The Past Is All We Have: André Aciman’s Homo Irrealis
As I write these words, I am aware that the thoughts I am on the verge of forming are rolling into the past even before I can convey them. The now is sliding from my grasp. Perhaps the now doesn’t exist at all.
This is not an emotional distortion of physical time. Outside of the human realm, the present holds no meaning in the greater universe. It is just the point at which the past turns instantly into the future. But, it is this shifting moment we are told to seize again and again if we want to taste an elusive slice of calm, or—who knows—even happiness. We set ourselves up on a path of mindfulness but find ourselves distracted instead. Our minds become hodgepodge newsfeeds of unmet passions and misspent lives scrolling past us without algorithmic logic or design.
“What do you do when you’re not inhabiting the present?” André Aciman asks in Homo Irrealis, his latest collection of essays, setting the meditative tone of the book and presenting a spirited manifesto on a theme as old as time itself. The answer comes straight away and lingers throughout the book: “You temporize, you defer, you anticipate, you remember.”
Aciman, for his part, lives in the past. We know this because every page quivers with a yearning for moments that have long ceased to be. Or perhaps not. He is, in fact, reaching for moments that could have been, should have been, might have been, but have never actually been. This gray wistfulness hovers all over the book.
We could call Homo Irrealis a travel book if the cities he dwelled on—Paris, Rome, Alexandria, St. Petersburg, New York—were not just points of departure for places in time that did not exist. In what seems like a homage to Aciman’s hero Marcel Proust, the book spreads from the past into the future, conveniently sidestepping the present: “The shadow of the departed and the embryo of something yet unborn sit alongside each other.”
Aciman’s are far from aimless meanderings of the mind. Each of the essays is an intuitive and a visceral response to a particular piece of art, the kind that makes one reach one’s “truest, deepest, most enduring selves by borrowing someone else’s skill, someone else’s words.” His modus operandi seems deceptively simple—he wrings, say, a Proust novel, a John Sloan painting, an Eric Rohmer film or a Fernando Pessoa poem, to drain it of whatever its creator may have intended, and assigns to it a dash of illusoriness based on his own life experience that the work of art has stirred.
He is not alone in his melancholic wanderings. He follows in a long lineage of people who were always out of sync with the present, pushed and pulled by that which was inexpressible and contradictory, that which was never there. Sigmund Freud, for instance, experienced a “deeply neurotic” longing for Rome, while putting off going there because Rome once visited would no longer hold the charm of a Rome unvisited.
Of course, a city where time pours pell-mell from one century to another can get overwhelming. In Rome, Aciman writes, you touch time “the moment you lean on a wall to tie a shoelace and realise that this old, flaking wall was already quite old when men like Goethe, Byron and Stendhal stood by it and remembered that Winckelmann himself must have touched this very same wall and then rubbed his hands to shake off the same dust that Michelangelo himself might have rubbed against.” This is perhaps why the weight of history is comforting: the things that devastate us have devastated others before.
Those familiar with Aciman’s work can identify in Homo Irrealis the familiar strain of elsewhere-ness present in almost everything he writes. The essays made me come fully alive, as good literature does, in a way that intensified my senses. But isn’t to be alive to breathe in the present? Aciman posits the opposite: most of us are fated to live precariously on the margins of this presumed continuum.
He himself floats in an “indescribable, counterfactual time zone” that linguists call the irrealis mood. “Caught between the no more and not yet, between maybe and already, or between never and always, the irrealis mood has no tale to tell—no plot, no narrative, just the intractable hum of desire, fantasy, memory and time. The irrealis mood can’t really even be written in, much less thought in. But it’s where we live,” he declares.
Not only does Aciman think and write in it, his fluency to say the unsayable is remarkable. He touches the irrealis mood, refashions it, reifies it into a shape we recognize but have never dared articulate. Any meditation on time and remembrance can feel overwrought and schmaltzy. In Aciman’s hand, it becomes a strobe light with which he probes himself in tenses and tones that course like dreams without structure or form. He dips almost fanatically into his memories, bouncing from one recollection to another, fluttering everywhere but around the source that leads to these synesthetic bursts of association.
In Aciman’s world, everyone is banished in time. Charles Baudelaire forever longed “to go back to something he could not name.” Sloan wanted to “preserve the ugly, junky, beaten-up old” simply because it was familiar. Pessoa desired impossible things “precisely because they were impossible.”
Another manifestation of the irrealis mood is that we remember best what never happened. We nod our heads in recognition when Aciman evokes an unfulfilled, therefore haunting, desire from his youth. He hopes that one day he might run into the old almost-lover who would tell him that he had been an idiot for having misunderstood the cue that night in her apartment when she said her mother would wake up in the adjacent room: “All she might have meant was, let’s go to my bedroom instead.”
Drawing from another almost-romantic adventure of his youth, he writes: “Two ex-lovers who’d never been lovers, forced to be friends without really caring to be, yet neither daring—while possibly wishing—to be other than just that.” This, right here, is the classic Acimanian (or Proustian) mood: you prolong a fantasy or defer a desire just for the frisson of anticipatory pleasure.
True to form, everyone who arrives on the pages of the book lives in, and for, the trembling sensuality of unconsummated moments. Isn’t this also why we turn to art? To live out our fantasies. To make tangible that which is not laid out before us. To consume life as it could, should, or might have been. Above all, “art is how we quarrel with time,” Aciman writes.
Isn’t remembering a way of quarreling, too? Every instant, our synapses erect dams against the flood of time. This is perhaps why we spend our lives recalling, reminiscing, recollecting, even though we have been warned that doing so could turn us into pillars of salt. Remembering, however malleable and inaccurate, is the deepest and most flawed investigation into our deepest and most flawed selves. It is perhaps both the gentlest and mightiest riposte to the merciless dual juggernauts of time and mortality.
