Nostalgia for the Present.
'What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.'
How many thousands of years ago was the book of Ecclesiasties written? And yet its writer reckoned even then that originality had been exhausted. How tiring to write, paint, create, speak. We are all just looking for a shiny combination of words, words that have been spoken, sung, written and rhymed for hundred of years before us. Faced with the exhausted world of words, we can either pessimistically shrink from the challenge of action, or square up and front the truth that we are very little without language. In some senses, we are language.
We are as big as our definitions, and often the limits of what is possible are designated by what we take to be the limits of language. Quoheleth is surely right. There is nothing new under the sun in the sense that genuine originality is pretty much impossible. But he is wrong in the sense that the ‘this-ness’ of now is totally and utterly new. While the world is undoubtedly still made up of the same matter it was four thousand years ago, the combinations of consciousnesses, the interrelation of people, the utterly unique and specific hopes and terror of fellow coffee drinkers in Nero mean that, as a moment in time, ‘this’ will never be repeated. The complexity of any human scene is irreducible, and whilst the Earth follows a familiar, well-worn pattern round the Sun, what is going on behind a person’s eyes, in a conversation between a mother and child, in the mind of an anxious flier about to board a plane, means that this — ‘this’ — is new. And ‘this’ is all there is.
We will miss this when it’s gone. Either with a clear-sighted grief or with a charity shop, sepia-tinged nostalgia. Memories often transfigure the unbearable to the ‘not so bad’, and change the ordinary into a utopia we never took full advantage of.
‘If only I knew what was going to happen I would have enjoyed that so much more.’
How often older adults remind schoolchildren and university students that they are living The Best Days Of Their Lives. Possibly this is true, but this is a statement uttered by someone who has ceded all control of their lives to a regret that oversimplifies the division between then and now. Then was good, now is bad. Eden and The Fall.
But this attitude forgets that there is never a present that doesn't become the past. And by that logic the present will be good only when it passes into memory.
Instead of a baseless hope for the future, and a nihilistic adoration for the past, what we ought to cultivate is a nostalgia for the present. We must pay attention now to what will one day be just a memory. Let us start the grieving process for the present now. For grief is never totally without pleasure and joy. In nostalgic appreciation we feel the heft of what is no longer here. The size, shape and weight of grief always has an uncanny likeness to its object. A doctrine of nostalgic presentness has the benefit of retuning to us what is actual, happening and now. It anticipates loss, which is the only given have. How wonderful a gift to our future selves it would be to allow them to affirm, ‘Yes, I truly was there.’
Andrew Cunning is a co-founder of Left Side Up.
This piece was found in an old notebook from 2017. Maybe it still makes sense.