The futility of the hunt for the past

Like a dog chasing after its own tail, the pursuit of the past—nostalgia—is forever doomed to failure, twice over. The attempt to recapture a moment that has already passed and slipped us by, is always at one remove. No photograph can sufficiently stand for the recalled moment in its entirely for the photograph is always and only a snapshot.

To exacerbate matters, our desires are even questionable as well. Are those desires really our own? For according to Lacan, the desire is the Other’s desire, the desire of the Symbolic Order. Much like canned laugher, we are always prompted on when to laugh and when not too. When an individual desires something, it is always a social product that is by no means an individual’s decision. Language, the Symbolic Order, decides your desire for you.

In this context, then, is not our desire for the past an endless search for something that will never materialize again, something that always eludes our comprehension no matter how we try to conceive it on our own terms.

Having said that, I suggest it is time we give up this desire for the past, for that wholeness which never will and could be for in the end, who are we fooling? Certainly not people around us but ourselves. If so, then the saying “The grass is always greener on the other side” is telos par excellence. The Chinese even have an equivalent saying for it, “好马不吃回头草.”[1]

It’s time to let go and move on; no more turning back.


[1] Translated literally, it would mean that a good horse never goes back to old pastures. Again, it implies a teleological transition which breaks out of the circularity of the existentialist ethic.

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12 thoughts on “The futility of the hunt for the past

  1. Perhaps we can question this desire for the past. What makes this desire so desirable? And pursue it all the way down to see what it actually is.
    Because I think, the desire to desire something is probably one of those things that makes human, human. Basic desires should be inborn, but the forms are learnt. For example, it’s perfectly natural that normal humans desire to have sex. Who he likes to have sex with, however, is most probably learnt.
    So back to my question again. What is the basic driving force for this desire for the past?

  2. Hello Rahul, it’s the first time seeing you here. Thanks for dropping by. And to add to your point about keeping memories, I think it is an inherent fault in us, that we all have to look backwards in order to move forward, that the past is always encapsulated in the present and that is how the present is judged, by our very past.

    Chaosm: Interesting that you point out how the desire is desirable and how you try to isolate this notion of desire, what it actually is. Because I think it desire is ultimately the meta-narrative, what constitutes the human condition. In short, to be a human means to desire desire, which also means that if our desires are ultimately fulfilled, there would no longer be any purpose in living. To go back to my abovementioned point on how the present is judged by the past, it is clear that the desire for the past–nostalgia– always construes the present as imperfect, thus needing corrective action, by performing the past’s “imagined and mythical qualities” (Walvin 1987, In “Victorian Values”).

    At this point, I think I would have to dedicate the next post to answering your question, which will probably be up by tomorrow or the day after. Space and time is a constraint at the moment, my apologies man.

  3. Hello Aristocrat, thank you for visiting my blog and your comment – my hearty wishes to you too..
    Your post “The futility of the hunt for the past” has caught my attention. However, the post sounds like a test/warning: while agreeing with your statements, I question myself “what does make the life the desirable? The precious? ”
    The longing for the material past (for some things we had or events we have participated in) is the futility, and the alike memoirs are the trap, but that doesn’t mean the past are meaningless – everything depends on what do we remind and what do we long for. I am talking about living in faith. When I recall not the details of the landscapes I had seen once but the spirituality of the walk I had ( not what passes by, but what makes the light to shine) the past may be the powerful training aid for not to stumble, but to stay in gratitude for to accept the present moment not in words but in deeds for to become healed by God’s love and tap into the eternities.

    It’s the angle of our view on things that we encounter that makes the truth either worthy the praise, or the futility of our own attempts to rejoice at oneself

  4. Hi Tomas, thanks a lot for dropping by. You are not wrong in construing it as a warning because if we misrecognise this desire for the past (and I think we do), we make ourselves liable to certain structural/ideological controls. Say the average Heritage Trail that our Tourism Board is always promoting to locals and non-locals alike, does not such a promotion constitutive of the Other’s desire to create a certain sense of psychical belonging, a certain “yes you are now seeing a part of our past” by commodifying it.

    At this point I would disagree with you because ultimately, when it’s abstracted, nostalgia is “constituted as a longing for certain qualities and attributes in lived experience” that we have lost, and also simultaneously delineating “our inability to produce parallel qualities and attributes which would satisfy the particularities of lived experience in the present.” In short, the false consciousness of Marxian theory. Your example of spirituality, once again, brings this notion of nostalgia as a lack to the fore because what is hidden with that particular yearning to be “healed by God’s love,” posits a certain lack that separates you from Him, the Edenic return to a pre-Lapsarian age, before the sin of Adam and Eve.

    Chaosm>> After Nov 12, when I hand in my thesis..haha

  5. Hi Aristocrat,
    you say “one must do what one must” and it’s impossible to argue. Just one question. What is what I must to do?

  6. Should I tell you what to do, thereby imposing my system of beliefs on another individual who has every right to contradict what I believe? I would like to avoid the cliche: you yourself should know what to do. But the more I try to avoid it, the more it comes back to haunt me. What say you?

  7. I agree that my question looks childish in spite it is totally sincere. I know the answer perfectly- I can involve myself in high discussions and dive into the cold boredom in spite of all wisdom of my statements, but I can just invite my friend (or anybody unknown to me) for a cup of a coffee and while dreaming over a cup of coffee, we would enjoy the touch of the weather then- the wetness of the ground – or anything we will face at a moment and that would be the best – the desirable love- fulfillment that demands just being alive and nothing more except the wander at the miracle of life.

    we lack nothing when we are on the road and everything becomes the needless when we look at the window and talk just with ourself – with the silent walls of our room.

  8. Actually, I don’t regard it as childish. I agree with you on the count of dreaming over a cup of coffee, the touch of the weather (or the poisonous tendrils in my case), etc. But have you ever question why that particular moment? Since we can experience it over and over again, there must be an originary that we are judging it against, and that the rest of our lives are spent in search of these moments? Repetition…

    Perhaps we deem we lack nothing when we are on the road, fearful to confront the hole in us…

    All the world’s a stage. Can we step out of it?

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