Does nostalgia have a purpose?
Last month, as I read a book on Steven Spielberg’s filmography, I experienced a kind of emotional time-travel. The book I was using for research – an atlas-sized paperback from the mid-nineties, full of film stills and on-set photos – drew me back to lazy weekends as a child. This was exactly the sort of book, intended for adults but accessible to a twelve-year-old, I used to borrow from the library to spend slow Saturdays and drizzly Sundays flipping through. And Spielberg’s films are full of the settings, symbols, and mundane items like kitchen utensils and children’s toys that many born between the fifties and late-eighties in North America associate with our own youth. I briefly became a twelve-year-old again.
Such is the strange effect of nostalgia, a condition considered common across humanity, and yet not entirely clear in its definition. In fact, what nostalgia is considered to be has changed significantly since the term first appeared, moving from the medical to the informal, a terrible affliction to a selling point for pop-culture. During the weeks I spent working on my Spielberg essay, I spent so much time immersed in what I understood as nostalgia that it moved from side-effect of the object under study to the object of scrutiny itself. I began by wondering where it came from.
It’s easy to understand how something as deliberately affecting as a movie might have the power to throw a soul through time and back into a self I once was, but what about commonplace objects? In the back of the Spielberg book is a page of card, on which are instructions for filling out the form at the bottom of the page – circumscribed by a dashed line with a symbol of scissors halfway through the action of cutting it – so I could send the form off in the mail in return for a catalogue of the publisher’s other titles. From this simple and obsolete marketing strategy, I was brought to misty-eyed remembrance of the Hardy Boys, a treehouse I once planned and never made, my father’s moustache, and other nostalgic mental mementos. It was as if some magic had been added to what was once blandly banal by the mere and inevitable flow of time.
In Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Lawrence Durrell quotes Rose MacCaulay asking:
“Have you ever wondered how it is that the utilitarian objects of one period become objects of aesthetic value to succeeding ones? ... Does time itself confer something on relics and ruins which isn’t inherent in the design of the builder?”
To this question, we find an indirect response from Thomas Pynchon in V., when Old Mendoza dons a suit from his past and decides that “we suffer from great temporal homesickness for the decade we were born in”. The relics and ruins, the once-fashionable suits and bygone tunes, tie our now to then and in doing so make us homesick for what was.
But, I wonder as I write, is homesickness the same as nostalgia?
HOMESICK OR NOSTALGIC
There is something peculiar about the term “homesick”. Following the basic logic of how similar words are constructed, the term should denote being sick of, or made sick by, one’s home. When I suffer late June’s inevitable hay fever, my eyes scream to be scratched of their stinging itch and my nasal passage swells like an inflating blood pressure cuff and my whole face streams snot and tears not because I am in desperate need of hay – that’s not what hay fever means. Likewise, the terms “cabin fever” and “travel sickness” are not meant to imply that more time spent cooped up in a cabin or travelling is required. “Homesick” takes the cure and not the cause for its name.
Homesickness is brought on by the absence of familiar territory, and its resolution is promised to the sufferer in returning home. Something very like this longing for the geographically distant is thought of when we think of nostalgia, except in the case of this condition, we are made to wish for the temporally long-gone. Rather than the house, the neighbourhood, or the region of the world one has left behind, nostalgia is the melancholic longing for a period of time, often evoked via some object, person, or physical location.
I feel homesickness, a heaviness deep in the gut like stage-fright, when I think of Guanajuato, the Mexican city I lived in some years ago. It is a sense of present loss, of missing out on what I could – should – be a part of. It is the same feeling of unevenness many feel on learning that a recent ex-lover is with someone new or has moved somewhere else, the Dutch angle sensation that you have slipped into an unreality because you are not a part of their life anymore. It takes a moment to adjust to the new reality in which those previously entwined lives have been unwoven and, in places, ripped apart. This city that was briefly my home is now an ex-lover, and I am bereft at missing out on what it is up to in this moment.
