PEOPLE often get nostalgic about the past. The say, old is gold. Why should things of old are so dear, especially to people who are passing through their middle age?
One often hears people belonging to the older generations criticising or even cursing the present and yearning for the past that cannot anymore be restored. The present so often presents itself in a strange patchwork quilt of events that defies explanation in terms of the older categories of thought elements and the logic that connects them. As for instance, one may ask why is this escalation of violence worldwide? Progress, growth, scientific advancement, etc, are the buzzwords of the era of modernity. Progress means society and people who make it are changing for the better. Progress means or at least should mean that man is gradually throwing off the shackles of nature as well as of society itself. The second kind of bondage, that is, the one of social origin, is man's own creation. But progress promises man's emancipation from all kinds of bondage whether natural or self-imposed. What is then the state of this dream of human progress as the world of today is experiencing more of the material wealth associated with affluence and comfort in the lives of people-the distribution of the material wealth effected albeit in an inequitable fashion?
Notwithstanding the present state of inequality in society, the hope of a society where the fruits of progress will be equally shared by the entire humanity is still alive among those who believe in progress. The believers in human progress further hold that the walls of division, discrimination and disparity will ultimately crumble down one after another with the forward march of progress. But then if progress consists simply in the increase in the material wealth of society and advancement of human knowledge goes hand in hand with the opening up of new horizons in science and technology, then where are these forces of destabilisation and destruction like global terrorism coming from? If more material wealth and more comfort and power acquired through the use of technology could satisfy all man's wants, what are then the sources of dissatisfaction that are spreading like prairie fire throughout the length and breadth of the world? Is not the present-day world more intolerant, more discriminating and rife with mistrust of one another than anytime in the past? The grand narratives of emancipation, progress, etc, --echoing the discourse of modern-day postmodernists-do no longer seem plausible as they would do even a few decades back. The edifice of socialist dream as constructed in the erstwhile Soviet Russia through a revolution about nine decades ago has already fallen apart. Time was when socialism would be used as a synonym for progress. The short experience in socialist experiment in the Eastern Europe, especially after the Second World War has also fizzled out with the fall of the Berlin wall in the early nineties of the last century. The Chinese experiment with New Democracy, on the other hand, is still on, though with a highly capitalistic and market-oriented bias. The yet older discourse of progress that began with the anti-clerical, anti-feudal, anti-monarchy and democratic revolutions in Europe in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries had also lost their tempo plus rationale and meaning with the failure of the so-called democratic governments to establish the true spirit of the slogans of equality, fraternity and brotherhood that marked the European revolutions of those times.
So the grand ideas of progress have thus far remained purely in the realm of dreams and ideas. The material wealth produced by the modern industries and the culture of conspicuous consumption that it had begotten have not been able address the basic problems of humanity after it left its state of savagery and had started civilisation. Man, to all appearances, is back to square one in spite of his apparent success in building cities with skyscrapers, sending rockets to the edge of the solar system, inventing miracle drugs to fight diseases thereby reducing mortality rate and enhancing longevity and creating intelligent and smart machines as his constant companion.
So with hopes foundering in the rough seas of the topsy-turviness of the present times and also of the uncertain future, man is naturally looking back to the bygone days for fresh inspiration. As it is in the case of individuals trying to find solace in the memories of the past, which are the stuff of nostalgia, so it is with entire communities and societies. People struck by the brutality and senselessness of the present try to escape from the present reality into the never-never land of myths, legends and lore of yore. But when whole communities become nostalgic, the experience may not be as comfortable as it is with the individual. Nostalgic individuals remember the days of innocence and fun of boyhood and adolescence. And the experience of remembering or recreating the past by individuals through the mediation of nostalgia may not have any touch of reality. The nostalgic memories of what happened in the life of the individual in the past are a filtered, edited and sterilised version of the real world of the time thus remembered. It is rosy and refreshing because the unpleasant elements of the individual's experience are cut off from the footage of the old memories. As one cannot always trust one's memory, as it is often so deceptive, so one cannot also take the nostalgic reflection of the past as anything having the suspicion of reality. So, reminiscences in a nostalgic mood may not be the true representation of an individual's past, for all of it is made mostly of lost innocence. But the demand of reality aside, the experience of an individuals dive into the nostalgic past can at least give her or him solace from the pains and troubles of the present. Alas, unlike the nostalgia of the individual, the communal or social one may not be equally comforting and pleasant. On the contrary, it is a throwback to the ancient times when life was simpler but crueler and less complicated, though bizarre. Society then was guided by magical interpretation of life and the material world.
The supernatural and the magical forces perennially pursued man in those days out of mind. He was at their mercy. The magical rather than the rational shaped his world. In his day-to-day life, on the other hand, tribal leaders, the medicine man, the kings and the Elements reigned supreme. Rationality was hardly given any chance in that discourse. This state of preponderance of the supernatural in his life continued till the secular forces of science and rationality occupied a large slab of his mindscape. History was then in the form of folklores and preserved in the form of communal memory. But the magical world of the supernatural, the demons and the despotic kings dictated by the predominance of the bonds of tribes and clans was not so pleasant as the traditionalist would have us believe. Like the nostalgia of the individual, the communal one cannot also be a true reflection of the past reality. And the yearning for that past or even the idea of reintroducing that long lost days into the heart of the present by way of any ideology is not only anachronistic, it is also an exercise in the absurdity.
The longing for the bygone times whether individual or communal is better preserved in the memory. To enact it in real life is a dangerous proposition.