Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably).
One example: Kleist, writing at the start of the nineteenth century, wanted the mind to catch up to language, which leads the way. Ideas, in Kleist’s view, can be made to syncopate with speech—and the mind can arrive at the summit or at the top of an idea—but through language alone, which forms and dispatches a thought spontaneously. For Kleist, what matters is the movement of a consciousness; an idea can never be fixed, but created only by the whim, and the digressiveness, of thinking aloud.
Another, much earlier example: the mystic, who expends a human life to verify his piousness, and whose own movement entails an ongoing series of tasks, a life project, that ensures the intimacy of his relationship with God. Events, like ideas, are replayed endlessly in the soul of the believer (the soul being, for the mystic, the exemplary scene of revelation).
Exhaustion, in either case, is never too far off. Approaching an idea under the demands of a peddler’s consciousness means enduring the fear of having arrived too late. In this scenario, the closed shop of the mind (or of the soul) admits a limited type and number of transactions, turning revelation—and both Kleist and the mystic are concerned, principally, with revelation, whether of a thought or of a God—into an impassable situation. But if one can no longer talk and think and move aimlessly, at the whim of chance, and if it is no longer possible to direct the ecstasy of a life outward, toward God, then another, less edifying option may be in store. In this third scenario, one rescinds a position without retracing one’s steps, moving backward with the impression that the consciousness of the peddler can survive the disapperance of the two techniques that prolong its legacy: perpetual motion and unlimited exchange.
When a consciousness, attuned to unlimited exchange and movement, is made anxious by a revelation that never occurs—the thought that language doesn’t disclose, the last judgment that never begins—then it may have no place else to go but backward. But there is only so much that the past can offer a nostalgic consciousness, which has nothing to offer but the guarantee of its spectatorship, of looking and watching—the docile view. The Angel of History looks back, impotently. The nostalgic looks back, more tolerant of this new impotence, but nonetheless saddened by what it implies.
“I do not want anything to do with a felicity that can spoil clairvoyance,” Gide writes. “It is essential to be able to find happiness beyond. Accertation; confidence; serenity: virtues of an old man. The age of struggling with the angel is over.”
Gide’s fantasy of the resigned struggle succeeds the modern siphoning off of profane, critical history from the history of the Church. Once the West deserted the Christian interpretation of the prerogative of history—the continuous, uninterrupted intervention of God in mundane experience—it nevertheless retained the linear view of time bequeathed to it by scripture. The past, in this view, is no longer a catalagoue of moral ideas but a narrative of unending supersession that has, at least since the master builders of nineteenth-century thought (Hegel, Marx, Comte, Proudhon), destined man on earth to a future over-rich with eschatological significance. And the special purview of the nineteenth-century imagination (although it post-dates Thomas Moore by three hundred years, and although it followed Voltaire’s inauguration of a philosophy of history—and the spectacular architectural cityscapes of Boullée and Delépine—by less than a century) is its faith in a Utopian vision that can be realized systematically, predictably—on earth and in history.
Nietzsche writes, “One has transferred the arrival of the ‘kingdom of God’ into the future, on earth, in human form—but fundamentally one has held fast to the belief in the old ideal.”
But the old ideal, freshly profaned, is now unnerved. For the mystic, the postponed return of Christ on earth is the cause of a special kind of grief, a grief capable of being reduced, placated. (Prayer, or a litany of tasks, the ordeal of an imitatio dei, provides one very valuable remedy.) Utopia, understood as the incongruousness of a thought to its social situation (to use Hannah Arendt’s definition), begins with an idea and ends with the world. But this world, the hope for a better future, is also perpetually postponed; in a world impervious to the intervention of God, the ecstasy of the mystic is insufficient. The founding of Utopia often entails devotional acts of a different kind, gathered up together as the necessary prologue of the world to come: perpetual war, violence and destruction, unlimited surveillance, which perpetuate, rather than redact, the agony of the wait. Such agony persists against the traditional compensatory outlets supplied by Christianity; the skies no longer heal, and consciousness, deadlocked, turns back, toward the past (but always a particular past, conditioned and selected by the time in which one lives). Nostalgia replaces the spiritual project as the guarantor of consolation.
The utopian is the supreme, brooding melancholic. He feels cheated by history, which adjourns the founding of his heaven on earth and deposits him, ineluctably, at a point in time he resents. The past, not the future, issues antidotes for the utopian’s grievances. His is the sorrow of a tardy consciousness, of a mind and a life that believes it has arrived too late. (Thus Herzen’s claim: “Human development is a form of chronological unfairness.”) Melancholy, once a divine gift, is here the outcome of a secular style of zealousness, the result of a belief that a mind can be retrospective and anticipatory, and at the same time.
Byron says, “I wish I could as easily get rid of thinking, or, at least, the confusion of thought.”
