Bicycle Diaries: Nostalgia for the future?

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Nostalgia for the future?

Why bikes?
Is it the fascination with the machine itself?
Its power? Your skills?
The speed? The ease?
risks? Your health?
The future?

I've been taking a break from Bruce Chatwin and Isaiah Berlin to read some of the French Avant Garde like Albert Jarry and the Italian Futurists like F. T. Marinette. Both share a fascination with bikes yet at the opposite ends of the love-hate continuum.

Back in the last years of the 19th century, it was all about love. Bikes were the cutting-edge choice of the forward-looking Avant Garde. The absurdist playwright, Alfred Jarry, would regularly shoot his pistols at Paris landmarks from the saddle of his racing bike. The Dada artist, Marcel Duchamps, created his first readymade, The Bicycle Wheel.

But with the fin de siecle came the fin du cycle as the epitome of all things modern. While declaring his joy of mechanical force in the
Manifesto of Futurism, F. T. Marinette quite literally sideswiped bikes. The manifesto's preamble described a reckless, high-speed joy ride which inspired Marinette to become the father of 20th Century Futurism. At one point his glorious car hurdles towards two bikers:
... suddenly there were two cyclists disapproving of me and tottering in front of me like two persuasive but contradictory reasons. Their stupid swaying got in my way. What a bore! Pouah! I stopped short, and in disgust hurled myself - vlan! - head over heels in a ditch.

... As I raised my body, mud-spattered and smelly, I felt the red hot poker of joy deliciously pierce my heart. A crowd of fishermen and gouty naturalists crowded terrified around this marvel. With patient and tentative care they raised high enormous grappling irons to fish up my car, like a vast shark that had run aground. It rose slowly leaving in the ditch, like scales, its heavy coachwork of good sense and its upholstery of comfort.

Simply put, the same machine that had propelled the world towards the modern now was its greatest obstacle.

Such references may seem a bit esoteric, or worse; dated, to most bikers in the first years of the 21st Century. For me, though, they show that all bikers are now Futurists ... but with a twist. Bike accidents today, like Marinette's bike attack, are more likely to be described from the bikers' perspective. One of the great rituals of every Critical Mass is swapping stories about bike accidents involving cars. In fact, I've never heard a story involving only bikes. And it goes without saying that each story has a touch of the heroic: the brave biker goes into battle, often tragically, against an evil, angry, arrogant, and stupid owner of an environmentally destructive SUV. That the biker has lived to tell the tale simply reinforces the noble righteousness of this chosen way of life.

What I'm getting at is that we bikers are the weird offspring of the 19th Century Avant Garde and the 20th Century Futurists. Like Jarry or Duchamps, bikers believe they have chosen a cutting-edge, forward-looking alternative way of life. And like Marinette, they recognize that bikes could effectively blunt, if not reverse, the forces of technological progress. But in contrast to Marinette, bikers celebrate this potential.

Not that I'm attacking bikers as technophobic luddites. Quite the contrary.

It's the irony that fascinates me most. On the one hand, bikers embrace a future that stretches the possibilities of the present as did the Avant Garde. On the other hand, they reject the techological present with all its limitations on the individual and communities as did the Futurists. And many bikers do it with the same angry militancy as Marinette.

Again you may ask, "What the fuck does this irony have to do with bike commuters, freakbikers, massers and Share the Road activists?"

For me, the biking life is about so much more than the present tense. For better or worse, it has a past tense as well as a future tense. It's about a nostalgia for the future.

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