Of Melancholy and the Sweetest of Sorrows: the Past, the Present, and Mono No Aware (物哀れ)

It is currently the year of 2021. Somewhere during the last three years, probably about 2 years ago now, I started encountering an irksome phenomena on YouTube. While listening to music on YouTube from time to time, I also tend to peruse the comments. That brings us to the phrase, nostalgia for a time you've never known. I started noticing this phrase a lot. The wording can vary; but, the theme remains the same. The phrase has achieved meme status, undoubtedly. I noticed a lot of people tending to agree, identify, and express the feelings they were getting from particular musical pieces, with this phrase. Furthermore, I would later discover some one coined a new word, anemoia: nostalgia for a time you've never known. 

Why has it bothered me so much? Maybe, it’s just my age. I’m at that age now where I can simultaneously look at those far older than me and see how stuck in their ways they can be; while also, seeing that I too am beginning to become stuck in my ways. I always had hoped I would be a, hip, older person; but, that doesn’t seem to be the way things are progressing. A select few retain their hipness into old age; but, perhaps I am not destined to be among them. The passage of time can be quite cruel; and, perhaps it weighs on some heavier than others. 

At any rate, I think the trick to maintaining one’s hipness, into old age, probably has to do with not clinging too tightly to the past. That brings us back to this newly minted word, anemoia. This new word, it’s corresponding definition, and the popularized memetic phrase used to describe this feeling, to me, doesn’t quite hit the target. It appears to me, to be not so different from pronouncing a word incorrectly for a great length of time; only to later be corrected by some one who does know the correct pronunciation. Another way I could describe how coming across this description, nostalgic for a time you’ve never known, and this corresponding word, 'anemoia', for me, would be with the following analogy. 

Imagine you discover jazz music for the first time and you love it. You continue to learn about and discover new jazz artists, new styles, and perhaps you even take up playing jazz music yourself. Many years go by and you feel quite confident in your love of jazz and continue to enjoy it. Then, one day, you read some one’s review of an old jazz tune you love. As you read on, you discover that this person is perhaps, new to jazz themselves; except, something is quite queer. They aren’t calling it jazz. They don’t know what to call it; they only give a description for how it makes them feel in the language they best know how to describe it. Furthermore, after some time, you notice this description of your beloved jazz becoming quite popular. Later on, you discover some one created a word to define what the description attempted to define. All these years you’ve considered yourself a reasonably well informed jazz fan, only to come to find, there seems to be a whole sub-section of new jazz fans that don’t even know there is a word for that music! Furthermore, they’ve coined a new term for it! Frustrating, no? eh... :p 

So, that’s the source of my vexation; the situation I’ve found myself in. And that is perhaps, where the divide between the young and the old comes from, maybe. Undoubtedly I've pissed off innumerable elders in my years, and I'll probably continue to bumble along and continue to do so. However, I want to share what that anemoia actually is, at least defined by me. I want to tell you a history behind that new word, as best I can. I want to tell you what the real word or words are to describe that feeling: nostalgia for an experience you’ve never known; but that’s the older guy talking. And I will let him have his piece; but, not before I try to digress to address the issue that prompted the irritation, once more. Where the divide comes from, why I get irritated, is precisely, perhaps, what makes some one old and what makes some one young. To be young, implies newness, and to be old, implies oldness. On further reflection, however, perhaps it has nothing to do with age at all; and perhaps more to do with temperment and circumstance. 

So, maybe, I guess that just makes me a grump; perhaps if I was wiser, I wouldn't fret so much. However, I can remember hearing the band, Rush, for the first time in my late teens. I can remember listening to Frank Zappa for the first time during that same time period. I can also remember listening to trip-hop like, Massive Attack; and the list goes on. What was the same for all those experiences, is that they were new to me at the time. And now, those experiences are old to me. They will never feel anywhere even remotely close to as fresh and real as they did the first time. The memory of listening to all that music for the first time, however, may be quite a distinct and vivid memory. And that brings us to what nostalgia, is. Nostalgia, perhaps, can be quite a sweet sorrow, a longing for the past; but, that is not always so. Sometimes nostalgia is a desire to return to the past; something that can yield mixed results. Sometimes it has a quality of fondness for the past to it, of enjoyment. Regardless, I feel this word, nostalgia, has been hijacked for an improper purpose. As if some one silver plated a gold ring. 

The important distinction I’d like to make, is that, I don’t think, nostalgia, is the proper word to describe that sweet sorrowful longing, the melancholy so many people come to experience. Nostalgia is a far different thing, and much too clumsy a word to define, what for me, has been a cornerstone emotion and experience for the majority of my life. Melancholy is, the proper word, or at least, the word I have known to describe that feeling of sweet sorrowful longing. Though, perhaps you disagree and find me in error. 

For me, though, nostalgia for a time I never knew, and it’s new, corresponding word, anemoia, although descriptive and novel ways of describing a common phenomena, to me, appear like some one trying to say thank-you in a language they don’t know the words to say it in. So I argue, that feeling of sweet sorrowful longing, is melancholy; there is a definite melancholic quality there. Sweet, yet sorrowful longings can go with nostalgia, perhaps; but, they can also exist on their own. And if you’ve ever felt that way, or feel that way from to time, I would tell you, consider yourself extremely blessed! I’m certain it’s a rather common feeling/experience; but, I suspect some are more prone to it than others. Is it in the blues? Is it in the old negro spirituals? I don't know; perhaps that's more about adversity and the overcoming of it, transcending it. For me, though, I think it's that part of us that knows suffering, yet, also knows beauty, and the knowing of both of those things come together in a rhythmic, melodic, and contrasting dance of emotion. 

