Although I can be terrible at staying in touch, my life has been blessed by the presence of several life-long friends. These are people that I have been close with since I was five or six years old – a small group of friends who have seen me, and each other, through all of the stages of our still-young lives. When we get together, we like to reminisce. This constant re-telling and rebuilding of our own personal mythology is something important to us, a constant theme, a grounding and a reminder of who we are, and how we got to this place called the present. Often, if we’re in the company of more recently acquired friends, we get called out for wallowing in nostalgia. It’s true – we do. The tales are told again and again. Every day of our past, and every square inch of certain elementary school playgrounds, are layered with the richness of a shared past.
To dwell on such things… Is it good or bad? Whenever I return to Victoria, I find myself awash in another flood of nostalgia, re-telling the story of myself to myself as I walk through the city. I expand my personal density, my temporal bandwidth. This is a notion from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:
“Personal density,” Kurt Mondaugen in his Peenemünde office not too many steps away from here, enunciating the Law which will one day bear his name, “is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.”
“Temporal bandwidth,” is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar “[delta-] t” considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.
—Gravity’s Rainbow, V509
Appropriately enough, it’s actually my willful expansion of personal density that has led me back to this book in particular, as recalling Gravity’s Rainbow brings back a flood of memories that pushes my temporal bandwidth into the past. In Gravity’s Rainbow, when Slothrop loses his personal density he becomes thin and scattered, practically a ghost, invisible and un-findable. When I leave Victoria, my personal bandwidth lessens. Perhaps it’s a good thing – a freedom – but I also thin and scatter.
Personal density matters for collective identities as well as personal. I’ve just finished Democracy Matters, by Cornel West (notes on the book forthcoming!), and he argues that for American democracy to have any meaning, in order for it to progress and improve and truly succeed as a democracy, America and Americans must increase their temporal bandwidth by confronting the demons of their past, accepting them, and learning from them:
“To confront the role of race and empire is to grapple with what we would like to avoid, but we avoid that confrontation at the risk of our democratic maturation. […] To engage in this Socratic questioning of America is not to trash our country, but rather to tease out those traditions in our history that enable us to wrestle with difficult realities we often deny.”
– Democracy Matters, p.41
To be fully-realized, we must confront the good and the bad of our pasts… and our possible futures. We cannot neglect the upper range of the bandwidth, we must also plan – and more importantly, dream – our futures. Otherwise, we might just dry up and blow away.