According to Webster’s dictionary, the word regret derives from a Scandinavian source, cousin to the Old Norse “grata,” or “to weep.” But what is the force of the quiet, recursive re that “grata” acquires in its evolution from Old Norse to modern English? On one hand, it’s temporal: to regret is less to cry than to cry again. Hypnotized by the perpetual-motion syntax of that re, repeatedly choked up by that crunchy gr, landing over and over at the feet of the unsympathetic et, the regretful continue to weep long after the initial cause has vanished or forgotten. The mournful, Latinate lament becomes a chronic, Germanic howl.
But if the re of regret is temporal, the stamp of weeping protracted beyond its allocated interval, it’s also reflexive, the stamp of weeping turned to reflection. Regret unveils between what was and what is the twilight landscape of what might have been. If the story of loss traces a measurable, empirical arc from possession to dispossession, the story of regret is a means of mourning something I never had—its grammatical register the hallucinatory counter-temporality of the could have, would have, should have. The job I would have had. The phonecall I should have made. The friendship I could have saved. Regret’s hopes, captures and losses are pure fantasy. In this sense, despite its manifest yearning for something or someone beyond itself, there’s something strikingly solipsistic about regret.
It’s no accident, then, that this is the signature emotion not of tragedy, with its stoic attention to the inevitable, but of a devalued and feminized melodrama, with its wistful indulgence of the possible. Nor that whereas straightforward grief invites sympathy, regret leaves its interlocutors cold. People’s eye glaze over; they have to get up and order another coffee; they’ve suddenly received a compelling text message. Regret itself almost always goes hand in hand with the meta-regret of the misunderstood regrettor: why does no one understand?
Regret’s chilly reception has a literary archive: a glut of instructional self-help manuals devoted to helping us throw off/move on from/let go of regret. They have titles like No Regrets: A Ten-Step Programme for Living in the Present; Woulda/Shoulda/Coulda: Overcoming Regrets, Mistakes and Missed Opportunities; Overcoming Regret: Lessons from the Roads not Taken. The telos of these books is strategic and practical, promising to help us “move forward” rather than “look backward.” The problem with regret, once again, is not just its peculiar temporality—that it looks backwards—but its unusual cognitive burden: it looks backwards, when our culture privileges doing over looking, action over contemplation.
More recently, however, critics have sought to salvage the emotion. In Regret: The Persistence of the Possible, Janet Landman suggests that if perhaps unproductive from a pragmatic point of view, regret is valuable from an epistemic one. For Landman, regret is the emotion of contingency, a kind of emotional acid capable of stripping away the patina of necessity from the surface of actuality, of reminding us not just where we have been, but of where we might have been. In this sense, whatever its practical and affective disadvantages, regret has something profoundly important to tell us about our relation to time and desire.
Yet the evaluative divergence between these two positions belies their ontological similarity: both take for granted regret’s special affinity with truth. The difference lies in whether this truth is coded as productive or unproductive, a truth we should embrace or renounce. In these terms, I’d have to eschew this effort to recuperate regret. There’s a reason we hold onto the emotion, and—as the debt of Ten Steps to Overcoming Regret to the “Twelve Step” programme template originated by Alcoholics Anonymous should testify—it’s not because we’re masochists. Far from a painful confrontation with the truth, regret is a pleasurable, addictive escape from it. Training its stubborn, relentless attention on a single false belief, mistaken action or accident of fortune, regret overlooks the phenomenal build-up that made that belief, action or accident inevitable. Regret’s obsessive fetishization of those key moments of “should have,” “would have,” “could have” elides something scarier: couldn’t have. Regret is self-aggrandizement disguised as self-abasement. And it’s this, I’d argue, that regret’s tired interlocutors intuit.
Are you waiting for my story? As a committed regretter, all too familiar with the emotion’s glacial reception, I’m not going to tell it. Despite their efforts to distinguish a plaintive, victimized present-day self from a younger, stupider and less competent incarnation, the regrettor’s insistence on what they should have done is far too apt to elicit agreement: “so why didn’t you?” All stories of regret are the same, anyway. Let’s just say I wanted something, but I didn’t try hard enough to get it; I was too young/too easily led/too stupid. You choose.
What I will tell you is that regret is my friend; it sustains me. Aren’t the regretful the ever-hopeful bearers of a bounced emotional cheque—a crumpled promissary note they refuse to believe won’t yield its stated revenue? Which isn’t to say I’m immune to meta-regret, to the endless self-pity of those whose failure to get what they want means that can never really, legitimately lose it. What of the tragedy of those not allowed a tragedy? What does it mean to be barred, not just from having something, but from suffering its loss?
Pansy Duncan: More than willing to consider your offer of an academic job in Pyongyang.