But are there exemplary alternatives to thinking?
The Utopian wants to pursue a thought to its limits—that is, to exhaust thinking to the point of the realization of its contents on earth, in the future, in history. At a certain moment, however, thought becomes a hindrance. Thinking fails to produce the world (the revolution, the second coming); and the world, incessantly delayed, is too painful to continue to think about. Thus, the salvaging of the past.
Of course, the Romantics made good use of a taste for the past: the cult of ruins in painting and poetry, for instance (think of Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” or paintings by Gericault, Constable, Hupert Robert). But the ideal offered up by the Romantic cult of the past was fevered, directed toward intensity, extreme and interminable states of feeling. The past could be like travel, or fantasies of the East, promising refuge from the unstinting rationalisim of the previous century—that is, the antithesis of thinking as Byron and his contemporizes would have it. The possibility of repudiating the finite and the measurable, solutions and patterns, a general hypertrophy of the mind.
What the Romantics intended wasn’t the repudiation of all thinking; theirs was the febrile dream of a mind loosened from particular conditions, the conditions inherited by the Enlightenment. In our own time, a number of writers, choreographers, painters, and filmmakers are making work—in the form of participatory performances, makeshift habitats, gallery shows, and moving images of exceptional length—that disinherits thinking by aggressively minimizing the available outlets for contemplation. The new art, if it never entirely forecloses thought, proceeds by turning nearly every idea into an unending and incomplete activity—the standard of the performance or of the work—which itself must remain unfinished. Flaubert’s cry—“That is what is diabolical about prose, it’s never finished!”—does not survive the chuckle of its descendants.
Can nostalgia be a feature of works of art? Auden seemed to think so. (Opera, he tells us, is “the only art to which a poet with a nostalgia for those times past when poets could write in the grand manner all by themselves can still contribute.”)
The taste for ruins that preoccupied the Romantics—or the flourishing of the elegy in poetry, or the brooding, melancholic tone supplied in the figure of Goethe’s Werther, for instance—advanced an idea that a life can be treated aesthetically, as a work of art. But whereas earlier ideas of a potentially theatrical, artificial life developed a system for formalizing—and thus ensnaring—emotions for the sake of a discriminating public, the new vision was incorrigibly self-conscious and withdrawn. Like Walpole wandering beneath the crumbling arches of Strawberry Hill, one could now conceive of one’s self as a work of art.
“Too many of our experiences are profane, unimportant, boring,” Auden writes. “From a secondary world, we can exclude everything except what we find sacred, important, enchanting.” One might also add interesting. Converting a life into a role, the fantasy of becoming one’s own sole and unflinching spectator, is really an effort to become more interesting, less mundane. From this comes the leading modern idea that one can, in translating personal tastes into the auspices of a work of art, become an individual, which means becoming a luminous personality that, at all moments, forecloses any possibility for boredom. Like the ruins that so enchanted the Romantic imagination, a life can, or ought to, carry a built-in posterity.
“The public venerates boredom. For boredom is mysterious and profound.”
Boredom is a relatively recent discovery in the history of sensibility. An early example, provided at the start of the eighteenth century, treated boredom as an affliction remedied by the most demanding, and the most consuming, tasks (thus the nearly contemporaneous imperative of the life as work of art). But the situation has changed. Only once a life is already understood as a project—as a series of rehearsals, tasks, and administrations of a personality—can it also be treated as a work of art, which becomes a life stocked with unending, unfinished processes.
The quality and the degree of attention demanded by much of the new art is potentially exhausting, even impossible; when Christian Marclay or David Gatten treat time as a formal property of their films, for instance, or when David Levine meticulously reconstructs the blank, unexceptional time of a household in a theatrical work like Habit, the goal is the suspension, even the elimination, of contemplativeness. One is not interested in the work under the standard of contemplation, since the work cannot give anything other than the promise of its exceptional duration. The mind is granted the opportunity to come and go as it pleases.
Nostalgia similarly delimits an experience selectively. It does this at the expense of any other number of experiences, at the expense of the memory of circumstances that would otherwise modify or condition what it remembers. For the nostalgic, the running time of history is unexceptional—one can come and go as one pleases in the performance of a consciousness.
Boredom, like utopia, is the mind’s response to what it perceives as a restrictive or limited state of affairs. In both instances, consciousness needs to be replenished, amused. The utopian is anguished by the world, and therefore wants to create it anew, while boredom means being equally anguished by experiences that seem inexhaustible. The answer, or the sense of relief, arrives, in both cases, as nostalgia (because the future seems too remote and painfully prefaced by violence and aguish, in the first instance, and because the present is too painful and exhausting to imagine perpetuating; the future is glimpsed, simply, as repetition).
