nostalgia and the self

In Dubravka Ugrešić ’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, she attributes the following quote to the Russian literary theorist and critic Victor Shklovsky: “I have no desire to construct a plot. I am going to write about things and thoughts. To compile quotations.”  

Many, too many, have already described the tendency in art towards exhaustively recording one’s own life.  Whether it is Karl Ove Knausgaard or Marcel Proust.  Maybe we determine its narcissistic.  Maybe that it is a genuine attempt at self-discovery.  I wonder a few other things.  

In Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc, the British philosopher Galen Strawson draws a distinction between those who view their lives and selves narratively, and those who view them non-narratively.  If a person with a narrative sense of self is one for whom one’s life is easily viewed as connected, someone who can trace line from past to present to future, describing events as leading to what followed in a self-evident fashion, someone with a non-narrative understanding of self would tend not to think of their life as so self-evidently story-like.

Religious belief, for Strawson, seems to play a part in prompting the development, or at least incentive towards viewing one’s life narratively; its implication that one’s life unfolds towards the promise of a dramatic ending naturally lends itself to such a view.  But I wonder what else is at stake.  

Ugrešić ’s book unfolds like a “tattered remembrance,” a series of “fragments whose connections will establish [or not] themselves” over the course of a reading (brackets my addition).  It is the story of exile set amidst and following the series of wars which would break apart the former Yugoslavia.  Although the novel proceeds through a variety of literary forms, the presence of a consistent narrator is felt throughout, whether relating the story of several women and their journeys through wartime and exile, or reminiscing about childhood, describing contemporary Berlin, or asking questions about art and what it is for. 

The book takes up Shklovsky’s call to defamiliarize.  Art should refuse revelation in order to maintain attention.  Art is a fragment. A story should be told only in fragments, quotations, if you will. A life only exists in fragments, or, for the exiles Ugrešić’s narrator encounters, life is like an album, only what is in it exists, “what is not in the album, never happened.”

I wondered as I read Strawson’s account of the divergent understandings of self, what else was at stake in determining how we view our lives. Why would some view their lives as a story while another would consider their life to be a series of separate, unconnected events? To read Ugrešić  is to view how we construct our understanding of self through the lens of trauma; the figures who populate her story are denied the possibility of a narrative by their circumstances. Nostalgia is revealed to be inextricably intertwined with brokenness.

One then, might be able to map Svetlana Boym’s distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia onto Strawson’s narrative and non-narrative selves.  If the restorative nostalgist seeks to return to and reconstruct a lost home, it’s because they have a narrative to which they can return and indeed, which they understand to be ongoing, concluding, in a quasi-religious manner, in a return.  The reflective nostalgist is more comfortable in the longing, content that the feeling remain ambivalent regarding its object, uncertain that the past is what it is, and therefore even desirable. Ugrešić’s narrator is bewildered by her current home in Berlin but she is just as bewildered by the past; “how were we able to live together, when I knew so little about them?”

Reading Ugrešić I was reminded of Anna Burns’ narrator in Milkman, for whom everything was prefaced with a “maybe,” she had maybe sisters, a maybe boyfriend.  The refusal implicit in that “maybe,” the refusal to assign names to things, lends uncertainty to even those people and places to which she was ostensibly closest.  Milkman to me, seemed to be a book about knowledge, about the danger it brings with it, both physically and mentally.  Burns turns her protagonist’s uncertainty into a great strength, the means through which she maintains distance from reality and therefore attention to it, an attention which preserves her life.

Ugrešić writes that “an exile feels that the state of exile is a constant special sensitivity to sound.”  Like many such claims in the novel, its stakes remain ambiguous, but its attention to the “here and now” of its speaker, as opposed to a concern with the elsewhere or the past seems implicit.  This is not to say that the past plays no role, either for Ugrešić’s characters or the non-narrative self in general.  It just plays a part more like affect, surfacing and disappearing in turn, revealing, but only in fragments, familiar ambiguities.

What Ugrešić or Burns or many other authors invested in characters who reside in uncertainty and unfamiliarity reveal is the necessarily fragmentary nature of all stories.  Their work operates in the only way art can; through framing its subjects reveal them, and by extension itself, as radically incomplete.  Ugrešić’s protagonist possesses a yellowing photograph of three women, unknown to her, which she cannot let go and refers to often.  “In the secret topography of our lives,” she writes, “It is revealed that they- these chance objects – are with us because they may, although they need not, later disclose their deeper logic.”  Things and thoughts, when left to themselves, take on the richest lives of all.