“The Motion Demon”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing – nominated by me as it turns out.

Review: “The Motion Demon”, Stefan Grabinski, trans. Miroslaw Lipinski, 1919.

I suspect Mark Samuels’ “The End to Perpetual Motion” was inspired by this story though it goes in a very different direction. This story is certainly weird and full of mystery and ambiguity.

The story opens on an express train running between Paris and Madrid. We start with the perspective of forest creatures seeing the frightening train, to them, roar past. 

We then shift to a first-class compartment where a man is alone and dozing, a book titled Crooked Lines on his lap and a stamp in the book giving us his name: Tadeusz Szygon. 

A conductor comes in to check the man’s ticket, and a terse exchange follows. 

The man doesn’t have a ticket. He doesn’t know why he didn’t buy one at the station. Yes, he’ll pay the fine. No, he doesn’t know where on the line he got on the train. Let’s just assume it was Paris and bill the whole fare plus the fine. No, he doesn’t care that a ticket will get him only to Madrid. He’ll get another train there as long as he can keep riding. 

The conductor says he’ll have to go away and prepare the ticket and figure out how much the fine will be. Szygon’s attention becomes fixed on the insignia on the conductor’s collar. It’s jagged little wings weaved to form a circle. 

Then Szygon becomes angry:

‘Mr. Wings, watch out for the draft!’

‘Please be quiet; I’m closing the door.’

‘Watch out for the draft,’ he stubbornly repeated. ‘One can sometimes break one’s neck.’” 

The conductor mutters that Szygon is either crazy or drunk and leaves. 

Now alone, Szygon realizes something very familiar has happened. He’s in one of his “flight phases”. Frequently, Szygon, a resident of Warsaw, will find himself several hundreds of miles away in western Europe – Paris, London, or Italian town. He’ll wake up in some unknown hotel room he doesn’t remember. Asking the staff always gets the same result – and some sarcastic looks: he’s told he arrived the previous night, ate supper, and retired to his room. He has complete amnesia of his flights from Warsaw and their reason. After returning to Warsaw, his life of gambling will return. Then, one day, Szygon will vanish without a trace again. Perhaps his “nomadism” is the result of his gypsy blood. 

He can never seem to stay in one place long. Even in Warsaw, he moves from place to place.  Szygon doesn’t glorify his trips. They always end with him “angry, exhausted, and sullen”.  After he gets back to Warsaw, he locks himself in his room and won’t see anyone for days.

Some dark force motivates these trips. And every destination is strange. Szygon can’t remember arriving at the same place twice. He’s never really aware of what he’s doing on his trips, “his full psychic facilities” only return fully after a deep sleep at his new destination. 

And then we hear about the feelings awakened by the sight of the conductor. 

These people were a symbol of certain deficiencies or of an underdevelopment, and personified the imperfection that he saw in the railway system. 

Train travel is only a “childish compromise” forced on him, for his travels, because he’s “chained to the Earth and its laws”. To him, a railroad and its workers symbolize the

rigid formula, that vicious circle from which he, a man, a poor son of the Earth, tried vainly to break out of.

That is why he despised these people; sometimes, he even hated them. This aversion to ‘servants of a charter for leisurely rambling,’ as he contemptuously called them, increased in direct proportion to his fantastic ‘flights,’ of which he was ashamed not so much for their aimlessness, but rather because they were conceived on such a pitiful scale. 

His dislike of railroad employees is heightened by getting the sense, sometimes, that they recognize him from previous travels and are mocking him. In fact, the conductor seemed familiar. Most of all, Szygon hates ads for the railroad and the uniforms of its employees.  Particularly he hates their use of wings as if railroads weren’t anything but a glorified version of a dog chasing his tail. 

Szygon goes back to sleep and wakes up awhile later. He’s still on the train.

The conductor is now sitting across from him, smoking. Except, now he’s dressed in a station-master’s uniform which reminds him of a particularly vitrolic argument he had with a station-master once. The station-master bids Szygon “Good evening”, which gets an identical response from Szygon.

Traveling far, asks the station-master? Szygon says he’s not in the mood to talk.That’s why he buys tickets that give him a compartment of his own. 

Szygon, the station-master said, will regain the “verve for speaking” the more he talks. Solitude is a bad companion. “Man is a social animal”.

‘If you want to consider yourself an animal, I personally have nothing against it. I am just a man.’

‘Excellent!’ the official pronounced. ‘See how your tongue has loosened. It’s not as bad as it seems. On the contrary, you possess a great talent for conversation, particularly in the direction of parrying questions. We’ll slowly improve. Yes, yes,’ he added patronizingly, ‘somehow we’ll make a go of it; somehow.’ 

