Romanticism on Sodor? Time for Thomas to Leave

Dank Memes for Chifley Screens

Elizabeth is a Canberra native studying a very rarely seen degree at the ANU – LLB/Arts. Her column seeks to incorporate hard truths (common in the legal world) and dank memes. Not wanting her memes to be dreams, Elizabeth hopes to be a pioneer in the art historical study of memes

Is Burgtoga a Romantic or Realist experience? On the one hand, we bedazzle ourselves: flowers woven in our hair mirroring the ancient Greek practice of the symposium and celebrating the drama of our world. On the other, the people surrounding you are slick with sweat, cans of Smirnoff lie between tree roots, and fatigued, blurry-eyed partygoers collapse on hay bales. Yet there is a kind of sordid happiness about it. #unilyf. Nevertheless, we may all reach a point where we feel we have seen enough, just like Thomas the Tank Engine, who – as we have seen in the eponymous memes – has a strong sense of when it is ‘time to leave.’

Everybody likes sordid things, but nobody wants to admit it: pornography, six shares at Lodge, Mooseheads. That’s why the French invented Realism, so that we could look at the base aspects of our lives with a sense of artistic distance.

Gustave Courbet serves as the bridge between Romanticism and Realism. The movement he spearheaded grew up in reaction to Romanticism (favouring exoticism and emotionalism) and re-focussed on the depiction of truth. That is, if a Romanticist said you were eating a sumptuous meal of eastern delights then the Realist would respond that you were a destitute student eating your fifth bowl of mi goreng for the day.

Courbet’s Self Portrait (The Desperate Man) depicts a maniacal Gustave looking directly at the viewer, with spontaneous brush strokes adding to a sense of stress and urgency in the painting. Arms raised to his head, casting his face in shadow: Courbet is possessed by his thoughts, much like an Honours student in the week before thesis submission.

The face of Thomas the Tank Engine in ‘It was time for Thomas to leave’ memes is a clear reference to the bridge between Romanticism and Realism. Mirroring Courbet’s wide eyes and similarly trapped in the frame of his shadowed face, we can ask if Thomas, rather than seeming to reach out to us as Courbet does, is retreating into the shadows of the train yard. Moving towards us, he is expressing the dramatic movement typical of Romanticism. If he is rolling back, he is accepting the Realist’s harsh truth of the ordinary world, submerging himself in it.
The anthropomorphism of Thomas, bringing the human directly into the realm of the inanimate and ordinary, is also an indication that humans exist in a realist world, and should abandon their own psychological concerns to see the world as it is. Not the value-burdened world of the Isle of Sodor, crafted by a benign reverend, but a dirty trainyard for us to deal with.

Robert Hughes, an Australian art critic, said that Realism was marked by the sense that ‘Machines were the ideal metaphor for the central pornographic fantasy of [the time], rape followed by gratitude.’ In another sense, Thomas is more than a metaphor for some people’s pornographic fantasies – Rule 34 has destroyed more than one children’s book.

Realism could lay bare the steel and coal-ridden reality of modernity, while presenting it with a sense of honour – just as Thomas put a spotlight on some of the more sordid aspects of our life. It is ‘time for Thomas to leave’ when he has ‘seen everything.’ By putting a spotlight on the sordid, the realism of our lives, Thomas gives us the ability to raise an eyebrow and back out before things get beyond weird. But he does so without condemning the debauched, superb aspects of our life.

As Thomas says, when there is no more music playing and someone is crying in the bathroom, enough has been seen in the dark. It may be time to turn the lights on and call the SR. So, when your friend suggests going out to Moose, look at them with that blank, clay-like expression, and reply: ‘The Fat Controller laughed. You are wrong.’