Reading Schopenhauer as I rode the bus downtown with my broken cellphone, I felt trouble coming in the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
I began reading Schopenhauer in February on the same day that my cellphone stopped working. The book was The World As Will and Idea; I found it in the neighbourhood bookstore, on the Philosophy shelf, in the Everyman edition, 2002 printing, a clean copy for $8.95. It seemed to be calling out to me, beckoning, or mocking me, perhaps: offering a rebuke for not having done something important that I had always meant to do, such as reading the works of Schopenhauer, for example, or even more so to have become already someone who knew the works of Schopenhauer, and as I plucked the Schopenhauer from the shelf I couldn’t remember if it was in fact Schopenhauer I had always been meaning to read, or was it Spinoza? Stendhal, perhaps, or Kierkegaard, Husserl, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty? Might Schopenhauer stand for all of them, I wondered, my list of the not-yet-read, with their particular vowel arrangements, enjambments, exotic consonantals.
The cellphone stopped working in the evening, when I dropped it—or, to put it more precisely, it fell—onto a concrete floor. The back popped off and the battery flew out; I snapped it back together again and switched it on. It seemed to be working; later I tried to send a text, and then a phone call, and each time a terse note on the screen indicated the extent of the damage: failure to connect to network. I began to understand that I was cut off from the world. The Schopenhauer was on the desk; so far I had read the blurb on the cover: “the expression of an insatiable will to life.” In the morning I tried to call the cellphone guy and got failure to connect again before I realized what I was trying to do. I googled him on the computer and saw that he didn’t open until eleven. It was a sunny day, cold in the shade and almost warm in the sun. I decided to walk over to the cellphone place, and as I strode along the sunny side of the street I leafed through The World As Will and Idea and turned finally to the first page of the introduction, which seemed like a reasonable thing to do while walking in sunlight with no working cellphone. At the cellphone place, the cellphone guy had stuck a note on the door saying that he wouldn’t be opening for another hour; I settled onto a bench at the end of the block, without phone contact but with a view of the door to the shop, and continued reading the introduction to Schopenhauer, whose mother, I learned, had mocked his first book as something written for druggists.
At noon the cellphone guy still hadn’t appeared. I had come to the end of the introduction to Schopenhauer, having covered the biographical summary, the philosophical context, the idea of the Will, the idea of Art, notes on Pessimism and Salvation, yet I felt unprepared for Schopenhauer himself as I stepped rather gingerly into the first chapter, “The World As Idea,” and I was beginning to fret about the cellphone guy. Half an hour went by, five minutes more, ten minutes; the pages turned slowly; then I felt a movement nearby and looked up: it was the cellphone guy, at last, entering the shop. I followed him in and laid the book face down on the counter. He switched on my cellphone, which he called a smartphone (a term that I cannot bring myself to use, even now, when I know so much more), and when failure to connect flashed on he took the phone into the back for a closer look, but to no avail; he told me that only the Provider could replace the SIM card, and only if that didn’t work could more steps be taken.
The nearest Provider was some distance away in the so-called downtown core: I waited at the bus stop, unable to text the transit auto-reply to see how late the next bus would be; after several more pages of the Schopenhauer, the usual cluster of three buses—latest, later and late—arrived together; I boarded one of them and resumed my reading in a window seat. I could feel trouble coming in the principle of sufficient reason, a phrase that Schopenhauer had used for the title of the book that his mother thought was for druggists, and an understanding of which he was now saying, in Chapter 1, was required of anyone wishing to understand The World As Will and Idea. The downtown Provider, after a wearying and insistently friendly half hour or more, failed to get a new SIM card to work in my cellphone, which he too called a smartphone. By now it was too late to get back to my cellphone guy to see what the further steps that might be taken were likely to be.
That night I worked my way into Chapter 2 of the Schopenhauer and had to put the book down in despair at ever restoring contact with the world. I had been without a phone for nearly twenty-four hours. By midnight I was scrolling through listings of old movies on the computer looking for some suitable distraction when the phrase “phantom ride” appeared in a YouTube listing of old movies—very old movies from the silent era, in fact, as I discovered when I clicked on the link and my screen opened onto a downtown street divided in two by a track extending into the distance in black and white, and along which moved streams of pedestrians and vehicles, drays, wagons, vans pulled by horses, pedestrians and bicyclists, receding, approaching, crossing and vanishing, reappearing on sidewalks. The scene continued to open up; there was no beginning, no ending, as the invisible camera advanced along the street and into the scene, which replenished itself continuously from the centre as it vanished from the edges; children waving their hands appeared singly and in groups; boys held up their caps; men in bowler hats and vests strode in and out of view, and men in straw boaters and men in cloth caps; women in long dresses, shirtwaists, collars, ribbons and large flat hats; girls in pinafores, boys in short pants; among the bicycles weaving through the scene were tricycles and tiny horse carts; the men were smoking cigars or pipes. The vista continued to open up as a world swept by at a comfortable walking pace, a world unfolding before me in another dimension, in silence, along a street in Bradford, England, in 1902, a street in Dublin in 1901; “a trip down Market Street in San Francisco 1906” continued for several minutes in an intricate dance of steps and strides and swooping vehicles moving in and out of the frame. Here was the Past in some purified form, a reality inhabited by ghosts. Among the YouTube commenters were several who described breaking into tears as they watched.
