Virtual reality offers us an opportunity to reach into the looking-glass of memory. But it can't replace the reality of the pastby Martha O'Neil / April 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
After three and a half years, the novelty of being a Welsh person living in England hasn’t worn off. I’m regularly asked to “speak Welsh” in order to amaze and bemuse new friends, or am asked what my “favourite Welsh word” is. My answer is the usual cliché: the sometimes overused and always untranslatable hiraeth. The nearest I can get to translating it is: “longing for a time that may never have been.” This is a feeling of nostalgia, a desire for something just out of reach. Homesickness for a place to which you cannot return.
Many countries have similar, though not identical, phrases. The Portuguese, for example, have saudade—defined by artist Pei-Ying Lin as “melancholic incompleteness.” German has Sehnsucht, which can be used to describe a longing—a pining—for something unknown.
Perhaps such words identify a key truth of the human condition; our perpetual longing for a simpler, more innocent time, when less was at stake, when decisions seemed to matter less.
Hiraeth can hit at unpredictable times—at big life events, in the middle of the most boring mundanities. Not a day goes by without a pang of hiraeth crawling along my shoulders, urging me to find a way home, leaving me feeling like a character from a fairy tale when I finally admit that I cannot.
For me, it’s a feeling inextricably linked to losing my father as a child and longing to return to a time that seems unwaveringly “good”; like the time my brother and I danced with dad in my bedroom, blaring out the lyrics to “What a Fool Believes.”
Now, technology may have made it possible for me to rid myself of hiraeth, forever. Well, kind of.
Earlier this month, the Korean TV show Meeting You reunited a grieving mother with her late daughter through the power of virtual reality. Surrounded by greenscreens, and wearing a VR headset and a set of touch-sensitive gloves, the mother hears her computer-generated daughter call her name and run towards her. She reaches out to stroke her daughter’s hair, and both tell each other how much they have missed one another.
It is difficult not to be touched by the scene—by the magnificence of such a life-like recreation, and the injustice of watching a mother try to hold a daughter made…