The Traps of Nostalgia

Verónica Vega

Collapsing building  on Zanja St. Photo: Caridad
Collapsing building on Zanja St. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — That the pangs of nostalgia can deceive us, painting our memories of the past with bright colors, is a feeling I had for the first time some years ago, while reading a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

As I’ve grown older and had my share of bitter experiences, I have, expectedly, become slightly more suspicious of any romantic perception of the past. Even when a melody takes me back to a distant love, an earlier time in my life, or those fantasies about the future spawned by the excesses of youth, I take a step back and try to organize my memories, take apart and analyze past situations carefully and try to recollect faces and attitudes objectively.

Our upbringing gives us an exaggerated sense of longing for times past. Not only in Cuba, where the early years of the Revolution are constantly idealized and the martyrs of yesteryear turned into something of a mystical cult. Generally speaking, this is true everywhere.

Nostalgia is exploited in the mass media, through retro fashions and in most romantic songs, which are often dripping with cheap sentimentalism.

We are taught to hold on to things (with our hands, our eyes or our minds), in a world where life is just the opposite of this, an endless process of transformation, which starts with our very own image. Our friends depart, not only to a “better place”, beyond the horizon or the grave, but also because circumstances, interests and paths diverge.

Couples part ways, parents depart, children depart. Even if they do not leave their homes (as is often the case in Cuba, owing to the great housing problem we face), children experience body and mental changes and our relationship with them similarly changes.

Objects, no matter how much we cherish them, ultimately wear down or break. The spaces around us assume new forms. Ideas change, “the times” change.

So, why go against such natural tendencies? Why not conclude, like Tagore, that:

“(…) Beauty is sweet to us, because she dances to the same fleeting tune with our lives.
 Knowledge is precious to us, because we shall never have time to complete it.
 All is done and finished in the eternal Heaven.
 But earth’s flowers of illusion are kept eternally fresh by death.
 Brother, keep that in mind and rejoice.”

A change in perspective.

I aim these comments especially at myself, for nostalgia seems to follow me like my own shadow. Lately, I catch myself avoiding places I went to with my younger sister, who left the country years ago, or with a friend who no longer lives in Cuba, or circumventing the building where my mother once lived.

What I recoil from most violently, however, is the severe deterioration shown by the places of my youth, the places that once housed my dreams: the “Russians’ beach” in Alamar, the swimming pool I used to go to with my sister and our kids, places that have become ruins, a collection of dilapidated walls submerged in foul-smelling water.

A movie theatre in Old Havana, where I saw an unforgettable film, is now unrecognizable, buildings that are torn down and replaced with parks, stores or kiosks that strike me as fake, as though clumsily superimposed on the composition using Photoshop.

It terrifies me to come across this past, trampled on by a derisive future (now present), corroded by an inherent weight I was unable to see before and now leaps at me from its ruins.

Some days ago, however, these visual impressions produced the opposite effect on me: I was able to see, with the utmost clarity, that one tends to miss those things that brought one pleasure at one point in time, isolating those things in one’s memory, severing them from their evolution as events – separating them from their “before” and, particularly, their “after”.

As such, we do not see the experience as a totality, or where the causes behind our loss lie, or the fact that what we miss is but a detail in a ceaseless flow of events.

It makes sense that a battered city, at once a witness to and an intimate part of our identity, should have an impact on us, more so when its image is frozen in the instant we felt we were flourishing, with the city, into something beautiful and prosperous. Carefully pulling apart my memories, I find only scattered splashes of splendor, as I do right now.

What, for instance, do I miss about Centro Habana, where I lived in what was once a hotel, a building with corroded beams and walls that reeked of humidity? A building that, as early as the 1980s, looked as though about to collapse, a building that’s still there, inexplicably defying gravity?

From Vedado, perhaps you could say I miss what the Coppelia ice-cream parlor was years ago, the variety of flavors and the richness of the ice-cream, the ice-tea we would drink at the intersection of 23 and G streets, at noon on a sweltering summer day.

Perhaps I miss the small delicacies, which, today, have simply moved elsewhere. The things saved from the wreckage are no longer where they used to be, true, but, in the end, we have gained more than what is perceivable at first glance.

Because, what we believed was about to come into existence before was simply a mirage. It was an illusion sustained by our alliance with the Soviets, an impasse in the real process of transformation which has not ceased, not even in moments of apparent inertia.

As a Hindu proverb proclaims, “Though lies may run for a year, the truth shall catch up to them in a day.” Cuba is, today, more than what it was when it was nothing but a promise. Idealizing our past does not help us understand our existence or how the world works. It envelops everything with a thick fog, making us lose our way, while history continues to move forward.

I believe that what we miss, most of all, are our own dreams, our minds’ great flights of fancy. In this sense, our nostalgia is no different from the nostalgia a person living in the First World experiences, when they feel sad at being unable to recognize the neighborhood they were born in (even if this is owed to inevitable progress).

A friend told me that, one day, he was walking down the street with his father. Coming to a halt before Havana’s Parque Central, the father froze and his gaze went blank. When asked what was happening to him, he replied: “it’s just that I saw…if you could only see what I just saw! I just remembered how everything looked before (1959).” In his eyes, rather than nostalgia, one could see pain.

Those who feel they benefited from the revolution will likely react in anger, and I understand them. I also think that, if change came, it was because something was festering, somewhere beneath the splendor. Might it not be a positive sign that the festering wound is now on the surface, like those pustules that, once burst, can only be drained and heal?

Yesterday, the main character in a film I saw said something which left me thinking. She said that one is afraid of the future because, in a way, one feels that nothing is going to change, that the future will ultimately be something like what we have now. But things do change. And if things do not yet feel right, if they still do not satisfy us, if we continue to harbor a feeling of lack, of conflict, this means that we have not yet reached the end.

Veronica Vega

Veronica Vega: I believe that truth has power and the word can and should be an extension of the truth. I think that is also the role of Art and the media. I consider myself an artist, but above all, a seeker and defender of the Truth as an essential element of what sustains human existence and consciousness. I believe that Cuba can and must change and that websites like Havana Times contribute to that necessary change.

18 thoughts on “The Traps of Nostalgia

  • May 20, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    This may come as a painful blow to you, Luis. But I really don’t think about you and whatever idiotic rant you might post.

    I write what I think about the topic. Period.

  • May 20, 2013 at 8:30 am

    I sugest you look up the term logical fallacy as my comment was in no way a straw man argument. As for the rest of your diatribe, It is so completely incoherent as to make it completely unintelligible. I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about and find myself unable to respond.

    By the way disagreeing with your view point does is not a propaganda war

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