Nostalgia and Utopia

In response to Lucía Durán’s invitation to reflect on a quote by historian Andreas Huyssen, who says “nostalgia is a utopia in reverse”:

I remember the feeling of intellectual orphanhood. Teacher Ajarn Sujin Boriharnwanakhet ruthlessly crushed every attempt at rebellion with merciless precision. A rickety fan failed to defeat the stifling heat of Bangkok afternoons. “What is God?” she asked, “it is a thought you have now,” “what are memories?…they are a thought you have now.” Unlike Mahayana Buddhism, practiced in most of Asia, Theravada Buddhism places less emphasis on meditation and more on philosophy. The Buddha’s Sutras serve to demolish every attempt at logical thought, like tools thrown into the mental machine to slip, derail, and break it. And the central thought, the one we return to time and time again, is that the only thing that exists is this moment: the present. And this moment has already passed. The only reality is here and now. And now, it has passed.

We can think about any philosophical or human topic and always return 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 outside the here and now is real. The flesh, marrow, and structure of our existence is the here and now. It is a structure that does not hold, that crumbles and unravels before our eyes.

What is nostalgia? It is a thought about the past that I have here and now, a sensation that overwhelms my soul, an intoxication that makes me long for what is no longer…nostalgia is a thought that occurs here and now. What is utopia? It is a thought about the future, a desire for transformation that hurts for its urgency and necessity…a thought I have here and now. “What is ideology? A series of thoughts I have here and now. What are anger or fear? An emotion I have here and now.

That’s why Buddha found it so absurd that people kill each other over their ever-changing emotions or thoughts, over their ideas of God or politics or the state. We suffer for ideas, for thoughts about things that happened long ago or have not yet happened. But we only exist in the present, and in that awareness of the ephemeral, we find a spark of meaning and attention: we navigate the waves of ever-new moments.

Memory is the most malleable of all substances. Do memories correspond to what was truly experienced? Nostalgia is a capricious desire that fills the heart with impossibilities that both heal us and remind us painfully of our ephemeral nature.

In these times of pandemic, we are nostalgic for the kisses we didn’t share, the walks we didn’t take, the adventures of the heart, skin, and mind we didn’t explore. It hurts not knowing that a carefree hug was the most precious jewel. And we think about utopia, trying to unravel the future amid these threads that crumble here and now. We cannot see what awaits us tomorrow, let alone the ideal world made of incomplete thoughts that we call Utopia. We must ask, to whom does this utopia belong? Who has the omniscience, the all-knowing wisdom to design it, the foresight to make it work for everyone?

When humans look back at the past with nostalgia, with saudade, they construct a narrative of something that touched their soul. The same happens when we look toward the future and imagine… My utopia has become simpler… I now have saudade for the loves that will come, for the journeys I have yet to take, for health as power and capability, for the parties where we, together and sweaty, celebrate the delight of being… of being human. Saudade for the future skin, for the mingling of fluids, for the perfect utopia of dialogue and learning, for the music that saves and uplifts us, for being free of fear. The here and now is fine; I have the fortune of living it without a startle. I hear the birds, the wind rustles the leaves, but I am incomplete, mutilated: I am only fully myself when I look fearfully, anxiously, exuberantly in the mirror, in the embrace of another.