What is the use of nostalgia, this yearning over the vanished past, this clinging to what is gone and will not come again? On Mother’s Day, I stood over my mother’s grave asking myself this question. After all, isn’t this, from a Freudian standpoint, a clinging to the figurative mother, a refusal to break the apron strings, a neurotic regression? Would an evolutionary psychologist say that it serves some kind of neo-Darwinian purpose, and, if so, what? From a rational point of view, surely we would be better without it: surely we would cope with life’s demands better if we lived simply in the present, as the animals are alleged to do, although I have my doubts about that allegation.
Even if we decide that, yes, nostalgia is pathological, what neurotic purpose does it serve? If it is a denial of death, a flinching away from consciousness of mortality and an attempt to return to the womb of the past, it is a remarkably ineffective gambit. Nostalgia does the opposite: it sharpens the sense of mortality and transience and loss. It is a consciousness of death: that is why it is strongest in old people, for whom the candle burns lower every year. Shouldn’t we follow the advice of the famous documentary about Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back? Of course that was about Dylan in his 20’s, and now he’s over 80 and has published his memoirs. Isn’t that how Orpheus lost Eurydike? Is his famous backward glance a distrust not of the woman but of the promise that the dead could come back to life? I wrote last week of William James’s distinction between tough-minded and tender-minded personalities. Shouldn’t we be tough-minded, shrug, and face forward towards new experiences, new relationships, instead of bemoaning the lost past?
After two paragraphs of nothing but questions, it is time for a few answers. If I were given a chance to go back and become 12 years old again, or 20, would I take it? I know that I was not any happier then than now, merely unhappy in different, age-appropriate ways. When I was 12 or 13, I suffered from what we would now
call clinical depression, not biochemically induced, although puberty never helps, but situational: I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. When I was 20, I was totally confused about who I was and what I wanted, and haunted by a sense of failure before I had even begun: it seemed impossible that I would ever become the kind of person I dreamed of being or accomplish the kinds of things I admired the most. In other words, I felt as my students do now: once again the neurosis comes with the territory. When I was 12 or 20, what I most wanted was escape from the soap opera of my family and the imprisoning limitations of my personality. I would have snorted over the suggestion that one day I would be nostalgic for that stage of my life.
At times, nostalgia takes the form of a longing not for what was but for what might have been. It seems to be behind some of the current fascination with a multiverse, with the notion that certain choices in life could have led to very different outcomes. Yet this seems even worse: at least the actual past was. What might have been is a chimera. That is the subject of the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a poem called “Burnt Norton,” whose opening seems to dismiss both forms of nostalgia as exercises in futility:
What might have been is an abstraction Remaining a perpetual possibility Only in a world of speculation. What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present.
Therefore, the speaker says, “to what purpose / Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves / I do not know.” Nonetheless, inside my copy of Eliot’s Collected Poems is an inscription from my first wife and still friend, dated 3/31/72, my 21st birthday. Fifty years later there is a lot of dust on the rose leaves, but still I insist, out of nostalgia, on disturbing them.
Some famous works of literature tell us that the real source of nostalgia is neither the actual nor the could-have-been past in which we could have been a contender but a past idealized and recreated by the imagination. The imagination idealizes first by selectivity, omitting life’s ironic details, and second by transmuting the desirable images into symbols, at its greatest intensity turning the past into an image of lost paradise. The Romantics did not invent nostalgia. It is there in the Old English poem “The Wanderer” as the speaker poignantly remembers the past, when he sat at the feet of his gift-giving lord. It is there when the medieval poet Villon asks, “Where are the snows of yesteryear,” hard as it is for anyone who lives in Cleveland to believe that anyone would wax nostalgic over last winter’s snow. But the Romantics gave nostalgia its modern form, as, with the loss of traditional mythology, literature fell back upon the subjective. The great poet of the remembered past is Wordsworth, whose autobiographical epic The Prelude speaks of “spots of time” that become memories with renovating power. Some of these idealize childhood experiences in a way that is familiar now but was new at the time, as in his vivid account of ice skating at night, when “All shod with steel / We hissed along the polished ice”:
So through the darkness and the cold we flew, And not a voice was idle; with the din, Smitten, the precipices rang aloud; The leafless trees, and every icy crag Tinkled like iron, while the distant hills Into the tumult sent an alien sound Of melancholy, not unnoticed, while the stars, Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west The orange sky of evening died away. (Book 1, 438-46, 1850 version)
Even more haunting is the following passage, in which the skater left the crowd “To cut across the reflex of a star / That fled, and, flying, still before me gleamed / Upon the glassy plain” and, after the crowd had been wheeling in circles, the boy stopped short, “yet still the solitary cliffs / Wheeled by me” in his dizziness (450-55).
