[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be, goes the old joke. Nostalgia seems to revert obsessively, and infinitely regressively, toward the past—an impossible, unreachable past that can’t be reconciled with the exigencies of the present. It locks us in a backward spiral of desire, alienated from the present in a mode of accusation, as if this present moment would give rise to a false future, one that could have been averted, if only we were more properly “at home,” if only things had been different. The affective turning toward an inaccessible past is also a lament for a lost future, an obscure but achingly felt image of the loss of what will never arrive.
Nostalgia—combining the Greek nostos, or homecoming, with (also Greek) algia, painful longing—originated in Belgium in the seventeenth century as a medical term for homesickness, a condition affecting Swiss mercenaries pining for their hamlets as they trudged across the monotonous horizontality of an alien land. As the displacements of late modernity intensify and accelerate, nostalgia comes to evoke a more complex array of feeling and a greater volatility. Subject to ever more frantic disordering of temporal categories, nostalgia longs for a time outside of time—a temporal transcendence that is otherwise than “now,” while finding its voluptuous ache precisely as caught in the irreversible contingencies of “real time”—what we call chronos.
Such longing for a lost homeland has affinities with prayer, but nostalgia is shaded by mourning and loss. Both rely on a spiritual alchemy that would transmute the discrete moment, lost amidst the flux of finitude, into a portal to a “time outside of time,” but nostalgia remains ironic in the face of the impossible. It knows that the “restoration of all things” is a hope in ruins. As Svletlana Boym argues in her lucid and lyrical The Future of Nostalgia,
Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an ‘enchanted world’ with clear borders and values. It could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, for a home that is both physical and spiritual, for the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee.
Nostalgia does indeed seek to dwell in a utopian “no-place” of embrace and unity, beyond the tyranny of time, but it well knows that it cannot, and this is its special pathos. It lies exposed to the full brunt of actuality, subject to all the rhythms and shocks of Chronos (the Greek personification of time-as-duration, always attended by necessity, Ananke). Indeed, it is from within the tyranny of chronos that the nostalgic summons a time of difference, a lost time held in suspension, when everything still seems possible, a time that is tied, often in an epochal way, to a feeling of eternity, a feeling that reveals the Aion (or Aeon).
Such “prayerful nostalgia” imagines an alternate temporal order, and with it alternate futures, through the passion of kairos. Kairos, for the Greeks, was the time of the event, a time of ritual efficacy, blessing, sacralization—the time for sacrifice—and it is always poised toward its goal: Aion, or eternity, the true double of Chronos. We can think of the Aion as messianic time, that elusive object of prayerful nostalgia. Kairos is an ecstatic temporality that believes in “destiny,” in epochal events made meaningful by sacralized time, the Aeon. A longing for kairos is a desire to “testify” to a reality that lies beyond the banality of speech, nestled in the folds of time’s surfaces, called into the light. Perhaps Giorgio Agamben is right—perhaps kairos is not in fact another temporal order, but a modality of chronos itself, offering the impossible, the messianic moment: “Kairos does not have another time at its disposal; in other words, what we take hold of when we seize kairos is not another time, but a contracted and abridged chronos.”
Reading John Modern’s “Vinyl Prayers” and succumbing to the aural nostalgia of the crackling, golden sound of the late ’60 and early ‘70s soul and folk “prayers,” I was reminded of that mood that swept over Hunter Thompson in 1971, the feeling that, once upon a time, by some congruence with a benevolent universe, “we were winning”—but then, then… we lost.
Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…
[… ] There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
The broken wave then gives way to what a reviewer of Fear and Loathing described as that moment, sometime in the early 70s, when “the American dream had turned a gun on itself.” Perhaps. But it is Thompson’s nostalgia—bordering on prayer but without hope—that refuses a bland resignation to necessity and to a chronos without the pearl of memory, a time of kairos curled into a shell and washed out to sea. Hunter Thompson’s memorialization of an age that failed (this is the passage that Thompson would always read aloud when asked about the meaning of Fear and Loathing) gathers us all in a collective memory of what could have been otherwise, much like Paris in ’68, that had the seeds for a future of radical difference, something triumphant, exuberant, ecstatic, and liberating. The receding wave can be “seen” through a devastated and grateful longing for that compulsively animated and re-animated ghost of a time that can neither live nor be put to rest.
Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew offers a chromatic allegory of time’s doubling into chronos and kairos in the urgency of the event—the silent, suspended calling of the disciple, who is dutifully bound in uninterrupted chronos before Christ’s entry. Matthew (the bearded one who gestures, “Who, me?”) is summoned to the time of kairos and to testimony to the Aion. “Follow me.” Caravaggio’s painting—an exquisite piece of Counter-Reformation propaganda—pictorializes the intrusive immediacy and intimacy in the calling to kairos; Christ, the figure of the Aion, is still in shadows and emerges within chronos. He enters in golden hues, affirms incarnational embodiment while cracking time by opening a destiny and a time to come that cannot be fathomed, safeguarded as mystery by the Church.