I took the Schopenhauer with me for two more visits to the cellphone guy and left it open on my desk at Chapter 2 during the intervening period of suspended animation: the prospects for my cellphone were now dire. I continued in short bursts to grapple with the principle of sufficient reason, but returned more often to the Phantom Rides, which drew me repeatedly into a state of easeful melancholy. A Google search revealed several Phantom Ride facts: they were filmed from the fronts of streetcars or locomotives, where the cameraman on his perch turned the crank by hand. All that survives of Phantom Ride footage seems to be the few sequences on YouTube, including a twelve-minute passage through Vancouver in 1907 made by William Harbeck, who is described in his obituary in 1912 as “one of the ablest moving picture men in the world.”
Phantom Rides were distributed by Hales World Tours, a chain of exhibition parlours named for the fire chief of Kansas City, Missouri, who invented a simulated streetcar that rocked up and down as the film was projected onto the front “window” and a fan blew wind into the faces of the “passengers.” By 1911, Hales World Tours were operating in five hundred cities in North America and Europe. William Harbeck, whose Vancouver footage was discovered in a vault in Australia in 2007, was chief cinematographer of the CPR Department of Colonialism; he filmed several celebrated Phantom Rides through the Rocky Mountains and the Fraser Canyon; in 1912 he drowned in the Atlantic Ocean on his last commission, which was to record the maiden voyage of the Titanic; he was accompanied by his lover, a young woman named Henriette Yvois; their names have been preserved on the Titanic passenger list by aficionados of the Titanic, who record as well that their second-class tickets bore sequential numbers, and that Harbeck’s body was found “clutching” Henriette’s purse. Henriette’s body was never recovered; her address in Paris, near the Tuileries and the Louvre, is given on the passenger list. She and William Harbeck were observed by Lawrence Beesley, a second-class passenger who escaped in lifeboat No. 13, and who aboard the rescue ship Carpathia began writing his memoir of the disaster as soon as pen and paper could be supplied. In his memories of the voyage he remembered them as “an American kinematograph photographer and his young French wife” playing cards in the lounge, and operating the kinematograph from the observation deck. “I never saw them again,” he wrote. The publication of Beesley’s The Loss of the SS Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons, six weeks after the sinking, launched a Titanic publishing industry that has flourished for a century. The first Titanic movie opened exactly thirty days after the disaster; it starred Dorothy Gibson, a young American actress who escaped from the Titanic with her mother in lifeboat No. 7, wearing the evening gown that she later wore in the movie, described by a reviewer as a “heart-stirring tale of the sea’s greatest tragedy.” (A search for Titanic books on Amazon in February yielded 4,545 results; for Titanic movies: 1,143.)
The proprietor of Hales World Tours in Vancouver was J.D. Williams, a Virginian and a promoter of nickel movies and sideshows who moved on to Australia with “a collection of old films and junk pictures,” among them footage of William Harbeck’s Phantom Ride through Vancouver, and a supply of kewpie dolls; he became the leading showman and movie distributor in the country. In Melbourne in 1911 he took over Luna Park, the grand entrance of which stands as an emblem of Entertainment devouring the world and became known as “the Napoleon of Amusements.” A week after William Harbeck and Henriette Yvois and 1,520 fellow passengers were lost with the Titanic, J.D. Williams was advertising “Moving Pictures of Scenes” on board the rescue ship Carpathia, survivors landing in New York and “the battered Titanic lifeboats.” In 1913 Williams founded the American movie company that became Warner Brothers. He made movies with Charlie Chaplin, Dorothy Gish, Rudolph Valentino and Alfred Hitchcock, among others. In 1930 he took on a Canadian production of The Viking, a romantic adventure story of the Newfoundland sealers filmed at Quidi Vidi and at sea aboard the real-life SS Viking, with live sound. The director, Varick Frissell, went back to sea with his crew to shoot additional footage; an explosion in the hold destroyed the ship, and twenty-seven men, including Frissell and his movie crew, disappeared into the Atlantic.
Nearly a week had gone by when I boarded another late bus and returned to the downtown Provider, where a so-called Solution to my cellphone problem was offered me in the form of a new smartphone and contract in exchange for a signature and a sum of money; the conversation was friendly and again incessant; my good fortune was its theme; the undying friendship of the Provider was its message. I went into the street with no idea of who to phone or who to text. I was still unconnected to the world. I returned to the Schopenhauer and skipped ahead to Chapter 3, which the author specified in a subtitle as “independent of the principle of sufficient reason.” In the days following these events my memory of Phantom Rides, gliding forward seamlessly, eternally, in some other dimension, overshadowed the mundane tale of a broken cellphone. I felt that I had seen the Past stripped of some essential: itself, perhaps. In a word, I had glimpsed the past without the past.
In 1957, Lawrence Beesley, survivor of the Titanic and author of The Loss of the SS Titanic, now seventy-one years old, slipped onto the set of A Night to Remember, one of the great Titanic movies, as the sinking was being filmed, and asked to be included in the scene: to be allowed, this time, to go down with the ship. The director refused. “When we are more than ordinarily disturbed by some want,” Schopenhauer writes in Chapter 3, “the remembrance of past and distant scenes suddenly flits across our minds like a lost paradise.”