Back to the Future: Impossible Nostalgia

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For the ancient Greeks, the future was not an oyster, whose pearl offered itself in a gloriously forward fashion. Rather, the future was behind you, while the past looked you ominously in the eye. This is because we cannot see what the future holds, and so, it is as if we have our backs to it. The past, on the other hand, faces us with regrets, mistakes, and, seemingly, with ?nostalgia.?? While this may point to a difference between the modern view of progress and the ancient view of fate, progress itself seems to be motivated by nostalgia.

Let me return to nostalgia after ambition. Ambition involves striving toward something?a dream. If you don?t end up fulfilling the dream, you might feel regret. Yet, how can you beat yourself up about losing something you never had? It is as if your longing is so powerful as to convince you that you have reached your goal before you?ve reached it. Fantasy propels the dream, but also makes it ripe for remorse.

However, even fulfilling a dream can be a downer, if the reality is not as good as the dream. The marriage might lose the spark of the chase. What was once wild and unknown is now domesticated. The openness of the future becomes a longing for a bygone openness. Oddly, this transforms the past into a novelty, like a museum of photos erected on a refrigerator?an experience of the old anew.

Parthenon in 2017. Photo by: Gwenda-lin Grewal

Maybe, then, if you set your sights low, reality will turn out to be better than you expect? Yet both hope and despair seem equally delusional. The problem is time. We cannot understand its passage without perverting it. Time may feel as if it is ?running out,? which only makes sense if we know how much there is. The young can feel old, and the old can feel young, because the distant past is just as fascinating or depressing as the distant future.

You might even say the two are confused in nostalgia and ambition, as in fate and progress. Nostalgia, like ambition, requires seeing the tracks of your own future as if they had passed. So, growing old distorts childhood into paradise; it domesticates the future by simplifying the past. We long for the old, as if for simpler times, which we can never have known to be so simple.

Indeed, nostalgia becomes intensified the more its target becomes obsolete. You need not have been present during some heyday in order to enjoy museums or read reprinted books. Sometimes familiarity gets in the way of understanding. It isn?t clear that we know things until they are long lost.

Old flames are drunk like vintage wines, just as a defunct typewriter becomes an antique or a relocated crucifix becomes the rare art of a museum. While this skews its original meaning, great works of art?among which, I consider great books?contain within them the spark of their own creation. The best sort of writing will lead you to apprehend the author?s reflection, as if it were your own, and so, what is out of date will be experienced as if it were happening right before your eyes.

Propylaea in 2017. Photo by: Gwenda-lin Grewal

It is blindness to the future that perverts the past, not just over thousands of years, but in a few moments. Archimedes exclaimed, ?Eureka,? in the bath. The word heureka literally means, ?I have found [it],? in Greek. In other words, ?I am responsible for discovering something for which I am not responsible.? Maybe this is why it can also mean, ?I have invented it.?

It is because the past buries things that they can be reclaimed as treasures. Nostalgia is therefore a romantic longing to go back to the future. Its pessimism is the height of optimism, since it is the experience of the future as buried that allows the ambition of progress to continue. Otherwise, progress would require the misguided notion that we can see where we are headed.

Instead, the future opens up by way of an impossible nostalgia for things that will never have been as we imagine. We only advance in retrospect. The Greeks seem to have known this long ago.

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