We're drawn to it, tempted to wade in its bittersweet waters. And yet, for the most part, nostalgia just makes us miserable. Some wisdom from Latin America.
BOGOTÁ — There's an awkwardness to the word nostalgia. Perhaps its the "algia" at the end. It brings to mind an illness, a physical discomfort even.
I think it was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who once said, about a certain person, that "his fate, like that of all men, was to live in bad times." Nostalgia is highly deceptive, and its tricks and ruses deceive the spirit into believing, without any doubt, that past times were always the best of times. And like all the soul's ailments, it is often worse at dawn or amid the lethargy of Sunday afternoons.
It must be the "algia" that makes nostalgia sound bad. It indicates pain, like neuralgia. Except that rather than inflame a physical nerve, it harasses the psyche, triggering a natural impulse to go back in time, even though doing so is of course impossible. The word's other component, it should be pointed out, comes from the Greek word nóstos, meaning return.
Our inability to do that, to go back in time — back in one's own time — must be an error of creation. Or is it a punishment for God knows which original sin? Or is memory itself the punishment, by which I mean the cruel possibility of forever having feelings about what is no more? Perhaps it's a divine measure to prevent us from wading into the same quagmires, time and again, to make sure we don't return to the same place to make a mistake that is both repetitive and new.
My grandfather was a nostalgic type. After his third little glass of aguardiente, he would cry for his mother who died when he was 20 of an unnameable illness. And yet when it was his turn to go, he died in peace, because at the end, all he could remember was his ID number, and nothing and nobody else.
"One always returns to the old places where one loved life, only to grasp the absence of all that was loved," Argentina's Mercedes Sosa used to sing. This is a trap. Only children — untainted yet by the past, and with the memory mechanism yet to start its dreadful ticking — can be completely happy. Until they lay the trap before them, children are happy playing their games. For adults, then, only by forgetting can we truly be happy.