“There are two kinds of minds: those that love process and those that love the result. The first are attached to the unfolding, the stages, the successive expressions of thought or of action; the second, to the final expression, except for which nothing matters. By temperament I have always been inclined toward the latter, toward a Chamfort, a Joubert, a Lichtenberg, who give you a formula without revealing the path that has led them to it. Whether out of modesty or out of sterility, they cannot free themselves from the superstititon of concision; they want to say everything in a page, a phrase, a word.”
By habit, all thoughts are always unfinished; nostalgia, like the melancholic vision of the utopian, can never complete a thought, because the completion of a thought would mean its translation into action, its deployment in the world.
But there may be one way the nostalgic adopts the sensibility of the aphorist: by assimilating the temperament of a Chamfort, a Jourbet, a Lichtenberg. For the aphorist is the supreme instance of a mind, a life, a consciousness repulsed by its situation. The fear is of having arrived too late; the painfulness and difficulty of trying to match a mind to a thought—to culminate an experience or an idea in time to express it with concision—remains.
The retrospectiveness of the nostalgic is one way of holding history in contempt, since the frustration of having arrived “too late” ends in treating history with a maximum amount of aggressiveness. Like the mystic (but without the mystic’s conduct), the nostalgic’s relationship to history is, ultimately, aloof. But whereas the mystic’s contempt admits very little of a historical event beyond its potential retention and repeatability in the soul of the believer—the Exodus is not as a single event, for example, but as a symbolic act divorced from time—the nostalgic cannot dispense with history so easily. It is once the nostalgic retains the epigone sentiment of the aphoristic while also adopting his penchant for concision that something like a transition from utopia to ideology takes place. And it is when this movement toward concision is made—when the nostalgic not only values but believes in the achievement of an unimpeachable final expression, the summit of all thinking and feeling—that nostalgia entails the scouring of history.
The gap between a past and a present merits chronic rehabilitation. Nostalgia can end only by describing the gap with two techniques: sentimentalism or destruction.
When Proust says, “Now and again, alas, we happen on the object, and the lost sensation thrills us, but the time is too removed, we cannot give a name to the sensation,” he grieves in the style of a checkmated sentimentalist. The task of the sentimentalist: to have a less impersonal relationship to one’s own feelings, to collapse the void with a language quick enough—and efficient enough, magical enough—to guarantee the enduring proximity of an experience.
The other impulse, toward destruction, happens in two ways. In the first, the nostalgic wants to extinguish the world so that it can be perfected imaginatively. This has traditionally been the special enterprise of art. (Humboldt: “The artist must destroy nature as a real object in order to create it anew.”)
The second way, if it involves the artist at all, is the privileged and intractable rite of passage of a mind tuned in to extreme and potentially castigating styles of feeling and thinking. A writer, or a painter, or a composer, however, can never exist outside the limits of a medium (at least not absolutely), and the techniques deployed by the work of art for ravaging a consciousness, or for liquidating a mind, must always mean adding more—rather than subtracting from—the world. Sade, after telling us that he abhors nature, states the characteristic problem: “I should like to upset its plans, to thwart its progress, to halt the stars in their courses, to overturn the floating spheres of space, to destroy what serves nature and to succour all that harms it; in a word, to insult it in all its works, and I cannot succeed in doing so.”
It isn’t impossible to imagine the nostalgic imagination assuming the guise of the work of art—the total work, the aesthetic treatment of the world—in order to accomplish precisely what Sade lamented he couldn’t. There is no deficit of examples from the previous century of the taste for indefinite destruction, for the consolidation of human life and the depersonalizing of consciousness that has gone on in the name of building a future—a heaven on earth—that retains the harmony and purity of a past.
But a life can only crumble at a feeling, a hunch, that it is continuously outspent or superseded by history. The consciousness of the peddler, fashioned by an itinerancy that subsists on an ongoing series of exchanges (of ideas, feelings, and of standards of conduct and personality), will buckle against a world that can no longer offer up anything at all. A mind in a perpetual flight from boredom demands the amusement of incessant spectatorship, a damning selectivity against which history becomes fascinating, merely interesting, and ultimately perishable. The task at one moment—to turn a life into a work of art—now stumbles before the demand to will a work of art into the unending, unlimited processes of a life.
Who is prepared, and with what means, to complete the passage from nothing to everything that Hermann Broch called, nearly a century ago, the achievement of a revolutionary consciousness? The outcome of a life cheated of the roving reciprocity of the pauper, and modified beyond recognition for the sake of a project of interminable energy expenditure and replenishment—of looking forward and backward simultaneously, up at the sky and down at the earth—is contemptible. The mind will move and move and move, until there is no place left to go, and nothing left to do, and no life left to live.
Ricky D’Ambrose, a critic and filmmaker in New York, has written for The Nation, Film Quarterly, n+1, and the MUBI Notebook, among others.
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