Yosa Buson, "Yearning for the Past"

I believe most of us can relate to getting older, losing friends, and becoming lonelier.

Yosa Buson, "Yearning for the Past"

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Patrick Blanchfield's "Death Drive Nation" is a magnificent meditation on Freud. Freud toyed with the idea that we might have a "death drive," not just a will to life or procreation but a desire to see things out to the extremely bitter end. This quote from the essay has been making its way around Twitter, and it's too good not to post:

As Freud saw, the real opposite of both love and hate is in fact something else altogether: indifference. And here lies the true horror of the death drive: it is an indifferent principle of destruction. Insensate and unsatisfiable, it may well pulse within you, and undo you, but It Does Not Care About You.

I think of how many people unironically say they don't care about the feelings of others. They'll say some are soft and weak and unable to survive, therefore the soft and weak deserve whatever happens. To say this is a terrible attitude is an understatement, but since we live in America in the 21st century, we know this attitude is accompanied by another. The same people who are soft and weak and should be disregarded entirely, somehow, are also dangerous and planning to overthrow all established order. The death drive makes itself manifest in two forms of indifference to other people: a deep disregard of their values and an inability to see them as equals. Either way, it has radicalized quite a few to sacrifice for absolutely nothing. They desire political power at all costs, but friends, neighbors, or an understanding of how life in this country is actually lived are completely absent.

Below, I've written on Yosa Buson's "Yearning for the Past." It's a simple haiku but it is about how we perceive time, and I hope my commentary below has done justice to its philosophical dimensions.

Yosa Buson, "Yearning for the Past"

Buson shares with us a specific feeling. "Lengthening days / accumulate." The days grow longer and he has too many of them. He doesn't quite know what to do with them all. Time literally drags.

Yearning for the Past
Yosa Buson

Yearning for the Past

Lengthening days
accumuluate — farther off
the days of long ago!

It seems a strange problem to have, but I believe most of us can relate to getting older, losing friends, and becoming lonelier. More time is not necessarily good time. Still, I do have an interlocutor I must address, a ridiculous one, who insists every situation can be a gain. I cannot tell you exactly where he emerged or even when. Here, he may insist the poem contains too much self-pity. That Buson taps into an ignoble, unwise, and unappreciative sentiment.

Again, the interlocutor is an idiot. There are long stretches of long days doing nothing for lots of us, because we are social creatures who depend on complex signals for motivation. For example, friends, I've learned, help you see what is possible in your own life. They don't preach at you or hold you to unrealistic standards. Following a similar logic, the opposite of "Lengthening days / accumulate" is not three words, but books full of joy or purpose. Books of living, not only a timeline. But to have such a life is easier said than done.

"Lengthening days / accumulate"  speaks another interpretation. Buson the intellectual, the artist, must be eager to do more with more moments. They may be tedious to the point of deadly, but if you pride yourself on a creative mind you wonder what you can do. Certainly, a beautiful mind itself builds days. It knows, so it sees ideas at stake in experiences otherwise passed over. It desires to create, so it pairs moments not usually paired. Perhaps, then, the sighing tone of "Lengthening days / accumulate" is accidental.

However, then we hear "the days of long ago"—one's own memory, one's own nostalgia—are pushed "farther off." For a poet steeped in tradition, though not necessarily an intellectual seeking the new, a sense of loss manifests itself.


Buson titled the poem "Yearning for the Past." There are two situations this haiku describes where the past becomes ever more elusive. First, getting older and lonelier. Long, brutal stretches of time are given, and it is no wonder we forget. Second, the artist's own practice. A mind "remixing" the world it witnesses can lose track of what it is doing. The very memories which were an anchor may fade away.

Sheila Heti talks through a feeling related to the latter. In Motherhood, she tells of a disassociation of writing from the original motive:

"I believe I want to have adventures, or to breathe in the day, but that would leave less time for writing. When I was younger, writing felt like more than enough, but now I feel like a drug addict, like I'm missing out on life."

When we were younger, "adventures" went hand-in-hand with creating. You'd run around the yard, come back inside and diligently color, then play with toys or watch cartoon ducks solve crimes. What changed?

Heti says she feels like a "drug addict." It is hard to think about the central issue. Mature people do demand more from art. It has to speak more than joy, more than even our past. It has to grapple with transformation. The days lengthen and accumulate for a constantly changing being.

Growing older and being knowledgable is tough, but I can't imagine becoming older and not genuinely trying to be wiser. There is a desperate yearning for the past we see at work all around us, where people grew old but never grew. Buson's sentiment is surely tragic, but not unwise, ignoble, or inconsiderate.


Heti, Sheila. Motherhood. New York: Henry Holt, 2018. 132.

Sawa, Yuki and Edith Shiffert. Haiku Master Buson. Union City, California: Heian, 1978.