Caravaggio’s painting is uncanny in its monumental silence, despite implication of divine speech, despite the surprised twisting toward and away from the “intruders,” Christ and Peter. The movement opens onto the deeper stillness of the moment of the event, suffused with the terror and bliss of entering the Aion. Such an entry entails the loss of ground and the vulnerability of the singular in the face of immensity, divinity, incomprehensible otherness. But this entry is an embrace, a loving kairos that transforms chronos from within, humanly. The death and promise of the parousia, the full presence of Christ as “return,” constitutes a peculiarly Christian nostalgia: “I am with you always, until the end of the Aion” (Matt 28:20). Interestingly, Caravaggio’s Christic hand that summons, limp yet possessing cosmic, tranfigurational power, is an exact quotation of the Adamic hand receiving life and potency in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Suspended in the confrontation between chronos (pointedly represented by the tax collector still fingering his coins, head bowed in obliviousness) and kairos—the event of Christ—the hand signals a transfer of power, from passive genesis to the command, “Follow me.”
The power of this painting brings me, finally, to the point of this meditation on (prayerful) nostalgia. Let us perform an allegory of our own, and transfer kairos from its Greco-Christian home to our own temporal present; let us, as Caravaggio wished, enter the image as the figure of Matthew, confronted, summoned, by a future that has already entered, that promises what is to come as destiny, as Aion, as a “time outside of time” that is yet, following Agamben, a kairotic intensification and condensation of chronos.
The typological hand, the Adamic hand that anticipates Christ’s, is now ineradicably tied to the conditions of modernity, conditions that come to light in their aggressive materiality and technological “destining” of the Earth and its inhabitants. Might the hand that summons signal the anthropogenic power that has named an epoch, an Aeon, as its own: the Anthropocene? A new designation for an era, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, that promises an impossible, monstrously sublime future, a future that de-thrones anthropos (humanity) in the very process of naming its Aion. Only from within the eventness of kairos, always already gripped by nostalgia for a promised future of abundance and exuberance, can we pose the question in earnest: Is it possible? The possibility of extinction? The end of time, and of a subject of time, as we know it?
Whatever the fate of anthropos (and it looks grim), this aeon, more than any other, calls us to remember that we are not alone here, that “our home” extends to communities and kingdoms beyond the human. The loss of homeland is not fabled or mythic, and nostalgic desire is not for a utopic no-place. Truly, nostalgia, the prayerful nostalgia that enters kairos, is not what it used to be. The kairos that opens with a summons to the future is one of unraveling and dissolution; it is an invitation to testify to the untestifiable: the nihil of mass-extinction. Biologists claim that we are at the advent of the sixth “mass-extinction event” in Earth’s history, with up to 140,000 species disappearing per year, a rate believed unprecedented in terrestrial history. With a likely 4 to 6° C rise in global temperatures (according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) by 2100 and on some accounts much sooner ensuring the destruction of most habitats, the extinction rate is likely to increase dramatically, possibly up to 80% of plant and animal species in less than 100 years. Depending on the rapidity of warming, with its feedback loops and tipping points and “runaway” mechanisms within systems of unfathomed complexity, the sons and daughters of Adam just may be among the disappeared.
And yet they have done it themselves…. It was Nietzsche who announced another kairotic event, the “death of God” (for which we are responsible), designating a new Aion in which the “earth is unchained from its sun,” hurtling us “backward, sideward, forward, in all directions,” as the familiar ground of ordained chronos is cut loose from all mooring. The annihilating terror of this event, which Nietzsche presents as a summons, is its very propitiousness—an opening onto wholesale revaluation, a wild, mad upending of affective and ontological orientation to all possible pasts and futures. In this, “our time” of suspension, where the wave is poised in an exquisite tension before the crash, we are called to an unfamiliar nostalgia, something unprecedented, and yet reminiscent of what Roland Barthes describes in the chapter “Madness, Pity” in Camera Lucida, when looking through old photographs:
In each of them, inescapably, I passed beyond the unreality of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die…
The affective opening to the future-as-past, in the face of the “already” of death (“Critically Endangered”) of living species in the coming future, in the unraveling of the biosphere before our eyes—this is our kairotic nostalgia, our Aion, an invitation, now, to “enter crazily into the spectacle,” to embrace, to preserve, to love everything, if only it is alive: the orangutan, the Amur leopard, Black and Javan rhinos, polar bears, Mountain and Western Lowland gorillas, Chinese and Sumatran tigers, Yangtze porpoises, monk seals, leatherback turtles, coral reefs… If we say their names we might hold them here, for a moment, for an eternity.