthorne tells us that his "friendly" guide, Mr. Smooth-it-away, "had never actually visited the Celestial City, yet seemed … well acquainted with its laws, customs, policy, and statistics." Arreola introduces a much simpler character in his Switchman, but one nonetheless who shares Mr. Smooth-it-away's lack of having visited the traveler's destination, "Yo señor, sólo soy guardagujas…. No he viajado nunca, ni tengo ganas de hacerlo."
Both travelers learn about a bridge over a perilous body of water. In the first case, Hawthorne explains, "Our coach rattled out of the city, and at a short distance from its outskirts, passed over a bridge of elegant construction, but somewhat too slight, as I imagined, to sustain any considerable weight. On either side lay an extensive quagmire…." The Switchman tells a considerably more heroic tale about a group of travelers who carry on despite the absence of a bridge. "En la ruta faltaba el puente que debía salvar un abismo." The engineer convinced the passengers to continue, and under his direction the train was disassembled and carried to the other side of the "abismo, que todavía reservaba la sorpresa de contener en su fondo un río caudaloso." The similarity of the peril is noteworthy even though resolved in very different ways.
Hawthorne comments through the narrator on the quantity of luggage many passengers carry, concluding that he would not care to trust the previously mentioned bridge, "if each passenger were encumbered with as heavy luggage as that gentleman and myself." Arreola discusses luggage only at the beginning of the story when the weary traveler appears at the deserted station, bearing heavy baggage which no one else would help carry. Luggage forms a standard metaphor in many allegories for one's troubled past.
Hawthorne presents the idea of tickets and the ticket office through a comparison with The Pilgrim's Progress: "The reader of John Bunyan will be glad to know that Christian's old friend Evangelist, who was accustomed to supply each pilgrim with a mystic roll, now presides at the ticket office." Arreola presents the idea of tickets through the Switchman who agrees with the principle that a ticket to a specific destination should entitle the traveler to passage there, yet despite that, he notes that in the inn, there are people who have purchased numerous tickets for all the main destinations in the land, "podrá usted hablar con personas que han tomado sus precauciones, adquiriendo grandes cantidades de boletos." We all know people who have studied at school or in life preparing themselves for all kinds of futures (which never seem to come—they haven't yet boarded a train). In both stories the tickets are valuable, forming one means of initiating the movement towards one's destiny. They also continue the extended metaphor of railroading.
Hawthorne describes the boarding scene, comparing the moment to one in Bunyan: "A large number of passengers were already at the station house awaiting the departure of the cars. By the aspect and demeanor of these persons, it was easy to judge that the feelings of the community had undergone a very favorable change in reference to the celestial pilgrimage. It would have done Bunyan's heart good to see it." Arreola paints a vastly different moment when the Switchman advises the traveler to grab the first train he can, boarding as early as possible: "Trate de hacerlo cuando menos; mil personas estarán para impedírselo. Al llegar un convoy, los viajeros, irritados por una espera demasiado larga, salen de la fonda en tumulto para invadir ruidosamente la estación." As is often the case, many people try for the same job or career at the same time, and some, having waited a long time are especially irritable. Hawthorne's society seems artificially genteel and Arreola's perhaps just as artificially rude.
Hawthorne frequently speaks of the burden Bunyan's Pilgrim had to bear, and compares the luggage many are traveling with on the train, which "would be delivered to their respective owners at the journey's end." Arreola doesn't speak more of the burden of the luggage, but he does explain through the Switchman that in the event of death, "es motivo de orgullo para los conductores depositar el cadáver de un viajero—lujosamente embalsamado—en los andenes de la estación que prescribe su boleto." In essence the burden of one's past reaches the same destiny as the rest of the traveler.
