Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Going nowhere

Michael Marder’s pocket-sized “Philosophy for passengers” is the perfect book to fit in your backpack or wheelie when making a journey.


Sean Sheehan


You are, at some stage, consumed by the exhilaration or dread that is prompting the travel but this book, acting as both distraction and therapy, looks at the intrinsic experience  of being a passenger; a book, then, not about travelling but passaging.

We are passengers most obviously when travelling on public modes of transport but at the heart of this meditative little book is the extension of passengerhood to the existential plane: our predicament is the fact of being brought, passaged, into the world and having to pass through it as a passenger; exiting it at a point that is usually beyond our control.

As passengers, we pass through and live with time. Ostensibly governed by clock-defined, timetabled moments, the temporal mindset of the mindful passenger can allow itself to segue into the state of being in time itself; not the start or end moments but the passage between them, transition as opposed to the circularity of  narratives (like Homer’s “Odyssey” and countless movies) that shape a journey as a return homewards.

Marder is a fine writer when it comes to drawing on analogies and extended images to draw out philosophical ponderables from the experience of being a passenger: “A little like dust, passengers gather temporarily in haphazard social formations only to disperse again”.

Similes like this aside, he uses the concept of a metaphor, from the Greek metaphora, (meaning, from metaphorein, ‘to ferry or transport across’) as a literal way of figuring the vehicles of transport that carry us as passengers.

In the course of passaging we change and a metaphor takes one meaning of a word and transports it, changes it, to make another – as when we say that we are born, live and die as passengers.

Marder takes this a step further by aligning metaphoric expressions with “the disquietude of thought [and] its indefatigable shuttling back and forth”.

When we make a comparison or a judgement, thought itself becomes passengerhood “hugging two shores or two sides” but alive to the gulf between one thing and another. “Philosophy for passengers” is full of clever conceits like this and, as with Pessoa, there is much that is eminently quotable; one of my favourite being how “the train of existence does not run on time, because time does not run on time”.

He makes elegant use of the movie “Passengers” (2016) – but not, a little surprisingly, Antonioni’s 1975 film The passenger” – to remind readers that “the destination will never be reached and that life in a suspended, in-between condition is all there is.”

“Philosophy for passengers” may be a book about going nowhere but even a directionless journey has a point of disembarkation.

The final couple of pages remind us of how we can reflect after making the many little j ourneys before the final one that ends it all.

“Philosophy for passengers”, by Michael Marder, is published by MIT Press.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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