Re-Reading the Past

When I was young I developed the bad habit of nostalgia. We’re all prone to it but it’s not a good idea because it traps you in a past that, as George Orwell said of India, never was what it was. And when I started to keep a diary I developed the even worse habit of re-reading it over and over, to the point where I had to get rid of several years’ worth of notebooks because I was getting stuck in them.

This was a sad thing because I now wish I had them: it’d be interesting to look back on my early writing and see how much it’s changed and what my preoccupations were then: I wish I’d been able to lock them away in some kind of time capsule and then release them like government papers under the thirty-year rule. But no. Nowadays I’ve developed the desperately stern habit of Never Looking Back, and I think on the whole it’s a good one. I feel no urge to re-read my old diaries; I’m too involved in where I’m going right now.

But how impossible it is to see the past accurately! It’s like a dream that fades as soon as you try to describe it; even to think about a past event is to rewrite it. I am frequently reminded of how bad a witness I would make to a crime. Sherlock Holmes would have no patience with me because I see but do not observe; asked to describe someone who had just passed me in the street I would have great difficulty in giving anything beyond a vague impression. What were they wearing? What colour was their hair? How old were they? Nope, no idea. When I meet someone I can tell you a lot about their demeanour, their attitude, their voice and gestures, but ask me what they were wearing… um… Well, I guess everyone notices different things. But it has been shown that witnessing an event is no guide to describing it accurately, the reason perhaps that many people film events on their phone instead.

I wonder whether nostalgia is the product of an optimistic or a pessimistic mind? It might be either; a positive outlook might cause you to look back and see the best in what happened – then again a pessimist might see the present as dark and the future even darker, so might look back to a past when things were better. As I once did…

Ah, those were the days – when I had proper nostalgia!

Kirk out

6 thoughts on “Re-Reading the Past

  1. I often try to stop myself from dwelling on the past, even if it is with a sense of nostalgia, although I sometimes take up past interests, like rebuilding my old website on Neocities, or re-watching an old TV series just to relive that experience. As for the diaries, I have sometimes read what I wrote some years ago and sometimes that is an eye-opener, either to “how immature I was back then” or how much I have moved on… or not. I sometimes consider throwing out old diaries, including dream ones that seem irrelevant now and it was only the act of writing them that was important… but then will I one day regret having thrown them out?

  2. I write memoir so look at the past a lot, but memoir is neither autobiography or nostalgia. It is an attempt to construct something new out of the past and is therefore forward looking. Like a lot of writing, it attempts to capture the essence of experience. Details may change or not be accurate, either consciously or unconciously. It does not have to be nostalgic in the sense of sentimentally longing for the past to return, although it may celebrate things or events from the past.

    1. I’ve tried memoir but it doesn’t come naturally to me. How would you say it differs from autobiography?

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