Hawthorne's traveler is made aware of the propensity of the train to pass through areas replete with illusion, "mere delusions, which I ought to be heartily ashamed of; but all through the Dark Valley I was tormented and pestered, and dolefully bewildered with the same kind of waking dreams." Arreola conveys a similar idea. Once on the train (assuming a path in life towards a goal), even then one is not certain of reaching one's destination, "podriá darse el caso de que usted creyera haber llegado a T., y sólo fuese una illusión." One is often tempted to stop at an illusory goal in life. The Switchman continues the analogy: "Hay estaciones que son pura apariencia: han sido construidas en plena selva y llevan el nombre de alguna ciudad importante." Illusion is an allegorical commonplace (Honig), but noteworthy in the similarity of use by both writers.
Hawthorne's traveler plans to enjoy his next stop—Vanity, "where Vanity Fair is still at the height of prosperity, and exhibits an epitome of whatever is brilliant, gay, and fascinating beneath the sun. As I purposed to make a considerable stay here…." The length of his planned stay reminds us of the Switchman's advice: "Lo que debe hacer ahora mismo es buscar alojamiento en la fonda para viajeros." These rooms are highly sought after, and those who manage to get one dwell here on the long term, knowing that, "le resultará más barato y recibirá mejor atención." By taking lodging as the Switchman suggests, one accepts the present moment and lives entirely in the present. For many travelers through life, this is one way to remove oneself from the constant turmoil of the journey, not mattering whether the stop is in Vanity or simply a deserted station. Those who live on the long term in the present may find better treatment in the present than many of those who just pass through. Yet at the same time, this life style is a kind of imprisonment so that those who dwell here are likely to find themselves in an ashen building that looks and is much like a prison "un extraño edificio ceniciento que más bien parecía un presidio."
Hawthorne's traveler observes the spending behavior of his fellow passengers at Vanity Fair, noting that "some of the purchasers, I thought, made very foolish bargains. For instance, a young man, having inherited a splendid fortune, laid out a considerable portion of it in the purchase of diseases, and finally spent all the rest for a heavy lot of repentance and a suit of rags. In one shop, there were a great many crowns of laurel and myrtle, which soldiers, authors, statesmen, and various other people pressed eagerly to buy; some purchased these paltry wreaths with their lives, others by a toilsome servitude of years, and many sacrificed whatever was most valuable, yet finally slunk away without the crown." Arreola's Switchman speaks of one person who has spent a liftime and a fortune on round trip journeys, an amount great enough so that one whole new section of track is going to be built from the money. In both stories the idea is the same. Be it for glory or vainglory, the purchase may cost one's life.
Hawthorne's traveler comments on how part of the journey passed by as though through a haze. "My recollections of the journey are now, for a little space, dim and confused, inasmuch as a singular drowsiness here overcame me, owing to the fact that we were passing over the enchanted ground, the air of which encourages a disposition to sleep." Arreola tells us also of parts of the journey and unusual cars provided by the company, equipped with special slides to project on the windows and creating thus an illusion. The locomotives on those trains are also equipped to provide the sensation of moving even when the train is not doing so. Some times we advance through life while we think we are not moving, and are stationary when we think we are advancing.
Near the end of the story, Hawthorne notes a sudden change in the train in that "the engine now announced the close vicinity of the final station house by one last and horrible scream, in which there seemed to be distinguishable every kind of wailing and woe, and bitter fierceness of wrath, all mixed up with the wild laughter of a devil or a madman." Arreola too tells us that the approaching train is more than merely another train, "Al fondo del paisaje, la locomotora se acercaba como un ruidoso advenimiento." Both trains and their engines are justifiably momentous—they have the power to change the route of one's life forever.
The friendly guide for Hawthorne's traveler is suddenly transformed at the end, "And then did my excellent friend Mr. Smooth-it-away laugh outright, in the midst of which cachinnation a smoke wreath issued from his mouth and nostrils, while a twinkle of lurid flame darted out of either eye, proving indubitably that his heart was all of a red blaze." Arreola's Switchman also changes, but in a much more genial manner: "El viejecillo sonriente hizo un guiño y se quedó mirando al viajero, lleno de bondad y de picardía." This sudden change in the two guides adds to the power of the moment by underlining it as a kind of transfiguration for all.
