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7 June: A Melancholic Nostalgia for the Future

Sam Alexander

This talk is a small treatise on the philosophy of the past, present and future with particular reference to Fernando Pessoa’s, The Book of Disquiet.

Sam postulates that you should not live in memory or anticipation, but in the moment. This is not to say that you treat the day with reckless abandon, as the memory of your day is the dividend on how you have lived that day, whilst the future is the portent of this same day.

I found myself reading the Book of Disquiet as a result of a Google search. I had come up with the phrase, “a melancholic nostalgia for the future”, when looking to put a moniker to a new paradigm for how I wanted to live my life. The phrase came to me late last year as I was approaching my 60th birthday which came in February of this year.

I have always loved the books and movies portraying the life between the two world wars. P G Wodehouse, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, et al. They were the decades that personified me – the 20’s and 30’s.

I made my mind up that the coming teens and 20’s of this century would capture that same sense of melancholy for me; but knowing that I had only 20 good years left, I didn’t want to wait until I was 80 years old to look back with nostalgia over the past 20 years. I want to be able to feel the mood now, and look forward to this melancholic nostalgia for the future.

Melancholy for the present.
Nostalgia for the past.
Future for, you guessed it, the future.

Having articulated my new creed, I wondered if it existed as a philosophy or way of life for anyone else – thus the Google search. Only one result popped up, an essay by Thomas on 17th June, 2008, Pessoa and Nostalgia for the Future.

We now have the makings of a talk!

I read the Book. I read the essay.

In a nutshell, I give you Fernando Pessoa; this is from the flyleaf of the book:

Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888. He spent most of his life there but, after his father’s death, he lived in South Africa for nine years when his mother married the Portuguese consul in Durban. In those years he became fluent in English and developed a love for English writers such as Shakespeare and Milton. This influenced him to write his first collections of poems and journals in English, while his first book in Portuguese was published just two years before his death.

On leaving South Africa he returned to Lisbon, where he became involved in the modernist group “Orpheo” and had a major role in the development of modernism in Portugal. During his life he was virtually unknown, avoiding society and the literary world, and although he wrote a vast amount, most of it was published posthumously. After his death in Lisbon in 1935, a trunk was found containing over 25,000 items – among them were collections of poems, letters and journals, from which The Book of Disquiet is a selection.

Now in my own words, let me tell you about The Book of Disquiet.

Pessoa wrote under a number of different personas or what he called – heteronyms.  The English definition of this word refers to a similarly spelled word. As an example, each of two or more words that are spelled the same, but differ in meaning and often in pronunciation, e.g. "bow" (a ribbon) and "bow" (of a ship). This gives an indication to his deliberate shift in meaning and circumstance.

The Book of Disquiet features Bernardo Soares, the clerk, working within an office on the Rua dos Douradores. As an aside, I Googled the street and checked out the map and “street view”.

Within the book are Pessoa’s observations and anecdotes of a life he has perhaps lived, or had hoped to. Unlike Nietzsche or even Gibran, who seem to be telling their story to the world, Soares, the clerk, appears to be in conversation with Pessoa, or in reality himself.

The beauty of the book is that each aphorism, though part of the mosaic of the book, tends to stand alone. As such, you can open up at any page and enjoy the book. In order to give a small taste of the book, rather than trusting to pot luck, I have chosen some smaller pieces.

My soul is a hidden orchestra. I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.

I’ve reached the point where tedium has become a person, the fiction made flesh of my life with myself.

The burden of feeling! The burden of having to feel!

An interesting aside to Pessoa and his multiple personalities, over seventy in all, is another chameleon of the literary world; he is in James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", first published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939.

If you are under 50 years of age you will not know of Danny Kaye’s humorous portrayal of a character living his life in fictional personas. It was made into a film in 1947. From Wikipedia we have:

Mitty is a meek, mild man with a vivid fantasy life: in a few dozen paragraphs he imagines himself a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a devil-may-care killer. The character's name has come into more general use to refer to an ineffectual dreamer, appearing in several dictionaries.
Although the story has humorous elements, there is a darker and more significant message underlying the text, leading to a more tragic interpretation of the Mitty character. Even in his heroic daydreams, Mitty does not triumph, several fantasies being interrupted before the final one sees Mitty dying bravely in front of a firing squad. In the brief snatches of reality that punctuate Mitty's fantasies we meet well-meaning but insensitive strangers who inadvertently rob Mitty of some of his remaining dignity.

Though somewhat different from Pessoa, It is similar through the self-indulgence of the characters.
George Steiner from The Observer Picks up on this theme and states:

What we have is a haunting mosaic of dreams, psychological notations, autobiographical vignettes, shards of literary theory and criticism and maxims. 'A Letter not to Post', an 'Aesthetics of Indifference', 'A Fact less Autobiography' and manual of welcomed failure (only a writer wholly innocent of success and public acclaim invites serious examination).

This is not a book to be read quickly or, necessarily, in sequence. Wherever you dip, there are 'rich hours' and teasing depths.

Finally, I will leave the last word to Pessoa before I move onto my own thoughts:

I suspect, however, that all of this is vicarious, that the nostalgia I feel isn’t truly mine or truly abstract but is the emotion intercepted from an unidentified third party, for whom these emotions, which me are literary, are — as Vieira would say — literal. Conjectured feelings are what grieve and torment me, and the nostalgia that makes my eyes well with tears is conceived and felt through imagination and projection.

I will move away from Pessoa and back to the topic at hand.

