Railing Against It: The Silenus of the Crammed

Morning Train

As we pull into a station two large herring gulls are slowly tearing apart a McDonalds bag, the train leaves and the birds walk with a proprietorial air down the platform.

In the seat across the aisle a youngish woman makes noises, reminiscent of a dog about to be sick. She (the youngish woman) has a transparent plastic cup and a can of Red Bull in front of her. From a carrier bag she opens a rectangular golden cardboard box and takes out a bottle of brandy. She tops up the cup and places a ham roll beside it. Her hair is red, as is her phone and all of her accessories – earrings, bracelets, flashes on trainers etc. It is 7.30 on a Saturday morning. As the train pulls away from the station she rushes towards the toilets.

“Of course, I won’t buy a new one, a perfectly ordinary biro, Why should I?”

“In the old days…”

“Of course, In the old days you could repair things, but now, I don’t see that I should.”

“In the old days…”

“Of course, in the old days, you would have signed it out wouldn’t you?”

“It would have lasted you for ever”

“Of course, you’d have looked after a thing like that, wouldn’t you?”

Both together: “in the old days…”

At the coffee shop

A well-dressed couple order extra-large and complex arrangements of what is really, sweetened milk with added cream, caramel, chocolate and finally coffee flavourings. They add a thick pink creamy looking drink each, and a couple of pain au raisins to their order. It takes them a while to organise carrying out this feast as they are both carrying large sporting bags.

“Ignorant of misfortune/ Living without worry”

Witnessing these searches for gratification makes me think of paintings of Silenus. There are different approaches to this god, Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’,

Titian: 'Bacchus and Ariadne', 1520-3, oil on canvas, 177 x 191 cm. National Gallery, London

and Van Dyck/ Rubens’ Studio’s ‘Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs’,

Attributed to Anthony van Dyck/ Studio of Rubens: 'Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs'. 1620. Oil on canvas. 134 x 197 cm. National Gallery, London.

(both in the National Gallery, London) show the usual iconography: the hugely fat figure; the surrounding Bachante; riding on a donkey in the Titian. This is the Falstaffian Lord of the Revels, clearly, but happily showing the effects of that indulgence. The teacher and companion of Bacchus/ Dionysius, the god of wine and good times; someone I’ve always felt close to. The Van Dyck figure, in particular, seems a joyful image, the brushstrokes, the palette, the smiling red face, the white hair, everybody’s favourite uncle, even if he is blind drunk and cannot walk.

Whereas the darker delineation around the stumbling Silenus in Rubens painting,

Peter Paul Rubens: 'The Drunken Silenus'. 1618. oil on canvas, 212 x 213 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

although delicately held up by the pair on the left, is an altogether different and lonely character. To add to this theme, the woman (the face anyway) on the lower left looks surprisingly like the young person on the train. Rubens’ driven, but falling demi god, is closer to the Greek mythology later revisited by Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy). The melancholic, pessimistic and wise Silenus pursued by King Midas. For example when the golden king asked what is best thing for man, Silenus replies:

‘you, seed of an evil genius and precarious offspring of hard fortune, whose life is but for a day, why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune; but for humans, the best for them is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best, for both sexes. This should our choice, if choice we have; and the next to this is, when we are born, to die as soon as we can.’

( from Aristotle: ‘Eudemus’)

 Afternoon Train.

 Man to my right eating Salt and Vinegar Monster Munch, drinking Carling Black Label, bellowing into his mobile about borrowing requirements and bank lending rates. Behind, a baby screams. In front a woman eats a very ripe banana from a yellow storage box, it is shaped like an ideal banana. Two seats down, earnest young Asian men are talking about mathematical formulae and what happens when you substitute P for X – I think. Schoolchildren are everywhere, talking about ‘Games’ and teachers and work not done, and ‘then my dad did this’ and ‘my mum did that’. And ‘she said’ and ‘I was like’ and ‘I texted her’ and on and on in a continuous stream of high-pitched jollity.

It is a relatively new train, the announcements are up as loud as they will go, the sibilance could take off the top of your head and fill it full of strong smelling, potato based, snack opportunities.

“Look, look, look what I’ve bought”

“What?”

“I got ten sets of eyelashes, all sorts”

“Like, wow”

We all partake of nature’s excellence, each of us be-ing in our own particular way.

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