Nostalgia and Utopia
In response to Lucia Duran’s invitation to reflect on a quote from Andreas Huyssen, the historian, who says “nostalgia is a utopia in reverse”:
I remember the feeling of intellectual orphanhood. Master Ajarn Sujin Boriharnwanakhet was pulverizing any attempt at rebellion with ruthless precision. A rickety fan was unable to overcome the oppressive heat of Bangkok’s afternoons. “What is God?” she asked, “it’s a thought you have now,” “what are memories? they’re a thought you have now. Unlike Mahayana Buddhism, which is practiced in most of Asia, Theravada Buddhism places less emphasis on meditation and more on philosophy. The Buddha Sutras serve to demolish all attempts at logical thought, they are like tools that are thrown into the mental machine, so that it skids, derails and breaks. And the central thought, the one to which one returns again and again, is that the only thing that exists is this instant, the present. And this instant has already passed. The only real thing is the here and now.
One can think about any philosophical or human subject and necessarily one always returns to the perspective of the observer, that is, to the here and now. And this very real moment, the only real one, has already passed…
Human beings exist only in the present, nothing but the here and now is real. The flesh, marrow and structure of our existence is the here and now. It is an impermanent structure that breaks and crumbles and frays before our eyes.
What is nostalgia? It’s a thought about the past that I have here and now, a feeling that overwhelms my soul, a drunkenness that makes me long for what is no longer there… nostalgia is a thought that happens here and now. What is utopia, it’s a thought about the future, a desire for transformation that hurts because of what is urgent and necessary… a thought that I have here now. “What is ideology?” a series of thoughts I have here and now. What is anger or fear? It’s an emotion I have here and now.
That’s why the Buddha found it so absurd that people kill themselves for their ever-changing emotions or thoughts, for their ideas of God or politics or the state. People suffer because of ideas, because of thoughts about things that happened long ago or that have not happened yet. But we only exist in the present, and in that awareness of the ephemeral we find a spark of meaning and attention: we surf the waves of ever new moments.
And memory is the most malleable of all substances. Do memories correspond with what was really lived? Nostalgia is a whimsical desire that fills the heart with impossibilities that at the same time heal us and painfully remind us of our ephemeral nature.
In these times of pandemic, we are nostalgic for the kisses we did not give, the walks we did not take, the adventures of the skin and the heart and the mind that we did not know how to go through. It hurts us not to have known that a carefree embrace was the most valuable jewel. And we think of utopia, we want to unravel the future in the midst of those threads that are crumbling here and now. We don’t get to see what awaits us tomorrow, let alone that ideal world made up of incomplete thoughts that we call Utopia. Who owns this Utopia? Who has the omniscience, the omniscience to design it, the clairvoyance to make it work for all of us?
When the human being looks at the past with nostalgia, with saudade, he constructs a narrative of something that has penetrated his soul. If we look to the future and imagine, the same thing happens… My utopia has become simpler… I now have nostalgia of the loves that will come, of the trips I have not yet taken, of health as power and capacity, of the parties in which together, sweaty, we celebrate the delight of being… of being human. Saudade of the future skin, of the fluids that intermingle, of the perfect utopia of dialogue and learning, of the music that saves and lifts us up, of being free from fear. The here and now is good, I have the fortune to live it without shock. I listen to the birds, the wind rocks the leaves, but I am incomplete, mutilated: it is only when I look at myself fearfully, anxiously, jubilantly in the mirror, in the embrace of the other, that I am fully me.