It is not enough to give a talk, scouting around the words without locking in either a definition or an emotion, so concrete, that you can take it away with you.

I can talk about living in the moment, “save your todays for tomorrow, and one day you wake up with no yesterdays”.
How do you bring your yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows into the one moment? I believe it is through hindsight, insight and foresight. Out of sight, out of mind, is the nemesis.

Hindsight: The ability to reflect and learn from the past

Insight: The ability to interpret and respond to the present

Foresight: The ability to predict and prepare for the future

Out of sight, out of mind: The idea that something is easily forgotten or dismissed as unimportant if it is not in our direct view.

I believe that there is a human condition that allows you to maintain this metaphoric vision concurrently. The mere action of walking down a street, where you become cognisant of those who walked before you on the same piece of pavement, those walking beside you and those who will come after. As these thoughts fill your head, there is a 4th dimensional element of time which captures the mood as a mosaic of thought, action and presence. A sense of not being alone, not only is your past, present and future with you, but also that of others. You capture the emotion of nostalgia and melancholy, not only for the past and present, but also for the future that is yet to happen.

It becomes an almost out of body experience, where your past, present and future are interwoven, allowing you to be integral to all your actions and thoughts. This locks in a responsibility for your behaviour with respect to humanity and environment.

You can no longer put off good deeds to next time, because next time is linked to your now. Similarly you cannot ignore your past bad deeds as mistakes that can be forgiven because they again are linked to your now.

This train of thought, in a sense puts your past in between your now and the future. Your life is now your responsibility. Years ago, I spoke of values, ethics and morals, where:

Values - the history or past.

Values are the basis on which we make decisions on right and wrong. As an example, adultery is considered immoral amongst most communities because of the personal consequences to one or more parties, including children, plus the added turmoil to the community.

Ethics - the theory or present.

Ethics is the study of these values that gives us the law, rule, or moral code on how we should behave. Again, using adultery as an example, we have both religious texts, the Bible for instance, and the legal system, which together makes it both a sin and a crime to commit adultery.

Morals - the praxis, again the present.

Morals refer to our beliefs and actions in respect of these rules of behaviour. Again, should we commit adultery; we break with our values and go beyond our ethic or code, to behave immorally.

Culture - the outcome or the future.

Culture is the cumulative result of our knowledge, beliefs, and experiences. This outcome is what shapes our Values.

This melancholic nostalgia for the future locks them in to a life of integrity you can’t avoid anymore.

Now I’m sure that I don’t own this state of mind, I am only trying to give it definition.

A gardener, who has planted a tree, watched it grow, waters it daily in anticipation of eating its fruit must capture this mood.

Parents, who feel the same sense of wonderment and love for their offspring, when one walks into the room years later.

A painting on the wall, the Mona Lisa, the knowledge that Leonardo put paint to canvas 500 years ago, Lisa smiles at me today and will go on smiling for eternity.

Eternity, I’ll take that word and expand on it. Growing up in East Sydney in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, it was not unusual to find it chalked on the footpath in front of our house in perfect copperplate script.

On TV last month, the show about Ita Buttrose with a scene of from the Yellow Room Bar had the Eternity on the wall. I use to live next door to it on Macleay Street up the Cross.

Again on the Harbour Bridge a couple of years ago, and last week at the Salon Des Refuses at the S H Ervin Gallery at the National Trust, Peter Kingston had a model of a small tram, entitled, Bee Miles and the Eternity man go to Bondi. It included little figures within the tram and Eternity chalked on the tram floor. Again the same Bondi tram we as kids used to catch to Bondi Beach.

It seems that Eternity is the catch phrase for my feeling of melancholy, always taking me forward.

My most vivid feeling of a Melancholic Nostalgia for the Future occurred back in November, 2009 after a Philo Agora night at the Fair Trade Café back in Glebe.

It was about 10ish. I had just hopped in my car and driven off when I turned the radio on. I switched to 1224, the radio reading service to hear:

For three years, Philo Agora has been conducting philosophical discussions every fortnight. The name of the group derives from the ancient Athenian agora, where you could shop for ideas, as well as commodities.  The group takes over a large, homely room – walls covered with matting, baskets of flowers dangling from the corrugated ceiling – which seems to have been tacked on to the back of an inner-city café. A modest fee gets you a seat at a table and there’s a short philosophical talk followed by responses from the audience.

And the audience? Who goes to this sort of event, when they could be at the place opposite eating tapas or up the road at the pub? The ages range from young to old, though bulging, it should be said, in the middle (or just beyond it). There are one or two willowy young women in long dresses with floaty hair, but most are dressed for comfort: these are not your groovy, inner-city latte types.

“I would guess they’re 95% university educated,” says one of the founders of Philo Agora, Peter Bowden, who teaches ethics at the University of Sydney. “We try to be a philosophy café for the people. We try to talk about how we lead our lives, so we discourage actively people who get too academic. We’ve turned down a talker who can’t relate philosophy to ordinary people.” In pursuit of ideas that concern everyone, they’ve recently had talks on suicide, hypocrisy in politics and the relevance of philosophy of science to ‘real’ science, but one subject never fails: “Anything on God and religion brings them out,”  Bowden tells me. “We had one on Dawkins and we had them flowing out into the streets.”

It was a reading of Socratic Dialogues by Alan Saunders, the ABC host and sometime visitor to Philo Agora and published in the monthly.
On this note I’ll finish up, as this dialogue closely matches Pessoa’s third party view of his own life.



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