When I was in high school, I encountered the first two stanzas of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” embedded in the play about him by Sidney Michaels. I often speak of reading Frye’s Fearful Symmetry as my conversion experience, but reading those two stanzas was an earlier conversion, a moment of aesthetic arrest I have never recovered from. As with Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” later, I memorized those two stanzas without meaning to: they would not stop echoing in my mind. In them, Thomas speaks of his summers on his aunt’s farm not as resembling the Garden of Eden but as actually being it:
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns About the happy yards and singing as the farm was home, In the sun that is young once only, Time let me hail and be Golden in the mercy of his means…
Standing at my mother’s grave, I remembered that I have my Edenic childhood memory too. When we were young, my mother would take me and my brother to Monument Park in Canton, Ohio, in the center of which is William McKinley’s tomb (Et in Arcadia, ego: And in paradise, I, Death, am there). It was a game to mount the many stairs to the domed monument at the top, trying to count them and losing count every time. Down below, we would “walk crossroads.” My brother had a favorite book designed to teach children how to cope when they became lost, including stopping at crossroads to look both ways. The myriad dirt paths that threaded the park lake became the crossroads, the labyrinth we heroically conquered. In the center of the lake was a small island with a weeping willow so huge it canopied the entire island, and under it dozens of swans roosted and left behind a white carpet of their feathers. Nowadays I know that William McKinley as president was a reactionary imperialist whose politics were antithetical to mine. Whatever. All I knew then was that he was a martyr, and that the neighbor lady across the street, Mrs. Clarke, had worked on his “front porch campaign” at the turn of the century when she was young and her house, as I have seen in the old photographs, was the only one in the entire area.
In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade says that “Religious man’s profound nostalgia is to inhabit a ‘divine world’…In short, this religious nostalgia expresses the desire to live in a pure and holy cosmos, as it was in the beginning, when it came fresh from the Creator’s hands” (65, italics in original), when “it was all Adam and maiden,” as “Fern Hill” puts it. Immediately after its skeptical opening, “Burnt Norton” recounts a vision in a rose garden, which the speaker enters “Into our first world.” There too is a labyrinth in which the speaker and someone else move “in a formal pattern,” arriving at a dry concrete pool at its center: “And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotus rose, quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of heart of light.” All these images may be illusions, but they are, even my own, something more than a neurotic flight from reality. The rose garden episode ends with a suggestion that the truth is exactly the reverse: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”
What does that mean? As Northrop Frye sketches in his book on Eliot, the Four Quartets are structured as a mandala. The horizontal axis is both the “middle earth” of ordinary reality and a time line moving forward. But the horizontal axis is intersected by a vertical axis of imagination or spirit, depending on whether your preferred metaphors are secular or sacred. Whatever. Sure enough, the next section of “Burnt Norton” is a vision of the axis mundi: “Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle tree.” Where the axes meet is “the still point of the turning world,” the moment of vision, the moment when something enduring is born out of a moment of memory. Realists, skeptics, and ideologues are impatient with anything vertical: the usual phrase in Marxist theory is “running away from history.” But we are in the process of seeing where that may lead. Vladimir Putin is crazed with history: his version of it is a runaway military machine driving horizontally over anything in its path, driven by an insane ideology of “mother Russia”: a demonically perverted vertical vision that is a kind of return of the repressed. On Mother’s Day, he assured Russian mothers that their sons had died in a holy cause, the cause of killing other mothers’ sons.
This leads us to the fact that nostalgia may be social and collective, not merely individual. Personal nostalgia makes a paradise out of childhood, even when childhood was anything but paradisal. I assure you mine was not: my mother was a paranoid schizophrenic kept normal by medication, married to a good but hopelessly neurotic alcoholic, whom she more or less hated. The rhythm of home life was smoldering discontent punctuated by screaming matches. The cluster of graves including my mother, my grandparents, and one of her sisters is not far from the cluster where my dad is interred with his parents and beloved brother and sister. From my mother’s point of view it is probably not far enough. When I was 17, I watched the famous film of Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, with Jason Robards, and felt that the family seemed akin to my own: the delusional mother in an upstairs room, escaping into fantasies of her girlhood, the father and brothers awash in alcohol downstairs. When the father, a failed actor, quotes Shakespeare’s “We are such things as dreams are made on,” the son who is modeled on O’Neill himself replies, “We are such things as manure is made on.”
Similarly, in a short story called “The Peaches,” Dylan Thomas knew perfectly well that Fern Hill, his aunt’s farm, was not, or was not just, his personal Eden but at the same time the ordinary fallen world with all its ironies, some of them comic, as when he spies on his cousin masturbating in the outhouse, some heartbreaking, as when his aunt is humiliated out of class snobbery. In the same way, the social imagination makes myths out of places, modes of life, and historical narratives in ways that falsify the original reality, sometimes harmlessly but sometimes dangerously.
