On Nostalgia

We seldom recognize the best moments of our lives when they are happening to us. Most people, particularly new age gurus, will tell you that this is because of how difficult it is to live in the present. They think we’re doing something wrong, that if we would simply make more of an effort to live in the present we would be able to extract the full potential for joy from each moment of our lives, while that moment was present.

I think they’re wrong. I think the problem, if you want to call it that, of appreciating the present while it’s present in the way we appreciate it when it’s past, is insoluble, and not because of any weakness or flaw in human nature, but because of the essence of temporality and the role of the imagination in human experience.

I just read a wonderful piece in the Nov./Dec. 2011 issue of Poets and Writers magazine on the Egyptian expatriate writer André Aciman. Aciman is a novelist and essayist, but primarily he’s a memoirist. If he’s not writing straightforward memoirs, he’s using his memories as raw material for his novels. “André,” according to his friend the writer Colm Tóibín, “is interested in loss, in time which has passed, and what can be done with that now if you are writing…. [H]e manages a sort of eroticism of the past, by which I mean he deals with events and moments that are over with such caressing care that its almost sexual” (61).

“I don’t know how to be in the present,” proclaims Aciman, “I don’t’ know how to enjoy the moment in and of itself without comparing it to something else or without anticipating that I will want to remember it” (61).

No one knows how to do that though because it’s not actually possible to do that. The present is a vanishingly small slice of time between the immediate past and the immediate future, both of which tug at it in opposite directions. The past is there in the form of guilt, satisfaction, regret. The future is there in the form of anticipation, an ineluctable appreciation of the play of possibilities that the present represents. There is no experience, and cannot be any experience, of the present that is not faceted in this way.

Kierkegaard is inclined to characterize our inability to live in the present as a kind of curse, or as an expression of sin. It can take that form, I suppose, if it keeps a person from deriving any joy from his experience. I’ve come, though, to think of the elusive nature of the present as more a gift than a curse. Time distills experience like spirits, extracts what was essential to it in terms of what we value. We wouldn’t be the creatures we are if the present, while it was present, were not also anchored by earlier experience to the past and stretched by anticipation into the future. Nietzsche understood this. “Consider,” he said

the herd grazing before you. It knows not what yesterday, what today, is, but leaps about, eats, rests, digests, leaps again, from morning to evening, day to day, its likes and dislikes tied to the moment and thus neither melancholy nor bored. It’s hard for a human being to see this because he’s proud of being human. Yet he envies the beast its happiness, wants nothing more than to live like the beast, neither bored nor melancholy. But he envies in vain because he does not desire like the beast desires. He wants to ask the beast: “Why don’t you speak to me of your happiness, instead of only looking at me?” The beast wants to answer and say: “Because I always forget what it is I would like to say”–but it forgets this also and is thus silent––to the bewilderment of the man. (Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben).[1]

Human beings can’t live in the present the way philosophers speculate that animals do, because the imagination is an essential part of human consciousness and it adds to the present both memories of the past and expectations of the future. But if the imagination steals, in a sense, the present from us, it redeems itself by delivering it to us again later burnished to a glow it did not originally have.

The sweetest moments of our lives are given to us twice: the first time when we are either completely unaware, or only dimly aware, of how important they will become, and then again later when, to use a phrase of Heinrich Böll, they take on a “cabalistic significance.”

I have all kinds of memories like that, some of insignificant events that for some reason or other have become emblematic of various periods in my life, memories that carry with them the essence of a time or a mood long lost. The ones I cherish most, though, are those that are, as memories, pregnant with a future of which I had no inkling at the time. Such are my memories of the first exchanges I had with the people I would later come to love. One never knows the form an attachment will take. Attachments grow organically over time, often beneath the surface of consciousness, until they become so firmly a part of who we are that they can no longer be uprooted. The memories of those first exchanges are thus like glimpses into creation in that they are glimpses into the creation both of ourselves and of the reality we have come to cherish.

I would not trade the complexity of human experience for the imagined simplicity of the beast’s–not for anything.

[1] The translation here is my own.


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