Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.
Yitang “Tom” Zhang spent the seven years following the completion of his Ph.D. in mathematics floating between Kentucky and Queens, working for a chain of Subway restaurants, and doing odd accounting work. Now he is on a lecture tour that includes stops at Harvard, Columbia, Caltech, and Princeton, is fielding multiple professorship offers, and spends two hours a day dealing with the press. That’s because, in April, Zhang proved a theorem that had eluded mathematicians for a century or more. When we called Zhang to see what he thought of being thrust into the spotlight, we found a shy, modest man, genuinely disinterested in all the fuss.
That evening, we went to George’s, Iowa City’s Qasabji: a dim, narrow bar of perpetual darkness. We met friends who still lived in town and drank and talked late into the night. “I think now, in Syria, we have a very new idea,” Khaled told me. “Now I’m writing my new novel. I have been writing for four years. But now, I will rewrite it, because I feel it is old writing. We have a new time, and new ideas, not just for writing but for the people too. Now we can understand our people. We are talking about this with young writers. What will be the future, I ask. You must be better. Because after the revolution you have new ideas about writing and about all art. We will have new ideas.”
“It’s not necessarily about money, it’s about winning,” he told a visiting group of American college students. He told them that to understand trading, they needed to forget everything they learned in economics class and envision the amoral, take-no-prisoners world of “The Hunger Games.”
“The only time when people cooperate is to prolong their own lives,” he said. When rivals are no longer useful, “you stab them in the back.”
He told students he had accepted the fact that he was a rogue trader—but in his telling, it didn’t sound all that sinister.
A rogue trader, he said, “is a risk taker. It’s not a crime. It’s violating the mores established by the institution that you work for. It’s a rebellion against institutional controls that deny individuals opportunities for self-actualization.”
Stuck up on the wall were charts of the history of a Caribbean town he called Macondo and the genealogy of the family he named the Buendías. Outside, it was the 1960s; inside, it was the deep time of the pre-modern Americas, and the author at his typewriter was all-powerful.
He visited a plague of insomnia upon the people of Macondo; he made a priest levitate, powered by hot chocolate; he sent down a swarm of yellow butterflies. He led his people on the long march through civil war and colonialism and banana-republicanism; he trailed them into their bedrooms and witnessed sexual adventures obscene and incestuous. “In my dreams, I was inventing literature,” he recalled. Month by month the typescript grew, presaging the weight that the great novel and the “solitude of fame,” as he would later put it, would inflict on him.