Sunday, April 10, 2016

Repeating History: A Nostalgic Perspective 

A typical critique of nostalgia has the same overtone of a cliché as does the sentence ‘when one does not know his history, one is destined to repeat it.’ This sentence seems as true as it is patently false in the same way that nostalgia, still a dirty word in our so called post-modern culture, seems to be a word that describes a true emotion, longing, but at the same time keeps its distance by suggesting itself to be a delusion, a sentimental longing for a simple past, a home.

That history repeats itself because we are not aware of it is a simplification, a sounding board for generations that grew up with false wisdom masquerading as studied fact. What if it is precisely the opposite that is true? What if it is because we know our history that we repeat it again and again? The nostalgic knows this and therefore she yearns for a time when this was not the case, which is of course never. This case in point was well put in the short mini-series A Young Doctor’s Notebook. Based on a book by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, it follows the protagonist as he is guided through his early adulthood by his older ghostly self. He knows he is talking to his future self and knows exactly the outcomes of his actions in advance as he spirals toward morphine addiction, yet every time his future self warns him against a specific action, the young doctor does it anyway, usually with a sense of personal or moral justification, because the weight of the moment is greater than the supposed abstract and inconclusive future.

This is of course a contradiction from the standpoint of the young doctor that points to Mannoni’s dictum ‘I know very well, … but nonetheless’ which also points further to Zizek’s critique that sums up ideology as a fetish object of desire. Zizek describes fetishism in three forms. First is ‘co-substantial with the symbolic order’ meaning that I know very well that there is nothing behind mere appearances and that the appearances are more powerful and yet I continue to act as though the true core behind those appearances is somehow inherently powerful, I show my father respect even though I know very well that he is a ‘corrupted weakling.’ Second is the ‘cynical-manipulative distance’ meaning that when I know there is no Santa Claus, I nonetheless feign belief for the sake of my children. Third is fetishism proper that Zizek claims needs no ‘but nonetheless’ because the fetishist knows how things really are and ‘the disavowal of this knowledge is materialized in the fetish,’ he chooses the fetish rather than real love because the fetish truly arouses him. The young doctor knows very well that his future is very grim, should he continue on the road toward self-destruction as outlined by his future self, but nonetheless decides to follow that very road not because he does not believe his future self, but because the momentary morphine-induced escape from the brutality of his all too sober reality is more appealing and perhaps arousing, substituting his momentary lapse in reason with pleasure derived from his fetish.

Is this not exactly our current predicament, with thousands of books, television programs, films, and internet articles on history, all pointing in the same direction, toward a knowledge of that history, that at the end of the day we are simply not smart enough, did not learn enough, and cannot overcome a simple tendency toward parroting ourselves and repeat our same mistakes even though we knew what they were going to be in advance? Those on the left and the right have this argument at their disposal and they use it with equally zealous audacity and authority, apparently neither willing to learn its message. The nostalgic knows this also and this is why she spends so much time in quiet solitude.