Why are we so drawn to death? At the core of our grief, do we really have a yearning for sorrow? Being a person guided by spiritual faith, though with a counteracting degree in psychology, and a dedication to the arts, I found myself tracing the lines of literature to serve the answers that have been looming over me for the past several months. These answers had no direction or course in particular, which helped the fact I was dipping my fingers in any and all forms of literature for the one feeling I did successfully label: Nostalgia.
It all started with a seemingly eerie post that caught my eye on my Instagram explore feed. Associated with an Irish-born painter, the picture [accompanying the words that I'll leave with you shortly], was of someone clasping the hands of a person in a trench coat. The textures in this black and white picture left little space for anything but the palms, almost as a welcome gesture for the viewer's emotional introspection. The credits mentioned the writer along with another name: Anne Magill, who according to her website, is an artist who currently lives in England and has been known to showcase her work in mostly London-based exhibitions.
Before I knew where I was going with this search, my anxiety was washed over with what one may describe as a calming and serene poignancy. Paintings in an exhibition catalog that looked like photographs taken from a blurry camera but recreated with acrylic on canvas. For a moment, the viewer may feel almost like an intruder, a peeping-tom if you will, to look into the lives of these people through our uncupped hands on a frosted glass window. You might wish to call out to these people, or even lay a hand on their shoulder. But to do that is to break the spell that blankets all of these themes.
(Source: Murmur, Anne Magill, 2017, charcoal and paper laid on board)
The only explanation I could come up with, for the faceless characters in these artworks, was to perhaps purposefully deprive them of expression for judgment.
"A face is the index of the mind," our high school teacher used to remind us when someone refused to share their feelings on difficult days. Even as a confirmation bias, there lies no possibility of intercepting their voices since all we have are backs and sides in the name of perspective. The only feelings that the paintings evoke are those that reside within us. They speak through us. This brought me to finally reason with the heaviness in my heart as I stood next to them. In the words at the bottom of the photograph, quoted from a 1998 novel called Identity by Milan Kundera, it was like being granted the permission for this weight, birthed through a dissonance of memories in my very own imagination:
"You can suffer nostalgia in the presence of the beloved if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more." - Milan Kundera
Was Kundera a daydreamer? Delusional? Neurotic? Or was it my inability to be in the present that I traveled between tenses and alternate realities of what laid in front of me? My copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (republished in 1999, Faber and Faber), which seemed to speak through the beat-up pages of a second-hand classic novel I bought from a streetside vendor, reiterated something and rekindled my questions :
"He smelled the delicate aroma of her fever and breathed it in, as if trying to glut himself with the intimacy of her body. And all at once he fancied she had been with him for many years and was dying. He had a sudden clear feeling that he would not survive her death. He would lie down beside her and want to die with her." - Milan Kundera
Not only was this a reflection of my own darkest confessions, but it was representative of something that reveals, in Kundera's own words, the fine line between "love" and "hysteria." On tracing my patterns alongside Tomas's, I realized the character's feelings may not be that far from reality at all. Tomas and Tereza, evidently since the passage of time between the original publishing and present-day, are two characters that mirror a personality that most individuals struggle to divulge in public affairs. This was a relationship that manifested through the common thread of almost schizotypal thinking - an 'Es muss sein,' or an 'It must be' meaning associated with occurrences of fate. It wasn't 'love' itself, but the images it summoned for our protagonists. The omniscient (and self-aware) voice of Kundera narrating visits us in several places, with an insight into how they fit in the novel and the forthcoming political unrest of the setting. The channeling of which helped me speculate images and memories of my own, spanning relationships, travel and new places, sex, and all the way to this point in my 20s.
On how many occasions was I taking photographs of the new city I was visiting, while imagining myself looking at them once I came back home? I was, in fact, aware of this anticipated nostalgia while capturing the places, specific moments, and objects that would help me miss the feelings better. Capturing (in the true essence of the word) photographs and videos that would perfectly allow me to reanimate the memory of what it felt like to be there. And on how many occasions was I with someone, asking to stay a little bit longer, as if taking the time to register their essence in my being, to pulsate for the unsure future that lay beyond the bedroom door for me?
