Cartesian Centaurs: Christopher Fan Muses on the Close Relationship between Cycling and Literature

“Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike…” — Molloy

They roam the English department. Professor Steven Lee is of the breed. Kristin Hanson traverses the tree-lined streets of west Berkeley, transfigured as one. David Landreth has been found at the Port of Oakland, striding in the shadows of the shipping cranes. Katherine Snyder, if reports are to be trusted, occasionally pilots the one-wheeled variety.

Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel,” the first “readymade.” © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp

These “Cartesian Centaurs,” to use Hugh Kenner’s phrase, are more familiar to the quotidian eye as cyclists. There are certainly many more lurking about Wheeler’s hallowed halls. (Wheeler!) No surprise. The East Bay’s natural splendor, above-average cycling infrastructure, and general lack of rain make it a cyclist’s paradise. So much so that students might be tempted to spend more time riding than writing. To my knowledge, none of our fine faculty specimens have written about their trusty steeds. But, as I hope to show here, that’s not exactly a path in need of further paving. The modernists were there first. Kenner’s phrase, for instance, says something about the thematics of the bicycle in Samuel Beckett’s works. Wallace Stevens once owned a bicycle factory. Bloomsbury and bicycle both start with the letter “B.” And who can forget Marcel Duchamp’s readymade? That’s just for starters. So, as the centennial edition of the Tour de France approaches its Alpine stages in the neighborhood of Wordsworth’s Mont Blanc, now’s as good a time as any to reflect on the bicycle’s golden era in literature. Let’s meander.

From the mid-1880s to the opening years of the 20th century, a trans-Atlantic cycling craze erupted. By the turn of the century, the price of a bicycle had dropped to anywhere between $3 and $15. Distance, as a conceptual and material reality, was radically transformed for all social strata. Along with the locomotive and automobile, the bicycle helped to unify hitherto abstract geographies. The bicycle craze, Philip Fisher writes, “signaled the first national love affair with an object.” The bicycle, Fisher says, was also one of the first technologies to “exploit the ambiguous realm between work and pleasure.” 1 In an era obsessed with speed and new technology, the bicycle also held a potent symbolism. It was speed, and speed was freedom. And the leap from speedy freedom to decadence and social threat was not a large one to make.

Stephen Kern describes an 1898 French novel, Voici des ailes! by Maurice Leblanc, in which the female members of two couples on a bike tour suddenly lose their inhibitions, cast off their blouses and ride bare-breasted through the countryside. Eventually, “the bonds of marriage break down as the couples exchange spouses and finish the tour re-paired.” A Parisian doctor even observed that cycling made it “possible for the entire character to change. Talkative people become taciturn and taciturn become talkative.” 2 I can’t attest to the bonds of marriage thing unfortunately, since my wife and I have never ridden with another couple, but ride a hundred miles in the rain and your character might very well undergo a permanent transformation.

Major Taylor

In addition to sexual liberation, the bicycle led the way to a number of other reversals and revolutions–even in racial politics. America’s first sports celebrity, Major Taylor, was the son of a slave. At the height of his career in the early 1900s, he was also the fastest man in the world on two wheels. Known for his raw talent and showmanship, he traveled the world winning millions in prize money and, as his latter-day biographer Todd Balf argues, exploited an emerging global media system to forge the marriage of aesthetics, science, advertising and technology that we recognize today in the sports industry.

The bicycle is all over British modernism. The first scene in A Passage to India is of Dr. Aziz tossing his bicycle aside. Roger Fry was a speed-demon–Desmond MacCarthy complained of always getting dropped (cyclist-speak for getting left in the dust) on their jaunts through the countryside. Leonard Woolf was a bicycle connoisseur, and rode one all over Ceylon. In Mrs. Dalloway, Peter Walsh, realizing that Richard Dalloway has bested him in the contest over Clarissa’s affections, jumps on his bike and pedals twenty furious miles through the woods. Citing a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary, Robert Poole has suggested that the portrayal of Septimus Smith’s madness owes something to an extremely unpleasant experience Woolf had biking into a strong headwind a few weeks prior to writing his scenes. The pain in her legs, she writes, “continued for several days, and I think I should feel it again if I went over that road at night.” While anyone who’s ridden directly into a strong headwind can attest to the physical pain attending the task, it is also true that at least as much pain is psychological in nature. Shell shock from aching quads and cramped calves is a pretty fanciful stretch, to be sure, but when we meet Septimus, we do indeed find him contemplating why his forward movement has been arrested. A car backfires and “Every one looked at the motor car. Septimus looked. Boys on bicycles sprang off. Traffic accumulated,” and Septimus blames himself: “It is I who am blocking the way…” Despair and frustrated forward motion–call it the aesthetics of the headwind.

The connection between the traumas of war and cycling isn’t at all that spurious. In fact, it has been central to modern cycling culture, which is predominantly a continental European formation, the Flanders region of Belgium being its spiritual home. The mythology of the Cobbled Classics in professional road racing–E3 Harelbeke, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix–has everything to do with the connection between the race routes and the trenches of World War I. These are the most difficult one-day races in the world. The sections (secteurs) of farmland road (pavé) they traverse cut through the War’s most famous fields of battle. Merely completing one of these races is the exclusive privilege of “survivors,” and the reporting on the races is rife with military language. Paris-Roubaix, the most storied and prestigious among them, is known as L’enfer du Nord: the Hell of the North. It received its nickname in 1919, when race organizers traveled the route to take stock of what remained. Les Woodland, who authored a history of the race, writes:

At first all appeared well. There was destruction and misery, yes, and a strange shortage of men, but the country had survived. You can imagine the restrained relief in the little exploratory party. But suddenly things changed. The air began to reek of sewage and rotting cattle. Trees became blackened, ragged stumps. Everywhere was mud. To describe it as “hell” was the only word. […] hell was the post-war condition… 3

The mud-caked, ravaged faces of exhausted racers recall the faces of trench soldiers–an analogy that has become an indispensable feature of Paris-Roubaix tradition.

