Kundera On Nostalgia For The Present

In Identity (HarperCollins, New York, 1998, pp. 40), Milan Kundera has Chantal thinking nostalgically about her love, Jean-Marc, but:

Nostalgia? How could she feel nostalgia when he was right in front of her? How can you suffer from the absence of a person who is present? (Jean-Marc knew how to answer that: you can suffer nostalgia in the presence of a beloved if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more; if the beloved’s death is, invisibly, already present.)

Sometimes when I’m looking at videos and photos of loved ones I find myself overcome by a curious melancholia, a wistfulness of sorts. I’m perplexed; why is this so? These people, whose images I am gazing at, whom I love and care for, are still very much with me; they continue to enrich my life. Why does the sight of them introduce a sensation that is ‘nostalgic’, akin to the feeling that one might get on gazing at a scene never to be re-staged, a vista never to be viewed again? (The images I speak of are not ones that should be properly productive of nostalgia: they are way too recently produced for that, and even the sense of time elapsed cannot account for the depth and pathos of the associated melancholia.)

Kundera is right, of course, that this is because we have anticipated a future without our loved ones; we are not content to live in the present; we must look ahead as we always do. Our joy at the presence of our loved ones then, is always mingled, always touched and inflected, by a hint of terror; indeed, this fear, this paralyzing nightmare which flickers at the margins of our thoughts, might be what makes our joys of love quite so sweet. Parents know this the best perhaps, but lovers do too. Just like a jealous lover torments himself by thoughts of the times before he met his beloved, of those she loved and left, of a time when he was non-existent in her romantic calculus, we inflict ourselves on the pain of an imagined future that is bereft of those we love. As we walk side by side by those we love, we imagine ourselves alone, unable to share what we see with that pair of eyes which now supplements ours.

There is another reason too, I think, for reactions similar to mine–where we are looking at images of loved ones who still live with us. We have experienced losses in the past; we have spent much time gazing at visual mementos that remind us, again and again, of what we have lost. The act of viewing an image has itself become infected with a particular kind of superstitious threat: to look on too long is to tempt fates, to turn this gazing into all we might have left. And images themselves threaten: this is what your loved ones are reduced to; this is all that shall remain. We might shrink from the act of capturing images, afraid that we are tempting fate; perhaps we should be content with the concrete. And, of course, the present.

2 comments on “Kundera On Nostalgia For The Present

  1. David James says:

    Interesting read, thanks. Kundera’s books are always introspective and a bit sad. I wrote about him on my blog as well here: http://tigerpapers.net/2011/11/07/milan-from-prague-to-paris/

    • Samir Chopra says:

      David, that is a lovely post on Kundera, thanks! I also find Kundera to be very good on the topic of sexual jealousy – indeed, I read some of his early novels just to assuage mine!

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