Updated: Mar 8
In my undergraduate days nostalgia was passed off as a form of sentimentality. We were reading Sartre and were anti-sentimental. There was no God, no absolute truth, no reality prior to and independent of experience. World War II had laid waste all nationalist and idealist notions, and that was understandable. Adorno made his famous statement that there can be no poetry after the Holocaust. He was not talking about all poetry, but idealistic poetry, romantic poetry, and anything that might be linked to nationalism or other high sentiments. After an earlier war, Virginia Woolf argued that after the trenches there could be no more noble mythos such as might be found in Tennyson. Yeats, not as perceptive as Woolf, would not, when he was appointed editor of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, include gritty and graphic war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. He did not allow himself to accept that the heroism of the Celtic heroes was dead. I like only a few Yeats poems, “The Second Coming,” and the Crazy Jane Poems. His idealistic poems put me to sleep. I think the greatest line he ever wrote was “’But Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement;/For nothing can be sole or whole/That has not been rent.'” (Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop.) It is the toughest and simultaneously the most compassionate of his lines.
One of my sardonic classmates might have said nostalgia was just another form of sentimentality. But I’ve grown older, old in fact, and have softened. My past is now a wide expanse and my years remaining are few. I am also more psychologically savvy than I used to be and I think it is not arrogant to compare myself to a cathedral organ that has acquired a wide range of stops, including the one found in the heart. I am not embarrassed to admit, for example, that my love of one woman in particular left an immense space in me that others cannot fill. I honor that space. It holds more of me than, say, my opinions.
And there is longing. Longing can be attached to a particular person but it can also extend to the wonder of being alive. Our little loves open the door to greater loves. Longing touches the “spiritual” and I use that world with certain reservations. It has been dishonored by new age kitsch. No, that is not what I mean by longing.
There is the Portuguese word, saudade, that has no English equivalent, but means something like longing. The dictionary definition is “…a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament.” That is a silly definition and the word is not confined to a culture or language in its meaning. I like the soft shape of the word, the way it blends with other words and feelings.
for my young body and its ability to express love physically for my capacity for hope for a larger understanding that love opens the door to but is still a vague presence on the horizon for an understanding of other human beings that allows me to be in a state of thou with them for a time in which lawyers didn’t run everything and I could borrow someone’s horse and ride around all day. This last is another way of saying, longing for sweeter times, the good old days, etc. But that is not it either, because the good old days were not so great.
Nguyen Ngoc, the Vietnamese fiction writer and former PAVN soldier, a tough little man whose head was slightly higher than my waist when we stood together for a photo, wrote a story about a young man who tries to find his home village after the war and the young woman he wanted to marry. The village was on an island in the middle of a river, and the river had changed its channel to the extent that the island was no longer recognizable. The young soldier goes about asking for his beloved, for other people he knew, for his family, but nobody knows them. Of course the island is also the state of mind of this soldier who has fought a long and bitter war that has changed him. The “you can’t go home again” theme is deeper and more devastating in Ngoc’s story than in Wolfe’s. Wolfe never experienced what Nguyen did. The young soldier can neither go home to his village nor to himself. War changes a person permanently. I was overwhelmed when I heard him read this story, with his translator murmuring beside him. It has not quite left me, and its power links itself by tributary to the larger thing I’m trying to describe.
Yours truly, Quang Nam Province, I-Corps, Vietnam 1967. Scared present.
I sometimes think poetry is the place in the throat where a word is being born from its indescribable fleshly utterance and that is the place I go to search for my meaning. I might not come back with it every time.
NOSTALGIA FOR THE FUTURE
I’ve been trying to find the source of this phrase and everything I Google is vague. I have my own idea of what it means and like it better than the meanings I discovered online. To me it means finally understanding that what we imagine to be the future never happens, and what we are nostalgic for are our own delusions of what the future might be like according to a younger self. As a young man I imagined that great things were in store for me. I was a jazz musician for a while, a drummer, who got interested in acting because I backed Henny Youngman’s and other comics’ shows. There is an intimate relationship between a drummer and a standup comic. I picked up their timing and could accompany them with a rim shot, or a bass drum boom when the audience burst into laughter. I studied acting and became a pretty good Shakespearean character actor. The memorization of all that poetry probably has something to do with the poetry I write now. Making a poem part of one’s body by memorizing it is a kind of alchemy. I was talented as a visual artist too but never had the discipline to follow through. I had grandiose visions of succeeding at all of those things but it is the poetry that remains. That is what I mean by nostalgia for the future. I no longer feel it. I am now more comfortable with the present than I have ever been. I try to stay present. It is a dark nostalgia to count the days I have left.
After years of being an academic I find myself being less deconstructive and more reconstructive. Suddenly the world I’ve collected inside me matters. My ripened heart is a bulwark against cynicism.