Nostalgia, meanwhile, is sweet and sickly, too much in a moreish kind of way, a rich dessert when you are past the point of feeling full but still want to savour another mouthful. It hurts but we also seek it out, like a noxious smell winced from and then sniffed again – I think of gasoline while my father filled up the car, or manure from nearby farms while driving down country lanes. Nostalgia comes on swiftly, with no self-conscious encouragement required. I feel it with an ease, so crystalline and strangely familiar, that convinces me I am perpetually on the cusp of nostalgia and that each present moment is tenuously distracting me from all of the past that hides inside each current second. All it takes for that distraction to break is an item, taste, or smell that reveals the long-gone beneath the here-and-now.
It is when I read again the favourite book from childhood, see a photo of someone once loved or a someone I once was, or revisit a place that held significance that I experience that painful-yet-somehow-desirable drop in the stomach, the lurch in the heart, the agony of loss that I immediately want to feel again in lieu of the lost thing itself. I cannot inhabit the love as I felt it years ago, or experience being the child I was complete with innocence and ignorance and the links between the two – but I can feel the wistful pang, which is better than feeling nothing.
Nostalgia is the manifestation of what the word “homesick” ought to convey: a wistful nausea brought on not by absence but by encountering a once-absent thing, however tenuously or fleetingly. I feel nostalgia as the pang of my heart pricked by whatever I feel nostalgic over in that moment: the tacky surface and matte back of a photograph developed years ago at the local pharmacist’s; the grumbling, sustained whoosh of a skateboard rolling along the concrete down the middle of a quiet street; the suddenly discovered and just-as-quickly-lost scent of lavender slid between pinched thumb and middle finger, my grandmother never again and still always holding my wrist to guide my hand to my nose so I can learn this smell for myself. If homesickness is the desire for that which one is without (the distant shore, the faraway homestead, the absent embrace) then nostalgia is the pain caused by, at least momentarily, rediscovering the lost good. It is the agony of returning.
This is revealed in the word itself, if I recall its etymology correctly. I take two steps to become reliably reminded of the linguistic roots of nostalgia. First, I run a cursory Google search that tosses up a definition in academic terms with syllabic pro/nun/ci/a/tion, a formal structure that exists only in dictionaries, and which smells like pencil shavings and feels like the polyester rub of a school-shirt collar on the back of the neck and is tied inextricably to the perfectly distanced black lines along the worn edge of a plastic ruler.
I wish to witness these classroom associations again, a little more acutely, so I leave the screen and consult a large, infrequently hassled dictionary with sources for major words. I flick past the tantalising treats of unknown words and the treasures of their definitions – I could so easily forget my mission, like homework discarded for the lure of toys and television – and I find:
Nostalgia [noun] From the Greek nostos (“homecoming”) + algos (“pain”, “distress”).
In a literal rendering, nostalgia is the pain of returning to one’s “home” or to the familiar item longed for. We often think of nostalgia as being linked to our being away from that source of the familiar, but it is only when we are brought back, however fleetingly or tenuously, to that place, person, or thing that the awful ache sets in.
DENY OR TRANSFORM
It is reasonable to wonder if nostalgia serves some purpose. Hunger drives us to eat, lust to mate, and pain to run away. Experience like this leads to the fair inference that nostalgia, as common among humans as other feelings and as keenly felt, likely has a function too. But to say that something has some utilitarian value is to speak of its relationship to the present. A thing only has use with regards to its effect on our contemporary moment. It’s useful to remember where you put your shoes yesterday only if there comes a day on which you need to find them today. There is value in remembering the crimes of the Holocaust and the Gulags so that we can learn from them in the present, recalling who we were to inform who we are.
This works in the other direction too – it is only useful to save money for the future because eventually tomorrow will be today. If I knew I was going to die tonight, making plans for tomorrow would be of no use. However, planning for someone else’s future (leaving an inheritance for my nephews or – borrowing from the Greek proverb – planting a tree whose shade I will never sit in) is worthwhile because I care about those future people – abstractly, yes, but enough that it matters. To think of them going without causes me distress here in the present.
