The big draw of nostalgia is that the future is foreclosed. All the possible paths and trajectories life could have snaked from that one nostalgic point have collapsed into the one singular timeline we now find ourselves in. All worries have either borne out or turned into intense nothings. All upcoming exertions have been performed. All feats of bravery, cowardice, romance, ambiguity, clarity, sickness, health, love, hate – it is all in the past now, as surely written in the annals of time as in our memories. The letter has arrived, we have received it, and as we think back on that nostalgic moment, we can appreciate it as a pure immobilized snippet of time where nothing ever changes. For the purposes of nostalgia, time truly is a moving image of eternity.
The attraction of such eternal clarity only heightens in a present characterized by everything but a clear sense of what is happening or where we are heading. The world shifts this way and that, mashing contradictions together every which way, such that making sense of it all seems a fool’s errand at best. Some embrace the tactic of a forward retreat, following every wild goose chase to wherever they lead in the hopes of it being on firmer ground than here. Others fortify their current location, making it a bastion as impenetrable physically as it is socially, with little to no regard for how suitable it is for permanent habitation. This leads to an ever increasing juxtaposition of unstoppable forces and immovable objects, which only serves to increase the overall chaos. In all this, nostalgia tightens its grip, almost to a chokehold. The glorious past, yes. If there is one certainty in this world, that would be it.
The great philosophers, poets and historians all try to tell us that this sense of a solid unmoving past is an illusion, and that everyone was, is and will be equidistant from eternity. The ancestors faced much the same fears we do, albeit about different things; the register of human emotion has only varied so much across time. Our children will face much the same challenges we face now, albeit hopefully aided by the wisdom we pass on. Our peers – our companions in the present – know just about as much as we do about what is happening, albeit with different levels of proficiency when it comes to hiding their fears. Time then was as much as it is now, and it is comforting in a way to think that the Ancestors too looked back with a nostalgic sheen in their eyes. Our heroes doubted too, beset by the very worries that loom over us now. There is solace to be had in the fact that they at no point were able to sidestep the future. At the moment they performed their great deeds and became our revered heroes, they were scared out of their minds and hoping against hope that it would work out. The past had not become inevitable yet.
We need to be reminded of this every now and then, lest the closure of the past results in the foreclosing of the future. What is yet to come is still contingent, as is the present, as was the past. Nostalgia aims to lock the past in perfect perpetuity; it is only a short step until it locks the future into the days beyond this one which are still perfect. Reject this impulse. Embrace the perpetual now, and push contingency as far as it will go. Build your own ancient traditions. Do it now.