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Get to know the symbolism in your daily commute

AP Photo/Joe Epstein
So primal.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

You’ve probably heard the advice to change up your commute now and then as way to take your brain off of autopilot and give your synapses a little exercise. Here’s another activity that might feed your grey matter: Put a new lens on your daily travels by contemplating the symbolism embedded in the modes of transportation you use.

Allow me to explain.

Psychologist Carl Jung developed the concept of archetypal symbols as part of his theory of the collective unconscious. He argued that all of us are connected in a psychic space that exists beyond individual consciousness, where we share a common language. That’s why, according to Jungian theory, references to rivers, hats, ravens, or wheat, for instance, have held strikingly similar connotations in artwork, literature, and dreams, across cultures and through time. So, too, have more recent inventions, like cars, bicycles, trains, and subways, say Jungian interpreters.

The symbolism or metaphors shared by these common forms of transportation, and hundreds of other objects, flora, and fauna, are catalogued in The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images (Taschen, 2010), which I happily stumbled upon recently. You don’t have to buy into Jung’s theory to appreciate the gorgeous, 800-page book, produced by editors and writers from the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism. Its short, evocative essays are meant as informed rumination that would appeal to anyone, and the images—some of prehistoric cave paintings, others of contemporary paintings and photography—are enchanting.

Here’s what The Book of Symbols has to say about the meaning buried in all the objects that carry us to and from our homes.

The subway: Endless possibilities in the “mythic basement”

Rare is the commuter who looks forward to a subway trip, no matter where we are in the world. For your subconscious mind, however, the subway can represent adventure and a probing into the unknown. “Dark and subterranean, its tunnels bring to mind caverns, catacombs, and labyrinths,” The Book of Symbols explains, calling the subway’s habitat “a separate realm to which we cannot gain entry except by descent and the paying of a toll.”

Stations and tunnels also evoke the “mythic basement.” They’re “isolated, dimly lit, full of secrete niches, scurrying rats and holding the possibility of danger and violation.”

That description rings true, of late-night subways in particular. Even in the tension of a morning rush, however, you occasionally get the sense that one wrong look could start a brawl or worse. The subway is where we mix haphazardly with the whole range of humanity, as The Book of Symbols notes. But, just as strangers on the subway are sometimes threats, they also may be as likely be life-long friends or partners still waiting to be met.

Some artists, the book notes, find in the subway a “claustrophobic sensation of being swallowed by anonymity and mass” while others see the “pumping arteries of urban life” that expands in multiple directions. Take your pick.

The car: Freedom and guilt

The car’s symbolism needs little explaining, especially not to American audiences. Honestly, unless you’re a true gear-head, there’d be little to love about a car if the vessel itself didn’t evoke notions of individuality, self-determination, and escape.

In imagery, the car is associated with “sexiness, power, speed, aggression, ‘drive,’” observes The Book of Symbols. Though mass produced, it also can function as a piece of our identity, signaling pragmatism, machismo, or an affinity for style over substance. Taking control of the driver’s seat for the first time, we also assert our adultness. “Receiving the keys to the car in adolescence can represent the achievement of a developmental milestone, perceived capacity for independence, following the rules of the road, displaying sound judgement and good instincts,” the books’ unnamed writers explain.

Notably, the authors do not cover gridlock and traffic jams, which routinely become emblems of frustration and thwarted escapes in popular culture. Nor do they look at taxis, never mind ride shares like Uber and Lyft. But they do note that the “conscious and unconscious have registered the impact of the automobile, with its devastating effect on the environment, worldwide global warming, air and noise pollution,” etc. So daily car commuters may love their rides, if with a pang of guilt.

The train: “Engages the now and the timeless”

No method of communal transportation combines speed and luxury like the train—assuming you’ve found a seat. On the right train, a daily commute can be positively cinematic.

“The train has always seemed part animal, a huffing bowl, a hissing snake, the great fire breathing dragon, but materializing with a prolonged annunciatory wail,” The Book of Symbols notes. It moves “through new vistas and constant change” and “simultaneously engages the now and the timeless.”

Importantly, trains also follow a preset path, linking them to ideas of fate—sometimes with dread and foreboding. Freud said that to miss one’s train in a dream was to fear dying, the book notes.

“We can clock the time by a regularly scheduled train,” the book also observes.

What it leaves out is that commuter trains can also stand in for the predictability and soul-crushing uniformity of the suburbs, as any John Cheever reader can attest.

Ultimately, however, The Book of Symbols notes, “[F]or many, the train most of all conveys a vehicle of mystery and magic, which, if we are receptive, might carry us anywhere.”

The bicycle: Under your command

Cycling to work is not yet common in North America, but it ought to be. Cycling offers the figurative and literal independence and self-reliance of a car without the fumes and burning of fuel. “In particular, the bicycle symbolically evokes a vehicle of psychic energy and progression (the bicycle doesn’t move in reverse) that is personal rather than collective, and under the command of the individual ego,” The Book of Symbols tells us.

And yet the bicycle is also tied to a mass social movement: Its widespread adoption at the end of the 19th century gave women an excuse to cast off the hindrance of corsets and bustles. Susan B. Anthony felt that “the bicycle had done more for women’s emancipation than any other thing in the world,” the book reports, quoting another feminist hero, the journalist Nellie Bly.

Also like the car, mastering the bicycle is a recognized rite of passage: The day we learn to cycle, we sail out of the sturdy arms of an adult and into a shaky future. The book says it is like learning to walk, and equally as joyous. “The initially unnatural sensation of finding balance on one feet reawakens when a cyclist launches off on a wobbly virgin voyage,” the authors write, “comically jerking the unfamiliar handlebar bars from side to side before finally rolling away with the elegance ease for which the ingenious bicycle was designed in a daring age of inventions.”

To cycle to work—at least if you’re in a bicycle-friendly city—is to re-experience that bliss daily.

The boat: A psychic home and urban trend

Boats, as in ferries, have become an urban designer’s new, very-old weapon, taking pressure off of public train and road systems, as they have long done in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Vancouver. New York has expanded its ferry services into Manhattan, while cities like Dubai, Bangkok, Cairo, and Mumbai are also getting onboard with the trend.

Commuters tend to report that ferry rides offer some calm in the morning and a winding down in the evening, which echoes the musings on the boat in The Book of Symbols. 

Boats can feel like portals to an older world, when life moved more slowly and the elements were not incidental, we learn. “So primal is the idea of the boat that holds the secure above the chaos that houses have been built in the image of a ship,” the Book of Symbols explains. Likewise, in our language and public imagination, we’ve made the boat a kind of psychic home. “All of our senses help us to navigate winds and tides, fathom the depth and take out bearings,” the authors write.

Considering the boat’s long history as a form of human travel (some scholars believe the first boats were used by primitive humans around 800,000 years ago), and its direct connection to one of the four classical elements, it’s logical that the boat’s symbolism lives closer to the edges of existence itself. “The relationship and secret identity between the holding vessel and the deep waters that buoy it up and can also break it into pieces is nuanced and emotional,” the book explains, “a linking with our first crossing into birth, with the uterus, the rocking cradle, and the saving ark and with our last crossing in the ship of death.”

Or, you know, a sweet, meditative journey to the office.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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