From left: Jens Voigt, George Hincapie. Recent “survivors” of Paris-Roubaix.

Among the modernists, Beckett was surely the bicycle’s poet laureate. Kenner provides a brief survey of its occurrences in his work:

Molloy had a bicycle, Moran was carried on the luggage rack of a bicycle, Malone recalls the cap of the bell of a bicycle, bicycles pass before Watt’s eyes at the beginning and at the end of his transit through the house of Knott; Clov begged for a bicycle while bicycles still existed, and while there were still bicycles it was the wreck of a tandem that deprived Nagg and Nell of their legs.4

The bicycle first appears in A Dream of Fair to Middling Women between the legs of Bel: “an overfed child pedalling, faster and faster, his mouth ajar and his nostrils dilated, down a frieze of hawthorn…” In contrast to the Cartesian ideal that Kenner has in mind — “The intelligence guides, the mobile wonder obeys” — Paul Stewart argues that the pumping motion of the legs is “an integral part of the sexual experience of the adolescent Bel.” So, even if Molloy astride a bicycle idealizes the mind’s triumph over the body, there is plenty of room in Beckett’s canon for a Cartesian “interpenetration of function.”

We see these thematics receiving similar treatment in Filippo Marinetti’s futurist manifesto. At the climax of his rhapsodizing over the automobile, he swerves his car to avoid “two cyclists disapproving of me and tottering in front of me like two persuasive but contradictory reasons,” ending up in a ditch. These “reasons” aren’t clear, but the cyclists are perhaps the prototype of a relationship between human and machine that Marinetti wants to install at the heart of his futurism. It’s in the ditch, which he calls “maternal,” wallowing as he is in the outflow from a nearby factory, that he dictates his manifesto, militating against the past and cursing anything that might hinder “the beauty of speed.”

Along with the erotics of the bicycle and the suffering it inflicts, we should also add memory to its list of enduring thematics. A passage penned by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises has become a favorite among cyclists over the years: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” The speed of the bicycle as the speed of the human memory of landscape.

Today, two of our most revered prose-poets of the bicycle are Bill Strickland of Bicycling magazine and Frank Strack, whose blog Velominati is as hilarious as it is pitch-perfect in its reflections on the strange rituals and traditions of road riders. Strickland, to be sure, writes essentially the same article each month for Bicycling (it’s the journey, not the destination, etc.)–but it is a compulsion to repeat deeply cherished by cyclists of all stripes. Climbing the steeps of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, he writes: “By mile two I enter a 170-bpm-, 80-rpm-, 9-mph-state of spiritual apoplexy and Greg LeMond’s head floats before me. The three-time Tour de France champion’s head repeats one of his famous sayings, over and over and over: ‘It never gets any easier, you just go faster. It never gets any easier, you just go faster…’” You don’t need to know what the acronyms mean to get the picture: this is the transvaluation of suffering.

Strack is the keeper of “The Rules,” which exaggerate (only slightly) the Mod-like guidelines for dress, training, and comportment that make road riders appear so smugly superior while tiptoeing about in their patently ridiculous spandex bibs. Rule #8, for instance, is “Saddles, bars, and tires shall be carefully matched.” Here is his take on riding into a headwind while in Belgium:

It occurred to me that this, a headwind, is the only kind of wind they have in Flanders. On most days, I would fixate on the speed that this headwind was wringing from my machine; the most frustrating thing about a headwind is the small return in speed for the amount of pressure in the legs and lungs. But today, I had no designs on speed. I had no designs on returning home at a certain time, for that matter. There was only me and the bike. It is only on rides like these that we may truly appreciate the gifts of dimension that La Vie Velominatus can provide when we are willing to receive them.

My casual take on the difference between these writers and their modernist forebears is that their main concern is using the extreme discipline of the devoted cyclist to isolate a purified expression of sensual experience. That discipline is generated in part out of respect for the bicycle as a technological and aesthetic object, in part out of the heavy physical demands of maintaining fitness, and in part out of a vigilantly repressed awareness that when one swings a leg over a bicycle’s top tube, one is entrusting one’s life to a machine weighing some twenty pounds, yet designed to travel at high speeds with little more than two square-inches of contact with the road.

These writers are therefore less concerned with Hemingway’s sentimental landscapes, and show little regard for Beckett’s and Marinetti’s symbolism. For them, the discipline of the bicycle is a kind of Centaur guarding a realm of experience and self-knowledge that lies outside commodification. To this extent, one thing they share with the modernists is a view of the bicycle as not only an object of psychological frustration, erotic desire, social threat, and technological achievement–but as a machine that transforms suffering into a beautiful experience.

Philip Fisher, “Democratic Social Space: Whitman, Melville, and the Promise of American Transparency,” The New American Studies: Essays from Representations (Berkeley: UC Press, 1991), 97.

Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003), 111. Dr. Tissle, quoted in: Todd Balf, Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being (New York: Crown), 56.

Les Woodland, Paris-Roubaix: The Inside Story (New York: McGann, 2013), 17.

Hugh Kenner, “The Cartesian Centaur,” Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study (Berkeley: UC Press, 1961), 117.

— By Christopher Fan

Posted by Jeffrey Blevins

1 Response

  1. I believe our own Cecil Giscombe just cycled 900+ miles to British Columbia!