“Fragments On Nostalgia” By Woeser

My place of nostalgia: the ruins of Shideling in Lhasa.


 

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser, originally written for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on November 19, 2016.

This piece sees Woeser in a reflective mood, thinking about the meaning of nostalgia, and is a good follow up to an earlier essay titled “My Ruins Photography”
 

“Fragments On Nostalgia”
By Woeser

 
1.

The family story that I am currently writing is a nostalgic book. It is an “obsession about one’s roots and identity.” Indeed, it has come to this point.

When I was just over 20 years old, I was already fascinated by the word “nostalgia”, perhaps not enchanted or obsessed by it, but I already used it repeatedly in my poems and essays.

For example, in this one:

“I like this word: nostalgia. It is just like when I walk around the Barkhor and a subtle daze makes me forget the present.

“…in fact, nostalgia is something simultaneously factual and fictional, we cannot fully trust it, but also shouldn’t ignore it.

“At this moment, the autumn thunder is rolling, the fresh flowers in the courtyard are shaking, I hurry to close the curtains and put the tape with Indian music that I was given by a foreign friend into my walkman, it is a slow ancient piece of music; an instrument whose name I don’t know plays a sound at a five or six second-interval; it sounds a bit like ‘space’, exuding a long sound that lingers on and makes you feel anxious, but that also brings up nostalgia”

In another essay I wrote:

“In my poems, I often refer to the word ‘nostalgia’, I am not sure if it’s the dark nightmares that have not yet disappeared and that have accidentally slipped into and occupied my daytime that make my days hazy and foggy and that make me so incompatible with the reality that I live in. This is particular true for when I write, when a dream-like feeling engulfs me. It is the past that engulfs me, involuntarily but ever more forcefully waking up nostalgia in me. But it is also a very uncomfortable feeling, one that makes me never want to write again.”

And I also mentioned the word in an essay written on the day of the new millennium:

“Ah, even if her weeping is only a brief, temporary and empty rapture of passion; but no matter how much she weeps, when this night of false nostalgia ends, when you walk out of a Nangma (an entertainment venue named after Tibetan folk music), this will no longer be!”

2.

It is said that the word nostalgia originated from medicine; it was invented by a Swiss doctor in the 17th century and did not have the same poetic connotations that it does today, when it even more frequently becomes politicised.

It is said that nostalgia is an illness that actually needs treatment, including prescribed medicine, injections and even operations. This is because nostalgia can cause discomfort and even pain, not only psychological, but actually physical pain. For some people it will result in high fever and heart attacks. Some even suffer so much that they commit suicide. Is it a form of clinical depression? I don’t know why, but Joseph Conrad’s novel “Under Western Eyes” comes to my mind, which he wrote when he was suffering from tormenting breakdowns.

According to research, “depression and melancholy is an illness that monks and philosophers suffer from”, while nostalgia is something that is more common among ordinary people, like soldiers and sailors living far from home, like migrant workers working in far away cities and so on. Or to phrase it differently, nostalgia is a synonym for homesickness. Medical doctors, mainly bookworms, theorise that homesickness is a “mental illness”. So after diagnosis, they usually prescribe medicine, injections and other treatments that are admittedly less cruel than what a Russian general did in the 18th century, when he decided to bury alive several soldiers suffering from homesickness.

People also say that nostalgia is related to phenomena such as lovesickness or procrastination that are all forms of mental illness.

What about my nostalgia? Does it suddenly emerge in the middle of the night while reading books under the dim light in the same way in which the unrestrained desire for dried yak meat emerges? I cannot help but go to my fridge and take out a piece of “Sha Kambu” (dried yak meat) sent over from Lhasa or some place in Kham; I hurriedly bite off a piece and, sensing that familiar but long forgotten texture, I slowly calm down.

I am not sure if nostalgia is related to one’s previous life. It probably is.

3.

However, even though nostalgia and creating something old is not the same, the two phenomena are intrinsically related, perhaps even like the cause and effect relationship in Buddhism. For instance, because of nostalgic feelings, particularly for something that cannot materialise, one may have no choice but to create something old. Making objects look antique is very common, including big things like roads and houses and smaller things like tiny earrings. But one cannot make people look antique or old, this is the main difference between animate and inanimate things. People, including their mental capacities and emotions, can never be turned into something old; people can only reminisce by creating old objects around them or, to phrase it differently, by manufacturing a small nostalgic world, which they immerse themselves and seek comfort in; this is something very meaningful.  

In fact, the many memorial halls and monuments that exist everywhere are all places or museums of nostalgia, often created by those in power to thoroughly brainwash people. They only have one aim, which is to use history and the truth for their own ends. This form of nostalgia is alien and disgusting. Memorial places are hereby transformed into places that wipe out reality and the truth. The narratives are often even more confusing and obscure than oral accounts passed on by word of mouth, they are often so far-fetched that they may well just go up in smoke within very little time.

The grandiose but useless nostalgia imposed by the authorities actually stains the term nostalgia. And this makes me really angry. No matter what, I like this word, it harbours a private, almost secretive feeling. I would like to think that nostalgia is a word that moves people, despite the fact that the actual meaning is equivalent to the shadow of the past.

So what is nostalgia in Tibetan? A Tibetan poet told me that it is སྔར་སོང་རྗེས་དྲན , which sounds a bit like “Ngar Song Jedren”. Literally translated it means longing for bygone times. Homesickness in Tibetan, simply translated, would be ཡུལ་དྲན་པ། , pronounced as “Yul Drenpa”; “Yul” means homeland; “Drenpa” again means longing. Oh, the many overlapping shadows of the infinite past, the endless frustration follows every single person who leaves this world, pieces over pieces of homeland are swallowed up by gluttonous invaders, the road of longing to reunite is a road full of diversions, if one is only a tiny little bit careless, one may disappear forever.

July – October, 2016