The conductor says they’re old friends having met several times before. Despite himself, Szygon is amused by the “insolence” of the conductor. 

He remarks on the man’s new uniform. The uniform and the man transform back to the “stooping, dishevelled and sneering conductor”. 

Szygon, shocked, mentions this magical transformation. The kindly station-master and his uniform reappear. 

I’ve been promoted”, remarks the man.  “They recognize a good person: I’ve become a station-master. The railway, my dear sir, is a great thing. It is worthwhile to spend one’s life in its service. A civilizing element! A swift go-between of nations, an exchange of cultures! Speed, my dear sir, speed and motion! 

Szygon, scoffing, goes on a lnog, detailed diatribe on the idea of speed and true “absolute motion”. 

The beloved train of the station-master is chained to the ground. The locomotive relies on “twenty relative motions” to impart its “minature momentum”. The train is whirled at a far faster speed by the earth’s rotation. And the globe revolves around the sun at a faster speed. The solar system has its own motion.

“But what does all this concern with us? Long live the motion of the train!”, responds the conductor, and then Szygon tries to land a blow on the station-master’s head. But the space where he was is vacant.  The station-master, now behind Szygon, tells him he’ll have to be more polite.

(Spoilers ahead)

He’s been listening to Szygon’s “utopian theories” for fifteen minutes. Now it’s Szygon’s turn to listen. The motions Szygon describes are of no interest to him. 

I’m only interested in the speed of my train. The only conclusive thing for me is the motion of engines. Why should I be concerned about how much forward I’ve moved in relation to interstellar space? One has to be practical. 

Szygon insults the station-master, comparing him to a table leg and asks if he sleeps well. 

Yes, he does, is the reply. Well, retorts Syzgon, he’s not “tormented by the Motion Demon”.

Now, says the station-master, he’s come to the gist of the matter, a profitable gist. He had a poster done and patented which the railroad is now using in promotional material.

The figure of a genius of motion. A huge, swarthy young man balanced on extended raven wings, surrounded by a swirling, frenzied dance of planets – a demon of interplanetary gales, interstellar moon blizzards, wonderful, maddeningly hurling comets, comets and more comets … . 

Enraged, Szygon says the station-master is lying. The latter shrinks and passes sthrough the key-hole of the compartment. 

Just then, the door opens. It’s the same conductor as before, back with Szygon’s ticket. 

But then a hand grabs the man, pulls him inside the compartment, and a cry rings out and the sound of bones breaking is heard. A “large shadow” moves along the corridor, opens a coach door, pulls the alarm signal, and the train slows. The figure jumps to the track outside.  Once the train is stopped, a search is made for whom pulled the alarm.  The absence of the conductor is noted, and he, with his twisted neck, is found along the tracks.

And that’s the story. 

Assuming the “large shadow” was Szygon, there’s still three very big questions in this story. 

What is the source of Szygon’s compulsion? What is his nature? What is the station-master’s nature? 

Is Szygon possessed by a demon? Or is it just some natural compulsion like his “gypsy blood”? 

The station-master seems unquestionably supernatural. Is he the Motion Demon? Or is he the symbol of modern progress, tangible progress that makes long distance travel more possible despite Szygon’s unrealistic hopes of leaving the earth all together? Does he represent industrial capitalism using symbols of romantic possibilities that can never be realized?

Is Szygon a living symbol of those dreams? That seems unlikely given that his compulsive trips don’t seem particlarly pleasant. 

Is the story simply showing that man’s vaunted technological accomplishments, here symbolized by the locomotive and its motion, when contrasted with the wonders of nature, here all the many “absolute motions” Syzgon describes? 

Translator Miroslaw Lipinski says, in the introduction to The Dark Domain:

A vigorous opponent of mechanism and determinism, he integrated the concepts of such ancient philosophers as Heraclitus and Plato with the contemporary philosophies of Henri Bergson and Maurice Maeterlinck in his battle against a modern world where man’s primordial sense of self and nature was being erased by machine, restrictive systems and people of little vision.

That provides some clues to this story.

The train terrorizes the forest creatures at the beginning of the story, and the station-master goads Szygon at the end. The railroad is, despite its vaunted speed, very restricted as to where it can go and how fast. The station-master proudly boasting he doesn’t care at all about “absolute motion” seems to fall in the “people of little vision”. And Szygon escapes him. He may also be escaping from his routine of amnesiac journeys. After all, he has very much been alert and conscious on this trip and not suffering from his usual amnesia. 

But why does the station-master’s “motion demon” enrage him so much? Why is it a lie? Because no such travel is possible via rail? Is Szygon just mad about an ad he’s taking very literally. 

It’s a very strange story, and I don’t have a solution to all its mysteries.

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