In the United States, nostalgia idealizes the small town, especially during “the good old days” when life was supposed to be simpler and rooted in common values. Hence the paintings of Norman Rockwell and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, set in Green Town, Illinois, a mythologization of the Waukegan, Illinois where Bradbury grew up. It is sometimes amusing how nostalgia’s idealizing impulse can view the deficiencies and hardships of earlier life as somehow superior to present comfort. When grandpa goes on about how, when he was a boy, they had to walk five miles to school in all weathers, he is implying that a hard life breeds fortitude and confers a kind of moral superiority to the comfortable decadence of the present. And there is a kind of technological nostalgia for outmoded devices. How I wish I had held on to our family’s first TV, a 12-inch black and white that we kept using as a second television in the basement up through my high school years. Once, a previous relationship’s daughter asked us about an old piece of equipment in the window of an antique shop. Margo and I started laughing and told Kristen it was a tube tester, a concept she had never heard of. In the early days, when your TV went on the blink, the first thing your dad did was to take out the vacuum tubes and test them by plugging them into a tube tester at the local drug store, replacing any that had burned out.
Likewise the nostalgic aura around phones with rotary dials, and phone numbers that had letters in them: GL-56426, the “GL” standing for “Glendale.” I do still own two old wooden radios with their elaborate dials, the kind that would have sat on a kitchen table, probably close to a century old by now. We can be nostalgic over the silliest things. A few days ago I was reading archival episodes from the great comic strip Gasoline Alley, which is still being produced after more than a century. On the discussion board under a strip from 1945, a reader wrote, “Very nostalgic seeing Nina talking to Skeezix with a diaper pin in her mouth.” All those who remember cloth diapers, safety pins, and the common method of holding the pins in your teeth while using them one by one, raise your hands. The number of hands will get smaller every year.
All innocuous if not outright charming. The area surrounding the tiny cemetery where my parents reside happens to be a cluster of historical nostalgia. Another example of technological nostalgia is the nearby Warther Museum in Dover, Ohio, which I visited as a school child and again with my mom much later in life. Ernest Warther carved, out of wood and other materials, small replicas illustrating the entire history of the steam locomotive. They are beautiful, accurate, and extraordinarily intricate, a labor of nostalgic love. The cemetery abuts Schoenbrunn Village, also the object of a school field trip in my childhood, another exact replica of American history, this time full sized, a Moravian community of log cabins. Nearby is Zoar, which was a utopian religious community that lasted through much of the 19th century, and a section of the Ohio Erie Canal, mythologized in a number of folk songs. All these are examples of cultural nostalgia, what we call Americana.
But remembering our roots comes with a danger that our will to idealize will tempt us into social injustice, especially when an earlier way of life was made possible by the mistreatment of other people. As the myth of the West, another pastoral ideal of rugged simplicity, lied about our monstrous treatment of Native Americans, so the myth of the South in the good old days lies about the exploitation of African Americans that made it possible. An entire scholarly book has just appeared about just one Stephen Foster song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” which has continued to be recorded by literally hundreds of people, even John Prine, but always with carefully censored lyrics omitting the references to happy darkies. A good number of Foster’s songs are this way. If you sing “Oh Susanna” nowadays, you will undoubtedly be singing a rehabilitated version. The original is a dialect song sung by an African American, and some phrases are wincingly inappropriate, n-word and all. Foster was not a heartless man: the lyrics of “Hard Times Come Again No More” urge compassion for the sufferings of the poor. But to preserve a nostalgic myth he turned his gaze from the inhuman conditions of the sharecropper life upon whose economic basis the sunny South’s comfortable life rested. A TV show I watched on that 12-inch black and white, The Andy Griffith Show, was set in a fictitious Mayberry, North Carolina. It is full of charming innocence, but there are no Black people. Neither are there any gay and lesbian people. Where were the latter in real life? Closeted and in fear of persecution for the sake of keeping life simple. The nostalgic memories of the mother in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, of her youth when she was a popular Southern belle, are the same blending of personal and social falsification of the past, merely in a different social register.
We have arrived at a time when many people are no longer willing to tolerate the lies about the past. The furor over how American history is taught in the schools is a battle over nostalgia. Traditionally, American students have been taught the myth of a freedom-loving country, land of equality and opportunity, guardian of democracy at home and abroad. Conservatives are determined to preserve this myth and suppress all evidence to the contrary. Moderates wish to preserve an ideal image of the United States but qualify it with greater honesty about its treatment of non-white and non-heterosexual people and of immigrants. But we should be honest: there is no small number of people who think there is no ideal United States, that it has always been nothing but a racist, xenophobic, homophobic oligarchy where “freedom” means white middle-class male privilege—and nothing more. We are back to the same either-or as with personal nostalgia. Are we such things as dreams or manure are made on?
