The two railroad firemen in “The Mad Train” must work quickly; the passengers “safety depends upon it” (Poulaille 43). While the two shovelers feverishly empty the firebox, in an attempt to slow the agitated vehicle, they speak of fate, of the abyss: “Death. Collision. To leave the rails And the mad race off the rails. The plunge into the abyss. What mattered? What hope was there?” (Poulaille 44). The train plummets toward darkness, the unknown, and at this moment, the workers question their task; what meaning can they find if all hope is lost? Will they find the energy to keep the locomotive properly stoked on its frantic journey? In this dream-esque image, Poulaille constructs an extended metaphor for the intersection between nihilistic thought and the psyche of individuals during this interwar period. Through this surrealist framework, the two shovelers act as the subconscious mind, desperately exerting energy to keep the train (the body, movement) from plunging into the abyss, while all along the passengers, or the conscious mind, looks on in horror, paralyzed and unable to help. In this, Poulaille does not simply suggest that “People.. just sat down and ceased reacting or thinking at all” about the war (Lewis 62), but perhaps that they ‘sat down’ and processed the vast senselessness in a way that looks more surrealist, an unspoken dream and a quiet reality depicting “the actual functioning of thought” (Breton). For people affected by the war, the subconscious might just replace the conscious mind in thwarting negative thoughts, keeping nihilism at bay.
According to Wyndham Lewis, in his retort to “New Nihilism,” “it was understood that (the war) was to be forgotten and never mentioned”. Lewis goes on to suggest that only “about a year ago [from 1929]” were people more forthcoming in depicting it in various media. If many felt reluctant/unable to release their anxieties or stresses about the war, either through conversation or art, it follows that they may have pent up these same traumas internally. Surrealism, consequently, takes up this burden in its tensions between the subconscious and reality, and “The Mad Train” helps one understand the difficulties of those grappling with assigning meaning in what seemed to them a meaningless reality. The railroad firemen eventually ease the burden of passengers–the subconscious mind reconciling its reality–and the passengers exit to try and make sense of their new location. Even if they are displaced, stranded in the “desert” of France, they’re saviors were inside the train all along, if only they look inward; if only we all explore what lurks behind the curtains of our mind can we start anew when faced with insurmountable darkness, else we go off the rails on this crazy train (sorry, I had to).