Whereas Hawthorne's traveler awakens at this moment, exclaiming "thank Heaven it was a dream!", Arreola's traveler decides that a change in his destination is appropriate, indicating that the Switchman has convinced him to accept destiny, to accept anything that life brings. That decision enables the Switchman to disappear and the train (a path through life) to appear. At that moment "el viejecillo se disovló en la clara mañana. Pero el punto rojo de la linterna siguió corriendo y saltando entre los rieles, imprudentemente, al encuentro del tren." The inspiration of the conversation, of the respite, lingers on, signaling a new awareness on the part of the traveler. No longer insistent on going to T., he is now prepared to accept what life offers, and in doing so, will be transported soon to a crossroads, and from there to another, and so on, and perhaps with luck may even wind up at "F."
By drawing the comparison between Hawthorne and Arreola, it has been seen that there are indeed a large number of similarities between their two stories. There seem to be enough to suggest that Arreola may have read Hawthorne's story and was "inspired" by it. Much of the similarity is undoubtedly due to the similarity of metaphor—once one decides to write an allegory using the railroad as the central metaphor, many of the other elements must accordingly fall into place: bridges, tunnels, tickets, stations, passengers, etc. That one would also choose to make it a dialogue between two men, one a complete stranger to the line, and the other a sophisticated denizen, is a bit less likely. Least likely of all would be a similarity of detail: the same burdensome luggage; a similar tumult at boarding; a canyon with water in the bottom that must be crossed; illusions occurring to all the passengers at the same time; a fools' paradise of vain, hollow people; an engine whose noise brings about an eerie sense of forboding.
Despite the considerable similarities that have been pointed out, the two works are vastly different in their manner of revealing allegorical meaning. For the chatty, deliberately humorous, tongue-in-cheek Hawthorne story, there is only one likely interpretation which all readers are led to recognize immediately. The first paragraph begins, "Not a great while ago, passing through the gate of dreams, I visited that region of the earth in which lies the famous City of Destruction." If the "gate of dreams" and "City of Destruction" aren't enough to cause recognition of Hawthorne's allegorical intent, he makes it more explicit yet in the first paragraph with the clearly meaningful names "Celestial City" and "Mr. Smooth-it-away." Many in his audience would already have read or at least would have been acquainted with The Pilgrim's Progress, and hence Hawthorne's deliberate borrowing of the term, "City of Destruction" from Bunyan would reinforce his allegorical intent as well as declare his purpose of humorously continuing Bunyan's story. His nineteenth-century audience would have been well-used to lengthy sermons with frequent, heavy-handed allegories, and would have enjoyed thoroughly both the satire and the serious meaning of his story.
On the other hand, for the more surrealistic allegory of Arreola, there are any number of interpretations, witness the possibilities mentioned in Ramírez and Washburn. While Hawthorne's story must be read as an allegory in order to be enjoyed, Arreola's story, with less obvious humor, satisfies on the surface as a dream-like story of a mysterious encounter with a friendly stranger in a land where the railroad behaves with a mind of its own. It satisfies a second time when the subtle hints of allegory cause the reader to recognize some of these possibilities as well. Had Arreola chosen the same heavy-handed technique used by Hawthorne, the story would have lost considerably thereby and might have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned to his twentieth-century audience. Instead, the open-ended nature of "El guardagujas" is very suggestive.
In the final analysis Hawthorne seeks to preach (albeit humorously) a Christian moral to his nineteenth-century audience, whereas Arreola intends merely to reveal interesting and amusing possibilities about life and railroading to his twentieth-century audience.
What seems likely after having compared the two stories at length is that Arreola read Hawthorne's story as a young man and saw an idea and a technique in it that he liked very much. After some time, he consciously or unconsciously used its skeleton to flesh out his own allegory, utilizing his own philosophy of life, with the result being the little gem, "El guardagujas."
Source: John R. Burt, "This is No Way to Run a Railroad: Arreola's Allegorical Railroad and a Possible Source," in Hispania, Vol. 71, No. 4, December, 1988, p. 806.