As students of clinical psychology, we are trained in self-awareness to guide us through the grim pages of diagnostic manuals. It's a perspective in itself of looking at the world through labels of disorders and syndromes. Though some are more fictionalized than medical, we read about them all. My answers, however esoteric, lay beyond a spiritual, psychological, or poetic perspective. None of these three lenses to look at myself could help me ascertain the reasons why. Perhaps, I was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps, it wasn't about why, but about the nurturing process of the feeling itself. About what it was trying to tell me, what I chose to do with it, and where I went from there.
Eventually, André Aciman's announcement about his new essay collection superimposed itself on the exact sore spot that Kundera's words left on my Instagram explore feed tiles. About "what time means to artists who cannot grasp life in the present," the blurb played on the same keys that our beloved Czech literary genius previously laid out. A self-portrait called 'Say Goodbye' depicting Youssef Nabil in an almost anachronistic fashion in the beautiful waters of Alexandria on the cover, a hardback found its way into my mailbox - post a diligent email exchange with the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I was now all set to sail through Aciman's thoughts on time, tenses, and art in Homo Irrealis.
(Source: Say goodbye, Self Portrait, Youssef Nabil, Alexandria, 2009)
"Irrealis moods," as André writes, “are a category of verbal moods that indicate that certain events have not happened, may never happen, or should or must or are indeed desired to happen, but for which there is no indication that they will ever happen." Further, he adds to elaborate on its tenses, that they "are also known as counterfactual moods and include the conditional, the subjunctive, the operative, and the imperative..." A sentence that evidently folds upon itself and generates feelings misplaced in a vortex of time and its subsequent tenses. All of which somehow made relevant sense to my personal cogitation.
The second essay in the collection follows Aciman's journey through Rome, and juxtaposing what he sees, with Freud's visit in 1901. A city supposed to be so enchanting, paved the way for disappointment to bloom between his pre-image and the real experience. The places you read about in books, see in paintings and sing songs about - all interpretations and versions that superimpose themselves on top of one another. None of these was lost and yet all of these were not what lay before him. Aciman presents Rome as not a place of antiquity and art on its own, but Rome as the "device" or the "medium" through which people see their reflection of Rome. It is at its core, a fabricated and imaginatively constructed life given to an entity after its "death," which lives on in memory - not as is, but as separate, or in a better state of being.
I had been asking myself for the past few months: why have I never been able to bring myself to go back to the places I've been visiting for the past few years? The awareness that sprouted through the second part of the essay 'In Freud's Shadow' revealed a part of me I was not ready to acquaint myself with. I wanted to stay back on multiple occasions and try to savour the experience. The return tickets are always reminders that memories and experiences serve their purpose and fade away. And, to ask for more when there isn't any, is to be ungrateful to the universe - a message that lay within the lines of Aciman's Call Me By Your Name, 2007.
That said, it is still pretty apparent how there was a life that could have only existed if I were to stay instead of boarding the flight home. I imagine what it would be like to still be there, for which I look at photographs of people currently there. The reality, though, is always heartbreaking - it's not the same place I left it as. None of these people will experience the city I experienced because my version is just a gift of time through the person I was then. It also isn't going to be the same if I do find it in me to revisit. The days, smells, feelings, sounds, and the weather of it all is Irrealis now. However, the people live on - you run into them in any part of the world and they give you the permission to resuscitate this memory by embodying it in themselves. You can touch them or even sleep with them - all to transplant the arousal from the irrealis mood onto a body that is evident and physically consumable. Like a way of making the irrealis into what is undeniably real. And yet somehow, I comfort my yearning by choosing to believe that the physical place is frozen in time, and continues with me in alternate lifetimes. The person I am right here and right now, somehow is everywhere and yet nowhere. A vapour of arcane memory.
"The Rome I'll take others to see, provided it's mine we'll visit, not theirs. The Rome I don't want to believe could go on without me. Rome, the birthplace of a self I wished to be one day and should have been but never was and left behind and didn't do a thing to nurse back to life again. The Rome I reach out for yet seldom touch, because I don't know, and may never learn, how to reach out and touch." - Page 48, first edition- 2021, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
What is this need that we repress, to keep our memories so untouched and sacred? That we take more photographs and videos than we really need to, that some people carry stones, and some like me find joy in pressing leaves from newly discovered paths of a city they were writing in. The past has been a testament to how these moods visit me so wistfully - through smells, sensations, images, seasons, objects, and sometimes without any antecedents or forerunners whatsoever.
