Another solution came from the beneficent hand of business. Readers of newspapers soon learned that billboards and other highway road signs were not simply intended to drum up customers, but could also save drivers from hypnotic self-destruction. A 1956 article in the Hartford Courant discussed a businessman who had become hypnotized on the Henry Hudson Parkway, but was saved in part by billboards. The article then reassured readers that the Department of Commerce was placing highway information signs around the country, which advertised restaurants and hotels in each town. This would increase business, sure, but it would also offer those driving though something to read, magnanimously breaking up the monotony of a long highway. Consumer goods and ubiquitous advertisements, it turned out, could be a powerful weapon against the dangerous erosion of autonomy.
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Liberty, consumption, and progress were always at the forefront of 1950s American car culture. A suburban housewife in a 1953 Ford commercial extols the joys of a two-car family, “Now I’m free to go anywhere, do anything, see anybody anytime I want to.” A young beatnik seeks adventure, boyishly declaring, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” How very disconcerting that underneath this American Dream of freedom lay a nightmare of mindless drivers, brainwashed by progress.
But highway hypnotism wasn’t simply the dark side of post-war American progress. A subtler story can be found in the intuitions of fiction. The novelist Christopher Isherwood is a particularly incisive guide to these dreams of modern infrastructure. An outsider twice over, both gay and British, he witnessed with wry wit the sprawl of postwar Los Angeles. In his 1964 novel, A Single Man, he unfurls the rich, complicated, and confusing moral map that these highways crisscrossed.
The novel portrays the early 1960s through the eyes of George, a professor grieving the death of his partner, who lives alienated in a suburb that the freeways had made possible. In the mornings, he commutes to his university on the major new highways of Los Angeles. “George feels a kind of patriotism for the freeways,” Isherwood writes. “It is a river, sweeping in full flood towards its outlet with a soothing power. There is nothing to fear, as long as you let yourself go with it…” This is the language that psychologists used to capture the slowly insinuating force of hypnotism, which Isherwood is well aware of: “Now, as he drives, it is as if some kind of autohypnosis exerts itself.”
George’s body and mind separate, and we are back to that earliest description of highway hypnosis on Riverside Drive, to the chauffeur and pampered passenger in repose. The body becomes “an impassive anonymous chauffeur-figure with little will or individuality of its own. … And George, like the master who has entrusted the driving of his car to a servant, is now free to direct his attention elsewhere.”