The Consolations of Philosophy

A man is attempting to work on a train between Edinburgh and London. It is early in the afternoon on a warm spring day.  Papers and a diary are on the table before him, and a book is open on the arm-rest. But the man has been unable to hold a coherent thought since Newcastle, when a woman entered the carriage and seated herself across the aisle. After looking impassively out of the window for a few moments, she turned her attention to a pile of magazines. She has been reading Vogue since Darlington. She reminds the man of a portrait by Christen Købke of Mrs Høegh-Guldberg (though he cannot recall either of these names), which he saw, and felt strangely moved and saddened by, in a museum in Denmark a few years before.

But unlike Mrs Høegh-Guldberg, she has short brown hair, and wears jeans, a pair of trainers, and a canary-yellow v-neck sweater over a T-shirt. He notices an incongruously large digital sports watch on her pale, freckle-dotted wrist. He imagines running his hand through her chestnut hair, caressing the back of her neck, sliding his hand inside the sleeve of her pullover, watching her fall asleep beside him, her lips slightly agape. He imagines living with her in a house in south London, in a cherry tree-lined street. He speculates that she may be a cellist or a graphic designer or a doctor specialising in genetic research. His mind turns over strategies for conversation. He considers asking her for the time, for a pencil, for directions to the bathroom, for reflections on the weather, for a look at one of her magazines. He longs for a train crash, in which their carriage would be thrown into one of the vast barley fields through which they are passing. In the chaos, he would guide her safely outside, and repair with her to a nearby tent set up by the ambulance service, where they would be offered luke warm tea and stare into each others’ eyes. Years later, they would attract interest by revealing that they had met in the tragic Edinburgh Express collision. But because the train seems disinclined to derail, though he knows it to be louche and absurd, the man cannot help clearing his throat and leaning over to ask the angel if she might have a spare biro. It feels like jumping off the side of a very high bridge.

1. Philosophers have not traditionally been impressed: the tribulations of love have appeared too childish to warrant investigation, the subject better left to poets and hysterics. It is not for philosophers to speculate on hand-holding and scented letters. Schopenhauer was puzzled by the indifference.

“We should be surprised that a matter that generally plays such an important part in the life of man has hitherto been almost entirely disregarded by philosophers, and lies before us as raw and untreated material.”

The neglect seemed the result of a pompous denial of a side of life which violated man’s rational self-image. Schopenhauer insisted on the awkward reality.

“Love…interrupts at every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes perplexes for a while even the greatest minds. It does not hesitate…to interfere with the negotiations of statesmen and the investigations of the learned. It knows how to slip its love-notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts… It sometimes demands the sacrifice of…health, sometimes of wealth, position and happiness.”

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