Albert Camus' Concept of the Absurd and Juan José Arreola's "The Switchman"
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2503
In 1942, Albert Camus published his book of essays entitled The Myth of Sisyphus in which he developed his concept of the absurd in an effort to give meaning to human life in a senseless, war-torn world without God. A decade later, in 1952, the Mexican writer Juan José Arreola published "The Switchman," a short story that reveals a philosophical position somewhat similar to that of Camus. This essay attempts to delineate attitudes shared by these two authors, the first a kind of pagan moralist and the second an ironic observer of the human condition.
Arreola is only one of many contemporary writers who have demonstrated a sympathetic response to Camus' assessment of the complex modern environment. An outstanding example of Mexican short fiction, "The Switchman'' can be read on different levels and perhaps for this reason has never been completely understood. Briefly summarized, it is the tale of a stranger burdened with a large suitcase who arrives at a deserted station at the exact time his train is supposed to leave. As he gazes at the tracks that "melted away in the distance," an old man carrying a tiny red lantern appears from out of nowhere and proceeds to inform the stranger of the hazards of train travel in this country. It seems that, although an elaborate network of railroads has been planned and partially completed, the service is highly unreliable. Therefore the horrified stranger, who keeps indicating that he must arrive at his destination, "T," the next day, is advised to rent a room by the month in a nearby inn, an ash-colored building resembling a jail where many would-be travelers are lodged. The switchman then relates a series of preposterous anecdotes illustrating the numerous difficulties one might encounter in attempting to board the train, and the problems that might arise during any given trip. The stranger is also told that it should make no difference to him whether or not he reaches his destination, "T," that once he is on the train his life will indeed "take on some direction." When asked if he has traveled a great deal, the old man replies that he has never gotten on a train, nor does he have any desire to do so. At this moment a whistle is heard in the distance, indicating the train's arrival. But upon inquiring again where the stranger wants to go, the switchman receives the answer "X" instead of "T." In the final lines the old man vanishes as he breaks into a run along the tracks, and only the red lantern remains visible before the noisily approaching engine.
In The Myth of Sisphus Camus states that neither man alone nor the world by itself is absurd. Rather the absurd arises from the clash between reasoning, finite man, on the one hand, striving for order, unity and happiness and, on the other, the silent, unreasonable world offering no response to his persistent demands. The absurd man is one who recognizes a kind of void or lack of meaning in life and resolves to commit himself to the conflict between his intentions and the reality he encounters. Like Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to roll a huge stone up a hill again and again for eternity and whom Camus considers the epitome of the absurd hero, the absurd man can attain heroic proportions by rebelling against his torment and by demonstrating that the struggle itself gives definition to his existence. The absurd, then, is the metaphysical state of conscious man fully aware of death and nothingness; it is lucid reason pitted against chaos; it is the only certainty linking man with an alien world devoid of absolutes. The feeling of the absurd can come at any moment, but it is most likely to happen when "the stage sets collapse" and the individual, suddenly aware of the seductive rhythm of daily routine, asks himself the crucial question, "Why?" What follows can be a complete awakening to consciousness of the absurd or, if one is not on his guard, a loss of this awareness and a return to the chain of meaningless, repetitive acts. Thus, once man has recognized the absurd, he must keep it alive by maintaining a state of revolt against the certainty of ultimate defeat, this being his only means of achieving self-fulfillment and of transcending the tragedy of his existence.
According to Camus, the concept of the absurd restores man's freedom to live life to the fullest, liberating him from the bonds of preconceived values, and making fate a human and individual matter. The absurd also negates hope for the future and considers action in the Here and Now to be an end in itself. Suicide and faith in God, then, are out of the question because either would represent an escape from the absurd, terminating the necessary state of tension between reasoning man and the unreasonable world. By his emphasis on this state of tension, Camus demonstrates his admiration for reason, but he also recognizes its limits and the impossibility of reducing the unintelligible world to rational principles. As prime examples of the absurd man, he lists the actor, the conqueror, Don Juan, the creator, and, perhaps most important here, the traveler, who is "constantly on the move."
