“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Show me a more influential closing line to a book and I will consume humble pie. These lines represent an enduring, indelible and immortal gift to the world by Scott Fitzgerald. They resonate with a melancholy that is at once excruciating and liberating. No accustomed present or inevitable future is complete without a wistful past. A past towards which every soul, meek and mercenary alike, gravitates. Just like a boat beating against the current only to be ceaselessly borne back into the past. In order to appreciate, if not assimilate the gravitas of Fitzgerald’s powerful line, one needs to have experienced a past. While it need not be Bohemian or Bacchanalian such as the illusorily storied past led by Fitzgerald’s tragic protagonist Jay Gatsby, it necessarily has to be one layered with an inimitable tumult, turbulence and tentativeness. I deliberately employ the word inimitable because every upheaval experienced by an individual is unique to herself. The common loses its homogeneity and instead becomes a nymph that ultimately metamorphoses into a butterfly. Similar to butterflies, every hue is distinct, and every pattern is distinguishable.
These days this beautiful line from an epochal book has been treated with contempt by contemporaneous management Gurus and overhyped philosophers. In an age where phrases such as “getting out of one’s comfort zone”, and “bridges ought to be burned” are bandied about with a frequency that is bone-jarring, casting a glance at one’s past is a veritable blasphemy. The only direction that matters is forward, It does not matter that Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Light Brigade was also hurtling and careening forward. Looking back is a cardinal sin. But retention has its own values and legacy harbours its own treasures. The past left uncaptured by the now ubiquitous technology that has birthed smart phones and monster cameras is retained only by, and in a memory, which diminishes every passing day and fails one at the most unexpected and unfortunate moments. Yet, it is the scraps preserved in some invisible segment of the mind that unrelentingly keep drawing us towards them like magnets attracting metal filings. Sometimes the memory might be so unreliable that one cannot explain whether the event being recalibrated actually occurred or whether it is just a figment of an overworked and overwrought imagination. Yet, such ambiguous ephemerality might be the only railings available for holding on to. While vision, and ambition can make the future a malleable proposition to confirm to expectations, such a luxury is not accorded when it comes to the past. There can only be one version of the past. A version that can neither be altered nor wished away.
Irrespective of the strength and swiftness of our modern boats, we cannot come out victorious against the determined currents that keep us tethered to our past. Forbidding engines might have replaced the honest oars but no horsepower has yet had the ability to extirpate us from our moorings. Moorings that are benevolent only to reconciliations and not recriminations. We are all perpetrators and the perpetrated. The past preserves both the polar opposites with equanimity. A true leveler. There is no scale of justice or balance that weighs the burden of crime against the joy of cordiality. It is in one’s fate to reminisce on the wicked and the munificent in equal measure. “Forget the past”, “put the past behind you” are all futile exhortations that sound facile even to the ones making it. Once we have put ourselves in the sea, we have no choice but to relent to the certainty that we would be ceaselessly borne back into the past in trying to battle the currents. Symbolically we might still be moving forward but like the proverbial drunk who never reaches the top of the stairs in spite of climbing all night or like Sisyphus whose fate it is to keep rolling a stone up the hill only to see it come thundering down, we have no choice but to waft into the past. And doing so does not cast us by any stretch of imagination in the mold of an “old school” that comes with a sell by date tagged to it.
The sooner we realise and accept this inexorableness, the more expedient will be our journey through the vicissitudes of life. Jay Gatsby unfortunately learned it the hard and catastrophic way. But we can surely do better. Especially when the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald has shown us the clear way.
So yes, we are all part of a teeming, throbbing and restless humanity that beats on. beat on. Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
You might expect that someone who writes novels set in our *formative* past has spent many hours looking to see what lessons I have/have not learned, what foundations made. And so I read this post with special interest. The past cannot be turned away, it is every life’s most valuable asset
This is a very very profound and thought provoking comment!
Thank you. I have spent much time in the past, and have become perhaps uncommonly self aware
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