(Credit: WikiArt- The City from Greenwich Village, John French Sloan, 1922)
In the following essay titled Sloan's Gaslight, André mentions John Sloan's The City from Greenwich Village to see in a Tyndall effect-like manner, across the two centuries, a version of New York that is not lost in memory but buried deep beneath the shadows of what was ostensibly present outside an apartment window. In doing so, André can't help but admit his desire to see himself present somewhere on the canvas. The desire is as earnest as the incandescent and amorphous ghost of memory itself - what we most dearly address as "nostalgia." The only difference here is freedom from the capricious bounds of what truly did or didn't exist in the past, but nonetheless isn't untrue for its depth that mistily cloaks (or rather, haunts) our perspective of tenses. Furthermore, he summons Walter Benjamin's yearning to find a Paris that was once Baudelaire's, one without the old Carrousel Bridge bridge torn away from its existence. Then in the essay Cavafy's Bed, he shows us the true essence of Constantine P. Cavafy's writing that draws its root in his anticipation for nostalgia, and was "therefore fending it off by rehearsing it all the time."
Clearly, André is no stranger to this "preemptive sense," that helped him prepare for his own departure from Alexandria by dreaming himself in Paris longing for home, while being right there.
What spoke between the lines of Homo Irrealis was art itself- how it helps, reflects, and projects our feelings into what we call masterpieces. Illustrating our propensity to add meaning to what the artist wishes to convey, the actual intention being separate or a perfect union. It is us through which the art lives on. Seeing our lives, especially our unresolved memories, represented on-screen can alter them permanently, and refine them through the lens of art. André's choice for illustrating this was his experience with Rohmerian films, saying- "...I'd have my life back but seen from the other side—not as it was, nor as it wasn't, but as I'd always imagined it should be, the idea of my life."
"I don't know if it's a blessing. I mean, I envy people who will tell you that they go to work, they come home, they have dinner, there everything is organised for them, they love their lives, they watch the game on Saturdays and Sundays [...] They don't live in the past, they don't miss the past. 'No I don't want to talk about the past,' 'and how about the future, do you fantasise?' 'no, I don't want to think about the future.' I envy people like that. Of course, I wouldn't want to be like them, but I envy them nonetheless. Because [...] they're rooted in the spot. Nostalgia and fantasy are the same thing, except fantasy moves into something like the future. And nostalgia of course, lies about the past, in order to find something about the past that might have been quite wonderful but actually wasn't that wonderful as we all know. But you're sort of drifting back and forth. [..] That's how I am. I mean, I'm never in the moment. It's a fault, I'm sure. But that's how I think, that's how I feel, and that's certainly how I write. I cannot write anything without positing that it has been lost." - André Aciman in a conversation with Jonathan Burnham, for Powell's Books, YouTube
Nostalgia for me has been a way of resuscitating the past, in order to linger through whatever remains of my share of futile memories, for always "a little longer." Even lawyers and psychologists share them as a common, unreliable ground. Because they are vulnerable to contamination and biases. Or further, may beget false memories.
A friend recently asked me, "Why do I love him more when he is gone?" The answer I offered her was something I had prepared for myself but was hesitant to admit all this time: "Because in your memory, they can be whoever you want them to be." All their flaws, bad habits, the times they hurt you - they all cease. In their place what remains is pure love. Your expectations and idea of true love coalesce to form a person who doesn't really exist. And that realisation taints our desire as out of reach, and thus, making nostalgia hopeless.
Undoubtedly, the presence of death, sorrow, and grief are all impartially universal and have impacted us through every century. They are intergenerational, and one of the fundamental truths of our existence. What binds all of them together is this very practice of nostalgia. We try to recreate it - great joy, or even the unbearable pain when something dear is lost because, in the purest form, it was a feeling that was powerful enough to stir something deep in the core of our being. Poets channel it to keep their lover's flame lit, painters channel it through dark tones on a canvas, sculptors channel it to give it a physical, though inanimate, form, singers channel it to a melody, and so has everyone, in one way or another. Sometimes it haunts us in the wrong life or simply the wrong part of our stories. We may experience it early, late, or while it’s not even lost at all. As the character of Mr. Perlman said at the end of Call Me By Your Name: “When you least expect it, nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.” It will reach us. And irrealis or real, it will find you like a river meanders, cuts off, and finds its path when the flow is just right. The key is to remember - one can absolutely never cheat time.
Arjun Randhawa is a freelance writer and a postgraduate student in clinical psychology.