I see two ways in which nostalgia can behave as a motivating influence on the here and now. In some cases, nostalgia operates as a veil, obfuscating a past just as complex and difficult as the present to portray it as something smooth and merely pleasant. At other times, nostalgia functions as a catalyst to action, urging us to reinstate what was once again. Nostalgia can deny the present or transform it. I am susceptible at different times and to different extents to both of these influences, as I suspect most of us are.
In the first mode, nostalgia acts as an anaesthetic against existential suffering. To borrow from Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, nostalgia soothes us and brings respite from “the painful present”. This kind of wilful blissful ignorance is widespread in contemporary pop-culture. In almost all of the re-boots of television series, movies, and franchises that come out with increasing regularity, nostalgia is sold to us for its own sake. Stranger Things does not seem concerned with asking any hard questions of our time through the prism of the eighties or with evaluating our position towards that decade currently in demand with anything like nuance or complexity.
An obvious failing of this cinematic nostalgia is that it portrays the favoured period as a historical terminus, as if until that time no one ever longed for the golden days and greener pastures of earlier times. In its endless effort to fetishize the eighties, Stranger Things regularly references Back to the Future. But these are passing nods at the surface of the film, failing to notice that it is a movie that, like the Netflix series, is trading in nostalgia for a decade thirty years gone. Marty McFly, in Back to the Future, travels from the mid-eighties to the mid-fifties, where the “tells” of that period (its music, cars, and slang) dominate the story. While there, Marty notices a poster in the local cinema for Cattle Queen of Montana, a Western movie that nostalgically peers back to the end of the previous century. Like a nest of Russian dolls with no final doll, every period has its mythical Eden, a time before the troubles of today.
This is also the “message” of Midnight In Paris, a movie that exemplifies the second use of nostalgia. This movie suffers no shortage of playing to the tropes that sentimental tourists are drawn to Paris for: ex-pat writers, wine, sexual politics, the music of Cole Porter, the fashion sense of the flappers. There is nothing wrong with the indulgence of nostalgia in this way, a point I want to stress because it relates to how we view all forms of escapism. To escape temporarily is no bad thing, like taking a walk to get distance from a lover’s spat before returning calmer and able to convert the raging dispute into a rational debate. Escaping from a troubling “now” to a soothing “then” can be invaluable – but the return is essential.
Midnight In Paris, for any cinematic faults it suffers, does this well by serving up the very nostalgia it eventually interrogates, suggesting a more thoughtful view of the apparent competition between “then” and “now”. We are prompted to hold on to what worked and let go of what didn’t, along with naïve beliefs in the perfection of the past.
THOSE WERE THE DAYS
The word “nostalgic” is often lobbed at conservatives as an accusation of self-delusion. Those who speak fondly of traditions are held in contempt or, at the very least, condescending disdain by those who use “old” as a synonym for “obsolete”. A desire to hold on to what we have cultivated throughout history is perhaps the defining feature of conservatism, just as the anticipation of tomorrow and a belief that the new should always supplant the old describes progressives. Each extreme of those poles brings terrible problems, with cultural amnesia plaguing one end and cultural stagnation constraining those at the other.
Perhaps nostalgia could be the ingredient to bring counterpoise to these opposing forces. Those who distract themselves with the future and those who drown in the past both ultimately do so because of a dissatisfaction with the present. But as one character realises in Midnight In Paris, “That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.” This is where nostalgia can help us: it can offer us a glimpse of something with a little less shine worn off to give us the strength to face today and the inspiration to transform it.
Like many other medicines, it is possible to overdose, so after a fortnight of revisiting my favourite Spielberg movies and recapturing something of my childhood, I decided to re-enter the present day. I stepped out of my nostalgia to remember that a general election was a week away. The UK was predictably insane, as if none of our electorate had ever encountered a political vote before. Depending on which of the major parties I voted for, I would be – according to everything from the voices on social media to some of the major newspapers – anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, or anti-democracy. It seemed that there was no winning, but everyone would lose. I immediately began fondly remembering the time I had spent, just a week ago, re-watching Jurassic Park and writing the accompanying essay, and I couldn’t help but sigh and think, Those were the days ...
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• Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Lawrence Durrell (1957)
• V., Thomas Pynchon (1963)
• Midnight In Paris, dir. Woody Allen (2011)