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  • The Sacred Engine:Myth and Fiction in Snowpiercer
  • Stephen Weninger (bio)

In these days, illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.

Ludwig Feuerbach, Preface to The Essence of Christianity

In Snowpiercer (Le Transperceneige) (1982), the graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, a train carrying "the last of civilization" (15) endlessly circles a frozen globe. In this rigidly hierarchical world, those in the squalid tail section are pitted against the elite in the forward compartments. The text is easily read as a critique of totalitarianism or a warning against geo-engineering. However, with the addition of revolution, an altered ending, and an adroit blending of corporeal imagery into the cinematic conventions concerning railways, Bong Joon-ho's film adaptation (2013) becomes a cogent commentary on the biopolitical manipulation of narrative.

The film and (to a limited extent) the book illustrate Frank Kermode's broad distinction between fictions (self-consciously provisional) and myths (totalizing and normative). Whereas the former is more sensitive to the flux of history, the latter functions smoothly within the stasis of dogma and "the diagrams of ritual" (113, 39). This paper argues that the tension between these two configurations frames the narrative of the Snowpiercer [End Page 104] train. The myth of the sacred engine (particularly in the film) represents more than a caricatured fetishism or primitive psychological dependence. It serves to authorize the regime's claim that human extinction can only be avoided through absolute order and life preserved only through lethal culling. Chronicity and contingency are bled out of the train's spaces so that those on what the film calls this "last train of life" can be more efficiently managed as undifferentiated "units." This creates an explosive paradox: the survival of the species is the train's raison d'être but this very prioritization of the biological leads to radical evil. When Hannah Arendt uses this (Kantian) phrase, "radical evil" (das radikal Böse), at the end of her canonical analysis of totalitarianism, she observes that it has "emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous" (The Origins 459). Snowpiercer, I contend, is a trenchant response to precisely this biopolitical calculus. My frequent appeal to Arendt's oeuvre and the overlapping texts of Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin, is meant to foreground the film's critique of body politics and augment Kermode's myth-fiction distinction, which has too often been dismissed as evasively formalist.

Bong's mise-en-scène must be viewed as part of a rich heritage of railway chronotopes which (like the road chronotope of which they are variants) exhibit the intersection of time and space with exceptional clarity (Bakhtin, "Forms" 98). Although there are contemporaneous texts with parallels to Snowpiercer—for instance, a perpetual train, corporate power, or time distortion in China Miéville's Iron Council (2004) and Railsea (2012) or a mobile society on rails and spatio-temporal confusion in Christopher Priest's The Inverted World (2013)—the texts selected for juxtaposition are those which also reflect the history and scope of the chronotope and articulate the train-body interface in all its uncanniness.

From the start, the cultural perception of trains was ambivalent: powerful and progressive yet menacing and unstable. If the railway was regarded favorably as an emblem of collective identity (the iron horse of Hollywood westerns, for example) it was also the "soulless Force" of industrial expansion, the "iron-hearted" Octopus (Norris 51). Moreover, the speed of le grand transit modern (the subtitle of Zola's train novel The Monomaniac [1890]) gave rise to what seemed like a new consciousness confronting the "annihilation of space and time" (Kirby 48–57). Cinema soon saw the railway as its double, a vehicle which both framed vision and [End Page 105] evoked sequence, opening new possibilities, "the anywhere of spatial representation and anytime of temporal representation" (Spalding 190).

Train compartments, however, were never neutral zones, but stages for ideology or sites of anxiety, taboo, or trauma (Bell 79; Kirby 2...


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