Although the French thinker has defined and illustrated the absurd in lucid, rational language, subsequent practitioners of absurd literature have often relied on fantasy and other antirational devices to present their perceptions of life without purpose. Some of these writers, including Beckett, Ionesco, Borges, Cortázar and Arreola, have attacked reason more forcefully, and probably more effectively, than Camus.
In "The Switchman" the railroad journey could be construed as a metaphor of absurd existence, and the act of boarding the train, as both an awareness of the absurd and an acceptance of its challenges on the part of the passengers who, once on board, realize they may not be taken where they want to go. At the beginning of the story the stranger is a nonabsurd man and, one might add, an amusing victim of irony, because he has complete faith in reason and assumes that because he has purchased a ticket he will arrive at his destination on schedule. The switchman likewise is a nonabsurd man, for while he is fully aware of the absurd, he has never boarded a train, has no intention of doing so, and thus has in no way committed himself to revolt. He is, rather, a passive, ironic observer of life and perhaps the author's persona. The stranger's heavy suitcase would seem to represent the burden of reason he carries around with him, the railroad tracks melting into the distance his uncertain destiny, and the ash-colored inn a kind of jail for all the potential passengers who are still trapped in the mechanical cycle of daily routine and who have yet to pose the Camusian question, "Why?" The elaborate network of uncompleted railroads gives expression to man's fruitless efforts to reduce the unreasonable world to rational principles, an idea reinforced by the switchman's ludicrous allusions to expeditionary trains taking years to complete their runs and the necessity of adding funeral cars in case of deaths along the way. Furthermore, we are told that trains occasionally travel on roadbeds where the rails are missing, resulting in disastrous accidents. One such mishap occurred after the train wheels were worn away to their axels. The stranded passengers met the challenge by founding the town of "F," which became a happy, progressive community "filled with mischievous children playing with rusty vestiges of the train."
When the stranger exclaims that he has no desire for such adventures, the old man responds, "You need to pluck up your courage; perhaps you may ever become a hero." He then narrates the episode of two hundred passengers on a train that arrived at the edge of an abyss over which the railway builders had failed to construct a bridge. Inspired by the engineer's pep talk, the passengers took the train apart and carried it down an embankment and across a river so that they might continue their journey. The management was so pleased by the results of their ingenuity that plans for building a bridge were abandoned and a discount was offered to passengers willing to repeat the same adventure. In Camusian terms these travelers would represent absurd heroes committed to the principle of living life to the fullest and making action an end in itself. The founding of the town of "F" after the accident, moreover, suggests the absurd man's rejection of the antiquated values of the past, symbolized by the rusty vestiges of the wrecked train, and his acceptance of the challenge to forge his own destiny.
The unreasonable, disorderly world encountered by the absurd man is also illustrated by the switchman's references to the violent disputes among ticketholders on the station platform and the schools organized to teach methods of getting on a fast-moving train, if necessary with the aid of armor. To the stranger's question regarding what he can do to assure his arrival at his destination, the switchman advises him to initiate his journey with the firm idea that he is going to "T," although it's hard to tell if it will do any good. Furthermore, once on board the train, the stranger should take every possible precaution. It seems there could be spies planted among the travelers to denounce them for their most innocent remarks, leading to their incarceration for life in a prison car. Moreover, in order to deceive the passengers and cause them to get off at the wrong stops, the management has constructed false stations referred to as "stage sets" enlivened with realistic dummies. At the same time, to reduce the anxiety of the travelers, the train windows have been provided with ingenious devices to create the illusion of movement through captivating landscapes when, in reality, the train is motionless. As the switchman explains, "The hope is that one day the passengers will capitulate to fate, give themselves into the hands of an omnipotent management, and no longer care to know where they are going or where they have come from." Thus, like Camus, Arreola seems to suggest the necessity of keeping the absurd alive by recognizing that reality is illusory, that nothing is certain except the absurd, and that only by facing life squarely can one give it meaning and value. This posture of permanent revolt against fate, embodied here in the "omnipotent management," will also prevent the absurd man from being lulled back into his state of unawareness prior to the collapse of the stage sets which triggered his initial encounter with the absurd.
