When you read a book about memory, be it a memoir or novel, do you ever make up some happy ending and start to dread every passing remark by the narrator about what actually happened? They’ve got to be teasing you. There’s no way they’re unaware of the hope they inspire with their recurring monologues about What Could Have Been, their casual hints at a blooming love affair that never made it past the stage of fantasy. It’s torturous! So your only solace is wishing hindsight away.
We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever — the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.
— J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country
To me, nostalgia is a way of waiting for that pain to pass. Ironically, it’s also responsible for making sure the pain returns periodically, in its characteristic wayward breezes.
Quite some time has elapsed since I’ve been so utterly absorbed by a way of life that I was blind to its fragility. These days I can’t help imagining everything in terms of a series of fleeting moments, something to look back on. I had to learn that sense for the ephemeral the hard way, like anyone prone to nostalgia probably does. Being aware of change doesn’t make things any easier, though. It means you’re constantly caught in some thought spiral coercing you into an appreciation for the present. You’ll regret not cherishing this moment. You’ll be sorry, just wait and see.
On another of Tucker’s videos I once commented that his “gang” tends to remind me of characters in a coming-of-age novel — an observation which you can take as a warning, a compliment, or a mere symptom of my own nostalgia. The response I received by Ana (who, thankfully, took it as a compliment) perfectly encapsulates the adolescent limbo I’ve been trying to describe:
I think I understand! Just existing as a teenager, knowing how much weight and nostalgia and regret and feeling adults always seem to attach to being young, is stressful. I look forward to (and fear) looking back.
Given this pressure on young people, it’s telling that we celebrate their achievements as moments of arrival yet refuse to dwell on what is left behind, what is departed from. For the time being, let’s focus on what’s ahead. Nostalgia will kick in later. And if you’re like me, it’ll hit you big time. It has the power to turn any “rite of passage” into an act of betrayal toward your past.
If we celebrated the point of departure as much as our arrival, would that just make things worse? Would it contribute to a culture that condemns the young for their immaturity but romanticizes youth for its purity? I wouldn’t know. All I know is that there’s beauty in taking leave. Which means there’s an opportunity for ceremony.
For a lot of people, myself included, no piece of music embodies that poignancy of farewell quite like “Auld Lang Syne”, the mournful Scottish hymn of days gone by. I actually found out only a few weeks ago how ubiquitous that song is in the English-speaking world. That’s because I wasn’t introduced to it through New Year’s celebrations or It’s a Wonderful Life; I came to know and sing it as “Nehmt Abschied Brüder”, the German rendition of the classic farewell tune of the international Scouting movement.
In my mind, the song is inextricably linked with the closing ritual we did after arriving home from camp. We would gather in a circle outside the train station or beside the bus at our community centre to listen to some parting words by one of our elders. The majority of these remarks were organizational in nature. What I recall most vividly was a reminder of our meeting the following day, on which we had to scrub our tents, pegs, and dishes clean: a necessary step before putting the equipment back in our storage. After such announcements were out of the way, the awareness of that imminent reunion sounded in our heads and made a soothing rhythm as we held hands and began to chant “Auld Lang Syne”, our teary-eyed parents watching from the side.
The first two lines of the English version, “Should old acquaintance be forgot / And never brought to mind?” are adapted into German as “Bid farewell, brothers / Uncertain is all return”, which is pretty far removed from the original plea to think of one’s old friends. The German version does explore the passage of time, though it shifts the emphasis from friendship to a larger philosophical concern with an ever-changing natural and human world. It is hopeful, but vague; contemplative, but not profound. It is a folk song all right: the emotion sometimes drowns out the questions it poses.
The English adaptation, being closer to the Scots, is different. It’s sentimental, sure, but it serves up more compelling metaphors. I’ve taken a particular liking to the fourth verse, which goes,
We two have paddled in the stream,
From morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
Since auld lang syne
Water has a near-universal scope in figurative speech, but that doesn’t make all water metaphors trite — it makes them risky. In my view, what made that risk worth taking for Robert Burns is not the use of water imagery in the Heraclitean sense, though that certainly plays into the verse as well, but as a vehicle for the ambivalence of friendship. At first, the shared experience of taming the streams welds two friends together; but later on, new roaring currents become a symbol of their separation.
I think that passage would have made a great epigraph for A Month in the Country, the novel by J.L. Carr which I quoted at the beginning. (It’s already got three, but you can never have enough epigraphs, right?) Carr’s small tale of love puts the narrating I in a similar position to all dreamers of auld lang syne, but that doesn’t mean his view of humankind’s complicated relationship to its past and to itself is always a positive one. On a peripheral figure of his past he says,
But that goes for most of us, doesn’t it? We look blankly at each other. Here I am, here you are. What are we doing here? What do you suppose it’s all about? Let’s dream on. Yes, that’s my dad and mum over there on the piano top. My eldest boy is on the mantelpiece. That cushion cover was embroidered by my cousin Sarah only a month before she passed on. I go to work at eight and come home at five-thirty. When I retire they’ll give me a clock – with my name engraved on the back. Now you know all about me. Go away: I’ve forgotten you already.
I relate to this just as much as to the narrator’s nostalgia because throughout the story, he makes one thing very clear: that pattern of interaction goes for most of us, but it doesn’t go for all of us. Some old acquaintances receive nothing but a polite hug in greeting; others we embrace with all our strength, however little we have left after all those hard years of separation. All that is to say, if you’ve forged a real bond with someone, you’ll both find it impossible to “look blankly at each other”, even if — especially if — that glance is cast in hindsight.