The reason we feel that way, to the best of my knowledge, would be many fold and different for each individual; but, I think the common theme in that bitter sweet sorrow is tragedy. Life is ultimately tragic. The reason life is ultimately tragic, is because we are all going to die. We will all know suffering, ill health, and difficult circumstances. And the funny thing is, that’s also what makes it a comedy. Like the monkey, fearing for his life while being chased by a lion, climbs a tree; and once he safely arrives upon a high enough branch and gathers himself, he looks down at the lion and has a good laugh at the lion's expense! We too, have those moments in life of great difficulty and uncertainty; but, upon abating the danger and seeing it from a less threatening angle, we can look back and have a good laugh. So life is a tragedy, and it’s also comedic. 

There are far brighter stars that have long since burned out, that are better suited to expound on the tragic and comedic nature of life. The great writers, poets, philosophers, and of course musicians, can all attest to the tragedy of life and the comedy of life. Yet despite that, I’ve known these feelings of sorrowful longing, sweet melancholy, long before I had any concept of death. And perhaps, in the hope of transcending my bitterness, I'd ask: why wouldn't you long for a time, place, or person you've never known? That's what can make art so profound. The reason we can feel the way we do is because the artist, through their medium, has the power to transmit the essence of experience. The experience of spending a short summer with a loved one and the accompanying sorrow that comes with the parting at summer’s end, can be summed up in film, music, and the arts in general. That experience can be transmitted artistically, and shared, so, that in at least some way, we all might have a chance to experience it through the artist's expression. 

As for me, the first memory in my life, that I can remember, was one of melancholy. It was in this, tune: the intro theme to the NES video game, Little Nemo the Dream Master. In my early teens I'd come across Natalie Imbruglia’s hit single: Torn, on the radio in the 90’s. Another shining example of melancholia is the Smashing Pumpkin’s hit song, 1979, from the album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The vast majority of my life, I’ve never been far from melancholic experiences that have moved me emotionally, whether it was in music, film, or my very life itself. In my later teenage years I came across gems like this, from the ending theme to the anime, Cowboy Bebop. Suffice it to say, I’ve walked hand in hand with melancholy all of my life. It has simultaneously been my faith, my hope, my joy, and at times, an indescribable sense of beauty, awe, and wonder. Of course, a lot of that music may not resonate with you the way it has for me; but, it's a small part of my history. 

At any rate, that melancholy has been the blood in my veins for nearly all of my life. And if you’ve ever felt that exquisite ecstasy of sorrowful longing, you are, in my appraisal, quite fortunate. I’d also venture to say that you are not necessarily experiencing nostalgia for a time you’ve never known; no. Rather, you are longing for something you’ve always known. I can’t quite describe it myself, accurately; I’m not sure anyone could put it into words perfectly. But, being that this feeling is quite universal in all of us, I think there is a definite, something, there. How can one miss and long for a starlit walk on the beach with some one they love, having never had that experience? You couldn’t; but, you could know, to a degree, the way that feels, through story, through song, through film, etc.. And in my opinion, to watch a film about the tragic loss of a great love, is, to know that loss. To read a book about losing a friend, is, to know losing a friend. To experience those things through the arts and literature is perhaps not equivalent to actually living through that experience yourself; it’s not real after all. But, I’d argue against that notion, at least to a degree; it can be every bit as real, in it’s own way. How else could the art and literature make you feel the way it does if you didn't know, in some way, to some degree? How else could you feel the way you feel if you hadn't experienced it yourself, to some degree? 

So for me, this, nostalgia for a time you’ve never known, this, anemoia, it’s a sweet melancholy, like a cherry flavored cough drop. It’s a periodic reminder of the tragedy of life, and how what makes it so tragic, is how beautiful and exquisite it is; and because it is so beautiful and exquisite, that’s what makes it so tragic. It’s tragic because all the seasons of life are marked with a beginning and an end. It’s tragic because it’s not going to last, it will end. It’s both tragic, and beautiful. A combination, that to me, pairs bliss with sorrow, a duet of sweet melancholy; that for me, has been a driving/guiding force in my life, for as long as I can remember. And the funny thing about it, is that it will begin again. That's the comedy. Winter turns to spring, spring turns to summer, summer turns to fall, and when fall ends, winter begins again. The sun will rise again. 

As some have said, it’s a bitter sweet symphony, this life. What makes it so, will be different for you than for me. It will be different for all of us; but, the feeling is something we will have in common. If that to you is, anemoia, or a feeling of nostalgia for a time you never knew, who am I to fight the changing tides of time to tell you otherwise? But to me, there’s been no other word but melancholy, to describe the feeling, that for me, has been the sweetest of sorrows, a driving force in my life. A feeling I've very much cherished. Perhaps melancholy fails to fully encompass the feeling as well; but, it's the word I've known. 

So, as Shakespeare once put it: "parting is such sweet sorrow". May the melancholy that will visit you from time to time in your life, the sorrows and the longings, though quite bitter at times, be not without some sweetness, here and there. A long cold winter can be quite bitter; but, the memory of a perfect day spent ice skating, or dreams of the summer to come, can bring a warmth of mind and heart, a sweetness to go with the bitter of the cold. For me, I long for those things which I've always known; I only wish I had the words to describe it. Or, perhaps convey it, in some way. 

In closing, I've spent quite a lot of time on writing this; and discovered a bit in the process. I recalled the word, yūgen, and thought maybe that was a word to define the feeling more accurately; but, though related and quite profound, it seems to be pointing to something else. However, I did discover a new word, also Japanese: aware (pronounced: ah-wah-ray). And that's good enough for me. Mono No Aware...