The climax of the story occurs when the train approaches and the switchman asks the stranger to repeat his destination. The latter's reply, "X," indicates his acceptance of the absurd unknown. Moreover, the fact that in these lines for the first time in the story he is called the "traveler" instead of the "stranger" underscores his newly acquired role as an absurd man with the potential of becoming a hero like the passengers who carried the train across the abyss.
The images set forth in the final lines of the story are also closely related to its thematic content. Immediately after the traveler informs the switchman of his new destination, "X," we are told that "the little old man dissolved in the clear morning. But the red speck of his lantern kept on running and leaping imprudently between the rails to meet the train. In the distant landscape the train was noisily approaching." Thus, the stranger's transformation from a nonabsurd to an absurd man, the disappearance of the switchman, and the train's arrival set the stage for the ensuing absurd journey. It would seem, then, that the tiny lantern confronting the oncoming train symbolizes the absurd clash between limited human reason and the dark forces of destruction.
"The Switchman" is a tale that lends itself to multiple interpretations, its ambiguities serving to augment its impact. Whatever interpretation the reader may choose, it appears likely that Arreola is not only deeply concerned with man's quest for values in a world fraught with uncertainty, but also with the exploration of a reality lying beyond the confines of reason. The Mexican author is less militant than Camus in his revolt against the human condition, but at the same time he may be less optimistic about man's potential. Whereas Camus' hero Sisyphus constitutes a model for giving meaning to existence, Arreola's anonymous stranger would seem to personify twentieth-century alienation in a world dominated by institutionalized technology, namely the railroad, which has presented man with the illusion of self-determination but, in reality, has merely created a metaphoric labyrinth for his absurd and dangerous odyssey.
On an esthetic level, the symbolic imagery and structural balance of Arreola's tale represent his attempt to give artistic coherence to the elusive reality that he, as an absurd creator, finds unacceptable. Thus, when the tension between the ironic observer (the switchman) and the man of reason (the stranger) is finally dissolved, it is immediately replaced by the confrontation between the traveler (that absurd Camusian hero "constantly on the move") and his uncertain destiny. With this sudden shift from one level of dramatic tension to another, the reader realizes that the title of the story may not refer to a railroad switchman but to a kind of catalyst-agent whose role is to awaken the protagonist to the absurd and "switch" him onto another track. If we accept this premise, the switchman could represent the stranger's alter ego, and the entire story, a metaphor of modern man's awakening to Camus' famous question, "Why?"
In conclusion, there is no proof that Arreola has been directly influenced by Camus' philosophy. Still, it is not unlikely that a voracious reader like Arreola, who studied in France immediately after World War II was acquainted with The Myth of Sisyphus by 1952, the year he published "The Switchman." Camus' essays indicate an ethical direction toward secular, anthropocentric humanism, one of his fundamental principles being that man must oppose the unreasonable universe even though his search for order may make him appear absurd. Arreola seems to share a similar metaphysical stance, although his roguish humor and fantasy set him apart from the more serious-minded Frenchman. Both authors, however, project philosophical insights corresponding closely to the twentieth-century experience. Unlike the naturalists, who envision a Utopian future characterized by man's domination of nature through science, and unlike Dostoevski's underground man, whose contradictions lie within himself, Camus and Arreola believe the human dilemma stems from the disproportion between lucid intention and chaotic reality. Camus' definition of the absurd, it seems to me, is poetically illustrated by the switchman's internalized journey whether or not Arreola was consciously aware of The Myth of Sisyphus at the time he wrote his story.
Source: George R. McMurray, "Albert Camus' Concept of the Absurd and Juan Jose Arreola's 'The Switchman,'" in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. VI, No. 11, Fall-Winter, 1977, p. 30.