Aciman invokes a Cavafy poem titled “The Afternoon Sun,” in which the poet returns to an old room where he made love as a young man. The house is now unrecognizable, having transformed to an office space. There he stands and the old details—the bed, the carpet, the chairs, the table—rush back to him. This is how the poem ends:
…One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only… And then—
that week became forever.
Cavafy must have been certain when he was with his beloved that he would recollect the room in all its specifics, several years hence. He had always been preparing, it seems, for this bittersweet jolt of mono no aware by the simple act of memorizing.
There’s a photograph I have looked at more these last few months than I ever have before. I am sitting on the floor. Across me is my father holding a cup in one hand and saucer in another, over which I am bent, sipping the last drops of tea. I do not know that my father will soon die, and my world will be turned on its head. My world is about as big as my three-year-old self.
Thirty-three years have passed since someone, presumably my mother, captured that scene. The vast desert of time between my father and me has now closed in. Now I am as old as him. Hereafter, I will overtake him in age while he will stay forever frozen as a thirty-six-year-young man.
The accident of my father’s death, like the accident of all life, boiled down to chance. He could have continued to be alive just as he continues to remain dead. Like many whose parents die very early, I have always had a fractious relationship with time, finding comfort mostly in the past where the future, that is the present now, is still an oyster. This is probably why I swallowed Homo Irrealis in two massive gulps, pausing only to catch my breath. Away from the stay-in-the-moment path to happiness, here was someone telling me it was all right to rubberneck into the past. Is it not in the warm chambers of the past, after all, that we are immortal, invincible, and alive?
But I hesitated while writing the three preceding paragraphs. Did my life have any place in someone else’s creation? Patricia Lockwood, in a recent essay on Elena Ferrante’s work, spoke of her discomfort about inserting the “I” after reading a piece that lamented the autobiographical book review. Oh no, she said to herself, she had been doing it all wrong. But then she paused. “I thought, what else do you read a book with but your body, your history?”
Aciman, too, writes, “All great art invariably lets us say the same thing: This was really about me.” I felt this acutely when I read the essays, stopping every few minutes to note down the thoughts and emotions that were triggered by his words. Just as Aciman shoehorned himself into the lives and longings of others through their creative work, I squeezed myself into his.
I share nothing in common with the author. Aciman is a displaced Jew from Egypt; I am an Indian woman who has never had to question identity or belonging to a piece of land. More than three decades separate us in age. But he helped clarify one thing for me: if Aciman’s penchant for nostalgia can be traced to his expulsion from his homeland as a teenager, I can now trace mine to my father’s sudden and violent death. My mother and I left the city I would or should have called home, and all my life, I have been haunted by a version of me that simply does not exist.
Aciman looks at a photo of him as a young boy just about to leave Alexandria for Europe. He wants to commune with his younger self like I want to with the stranger who holds the saucer to my lips. Like Aciman, I want to ask him who of the two is real. And like Aciman, I know the answer: neither of us is.
Singular points in our pasts have the potential to fan out in innumerable directions. And yet, it is this one present life, whether by chance or choice, that we end up leading. This does not mean we must shy away from measuring ourselves against the sum of all the selves we could have been.
Aciman asks: How can one be happy when faced with daily reminders of so many wasted years? Put it another way, what is it about our pursuit of the past that makes us forgo the conventional wisdom of staying in the moment? For me, it is the guarantee of our survival, resilience, and endurance. Those of us who reject the overbearing present to embrace nostalgia do so not out of an idle pining for the past but to dive into the many-bodied lives we could have led. It is really a quest for who we are in the fleeting here-and-now.
To read Homo Irrealis in a pandemic is to inhabit the irrealis mood in its realest sense. Locked in an escape-less present, the doors of known temporality have slammed shut on us and all the usual tenses have eroded. The future seems to have collapsed; the past is all we have. Many of us have, in the last year, obsessively waded through the debris of regrets and remorse, unspoken words and unfinished goodbyes.
We’ve realized that we can no longer count on chance to bring back almost-lovers whom we misunderstood, former partners we wounded with our words, friends we lost to silence. The responsibility is ours. To prevent our tomorrows from being littered with what-ifs and why-nots, we must not dither. We must journey inward in our hearts and emerge with remedy on our lips. Thus we can lay the ground for a golden future past.
For those of us who will be out of the woods at the end of this, at least physically, the pandemic will have been a lease on life. A cautionary tale, perhaps, of how to live, or how not to live. All the cumulative losses will have merged into a long and seamless sequence of grief. It will have allowed us to glimpse the end. Would this be enough?
In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, there is a moving scene where Marcel, the narrator, is separated from his beloved grandmother at a time when telephones are not commonly used. When he speaks to her on the phone, he is deeply moved by the tenderness of the sweet voice—so solitary, so removed from the face and the body it belongs to. “A real presence indeed that voice so near—in actual separation. But a premonition also of an eternal separation!” he says.
He turns the premonition to repetition. Marcel begins to rehearse his grandmother’s death convinced that doing so would soften the agony when the moment finally arrives. When she does indeed die, Marcel narrates the experience rather coolly. He’s been let off quite easily, he thinks.
A year later, on a visit to a hotel filled with memories of his grandmother, he is struck by a wave of sorrow. The past suddenly gets stretched into the never-ending present. He, who had been practicing grief all along, comes undone.
Perhaps this will be our undoing, too—no grand rehearsal will ever prepare us for the closing act.