I woke up this morning feeling a sense of loss and nostalgia for myself. On the one hand this self was plainly lost to me - hence the melancholy - and yet, it was simultaneously palpably near. In fact it was the nearness I felt to this former self that gave rise to the particular and odd mourning; It was only through being aware of the the vivid details of this former me that I could fully comprehend the distance I had travelled from it. Perhaps this sounds like the start of a nauseatingly narcissistic ode, but please bear with me for these feelings give rise to some interesting questions about our experience of self in relation to time.
I had spent the day prior sifting through a storage facility that has housed all my possessions since my partner and I packed up our lives at the end of 2015 and entered into what has become a rather prolonged period of indecision, adventure and nomadic drift. At first we packed everything up for what we thought would be about four months whilst I travelled after finishing in my PhD and he ventured on a new career path. But time stretched on and so did the limbo. Three months turned into six, which became a year. We were swept up in winds of change and struggled to steady ourselves. We began 2017 renting a cottage month by month on a farm in remote KZN. I was writing a novel and trying to get my research published, he was finishing up an intense and short job contract which involved frequent travel.
Abruptly as it started, this period of limbo is soon to end: We are moving to Amsterdam within a month. We will be pinning ourselves to a year rental lease for a cramped apartment near the city’s eastern canals. I therefore had to revisit the storage facility I packed 18 months ago and sift through the possessions that I have learnt to live without, tossing much of it, and preserving the essentials for the new chapter ahead.
Needless to say this experience unearthed smells and textures of a person familiar to me, but undeniably past. This things that filled the rooms of my past selves have traces of living memories and their proximity to me after such a weird, wonderful and fluid absence in limbo was overwhelming. This was the perfume of nostalgia. I remain weary and watchful over this emotion. French theorist Gaston Bachelard has written about how the physical things of former homes become vestiges of memory and anchor our identity. The stuff we recognise as home may survive changes, moves, births, deaths and tragedies, which is comforting and anchors a sense of ourselves as enduring over time. Through the feel of an old armchair, or whiff of a Grandmother’s jewellery box, the past interrupts the present (unstable, unfolding) and we are connected to our childhood, our parents and our sense of self. This can be positive for it makes us feel a sense of belonging, but it can also draw us into a negative hue of nostalgia that breeds a rigid distaste for the present and, indeed future.
This experience made me think of the American songwriter, poet and author, Patti Smith, who wrote in her hauntingly beautiful and simply presented memoir, M Train, about a black coat she so loved, and inevitably lost. It was a second-hand gift from a writer friend and she wore it ceaselessly for years. It was very much part of her daily writing routine (waking, dressing, walking to a cafe, writing, feeling like a writer, walking through the city, lunch - the coat was a witness and companion) and it grounded her sense of self, moth-eaten holes and all. During a particularly dramatic winter storm she replaced the coat with snow gear and her daily routine was interrupted. During this time the coat went missing and when ‘normality’ resumed she found herself awash with grief not for a possession per se, but for a concrete external vestige of self. In this way, the stuff that we love and that inhabits our lives can be seen as mini museums that tell a tale - more than anything - of the inevitability of loss.
What the re-emergence of the stuff I love - my kilims, my pottery and tapestries - force me to recognise is that we long for a continuity of self, and that this longing in inconsolable. We commonly think of ourselves in terms of permanency (I am 29 years old - I am one person over this trajectory of growth and change), but then when we stop to relive a memory of ourselves there is an undeniable distance between our past and current selves. The past self can never fully inhabit the present experience (and this must be the only reliable notion I have of me) and so, is it someone different altogether? Why do we feel this space between past, present and future selves, and yet also think of ourselves as one conscious being over a duration or succession of time?
Embroiled with this contradiction is the observance that our experience of time is deeply flawed. Almost everything that happened for example, a year ago, appears to have happened an immeasurably long time ago (“a lifetime ago!”), or remarkably recently (“it feels like just yesterday …!”). Waiting at a bus stand in the rain for an hour is simply not experienced as the same unit of time as catching up with an old friend over coffee for an hour. Our whole lives, economies and countries are monopolised by an understanding of time as a regular, ceaseless and objective measure. We hold onto this idea of time, we trust in it, and we speak of ourselves as developing over such a continuous and stable trajectory. And yet, our intuitive experience of it is sheer elasticity.
And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go?
What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? is it a thing
that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one
day, you look in the mirror - you’re old - and you say,
“Where does the time go?”
Who knows where the time goes
Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time.
These words were sung by Nina Simone - an extraordinary musician and human rights champion - as she performed a version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” in 1969, originally written by the English folk-rock singer-songwriter Sandy Denny. This incredible rendition meant so much to Simone because she felt it illustrated the universality of human experience. Across cultures, races and creeds, we are all swept up in the beguiling river of temporality.
In a work titled Intuition of the Instant, Bachelard contemplates this universal experience. He focuses on the paradox of how the objective idea of a ceaseless flow of time can be composed of instants - moments in the present - that are by definition durationless. To Bachelard, “life always finds its primary reality in an instant”. When we comprehend temporality, we can only ever do so in the instantaneous present (simply put - we can only ever think in the present; we can think of the past/future but not in it). So our sense of continuity is a “dust cloud of instants … organised more or less coherently by a phenomenon of perspective”.
What this means is that duration is a cognitive construct and time is experienced in the instantaneous present. So we experience time only in the instant suspended between two voids. And this instant is always experienced in “tragic solitude”, essentially removed from the conceptualisation of duration. Bachelard describes the tragic solitude of an instant as a “sort of creative violence” because “time limited to the instant isolates us not only from others but even from ourselves, since it breaks with our most cherished past.”
Bachelard’s theorisation has strong inflections of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein’s genius was such a profound and unsettling contribution to our understanding of ourselves and the universe because it demonstrated through mathematic hypothesis that there is no passage of time, no individual flow from the fixed past to an uncertain future. Instead, there is a tenseless four dimension ‘manifold’ or pervasive blanket of what is understood as space-time. This is objective time - an eternity of the instant. Simply put (or in my simple comprehension of it), Einstein mathematically proved the sage Buddhist wisdom of ‘all eternity is in the moment’. Each moment of time must die and be reborn; there is no objective truth to our deeply held notion of duration.
The time that monopolises our lives is a neat fabrication and orientating compass for our inner worlds. Bachelard writes that memory and logic are our guardians of time - internal mechanisms to keep us from going mad. This idea of time as progression and duration allows us to make sense of our selves and our experiences, but Einstein showed us that objective time cannot support this distinction between past, present and future. Instead, all we have is a present that another tremendous philosopher who has weighed in on this issue, Martin Heidegger, terms ‘estactic’. A present that is multi-directional, meaning that we create our pasts and futures as each present instant unfolds. A continuously refreshed expansion of time backwards and forwards. We like to feel like our pasts are fixed and constant, but in actuality, they are just as malleable and changeable as our futures, and we craft a narrative of ourselves in both directions over and over again. This creation, Bachelard explains, becomes our reality and “all that is simple and strong in us, even all that is enduring, is the fit of an instant!”
So in this instant of nostalgia for a past self, I choose to think of Nina Simone, of Patti Smith, of Einstein and his multi-directional hairdo, of Bachelard and Heidegger, and in so doing I choose to let go of my attachment to this past, to observe the flux of change and to recreate myself, anew.