I have time to confront such a challenge only indirectly, by returning to my original question. What use are nostalgic memories of an idealized past, not for those who are using them as a means to deny an ironic reality but for those in whom the paradisal images persist, and perhaps even more intensely, despite the full consciousness of that reality? James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus says that history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake, but history is a subset: the real nightmare from which we are trying to awake is time itself. The English title of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume autobiographical novel is Remembrance of Things Past, but a direct translation of its French title would be In Search of Lost Time. It begins with two things, the mother and a moment of nostalgia. The child Marcel is upset because he is deprived of his mother’s goodnight kiss at bedtime. The adult Marcel dips a French pastry called a madeleine cake in tea, as he did in his childhood, and the whole of his past rises from his mind like a sunken Atlantis. Proust’s final volume is called The Past Recaptured, but in what sense? Not literally: the first necessity is a renunciation of what we might call a literalizing fundamentalism of the memory. The remembered past is not the literal past any more than the Bible is a record of literal history. Those who insist on literalism, in personal life, religion, or politics, are headed in a direction in which delusion slowly intensifies into fanaticism. However, if we relinquish delusion and confront what Wallace Stevens called “things as they are,” we begin to perceive more than imperfection, as the imagination undertakes what I have called decreation: not a destruction but a seeing-through the appearances of consensus reality.
The first thing the decreating imagination perceives is the presence of death in every moment. Mircea Eliade has a striking essay called “Mythologies of Death” in which he says that “whatever one may think or may believe he thinks of life and death, he is constantly experiencing modes and levels of dying,” that “we are anticipating death experiences even when we are, so to say, driven by the most creative epiphanies of life” (42). He goes on to say that
Historians of religions can go further and show that many gestures and actions of everyday life are symbolically related to modes and levels of dying. Any immersion in darkness, any irruption of light, represents an encounter with death. The same thing can be said of any experience of mountaineering, flying, swimming under water, or any long journey, discovery of an unknown country, or even a meaning encounter with strangers. Every one of these experiences recalls and reactualizes a landscape, a figure, or an event from one of those imaginary universes known from mythologies or folklore or from one’s own dreams and fantasies….What matters is that, though unconscious, these symbolic meanings play a decisive role in our lives. This is confirmed by the fact that we simply cannot detach ourselves from such imaginary universes, whether we are working or thinking, or relaxing and amusing ourselves, or sleeping and dreaming, or even vainly trying to fall asleep. (43-44)
This strange and cryptic passage casts light on the early, death-haunted poems of Dylan Thomas, in one of which the speaker says, “I sit and watch the worm beneath my nail / Wearing the quick away.”
Such death-consciousness may provoke a desire to flee not only the dying mortal body but time itself in favor of a disembodied timeless state. But Eliade claims that such a repudiation of time and the body is limited only to Orphism, Platonism, and Gnosticism. That seems dubious to me, as there was a strongly otherworldly and ascetic strain in medieval Christianity, whatever official doctrine might have declared. However, Eliade’s conclusion is profound. He recounts an Indonesian myth in which the Creator gives humanity the choice of a stone or a banana. Humanity chooses the banana, and the Creator says, “Had ye chosen the stone, your life would have been like the life of the stone, changeless and immortal” (34).
Well, nobody wants to be a rotting banana, but, on the other hand, who wants to be a stone? Eliade asserts that “the only satisfactory solution would have been for the mythical ancestors to have chosen both the stone and the banana. Separately, neither is able to meet man’s paradoxical nostalgia for being fully immersed in life and, concurrently, partaking of immortality—his yearning to exist alike in time and in eternity” (44).
Such “paradoxical nostalgia” at first seems counterintuitive, mostly because we are used to the dualistic choice between a totally spiritual otherworldliness and a totally secular worldliness. But Eliade is convincing that it is not far from common understanding after all: it is the paradox a dying Keats struggles with confronting the changeless but also lifeless figures on a Grecian urn. It is also behind what Eliade claims is the “widespread belief that the departed ones haunt their familiar surroundings” or what he terms “the paradoxical multilocation of the soul” in which the dead are felt at once to be in the tomb and thus under a stone if not identical with it, but at the same time in the afterworld, and also still somehow with us. “It reveals,” he says, “the secret hope that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the dead are able to partake somehow in the world of the living” (40-41). How many of us have talked to their dead while standing by their grave? I did, just last Sunday.
Eliade rises to a rhetorical crescendo, saying that “this paradoxical process discloses a nostalgia and perhaps a secret hope of attaining a level of meaning where life and death, body and spirit, reveal themselves as aspects or dialectical stages of one ultimate reality” (42). As an example of how far this could go, he cites the Mahayana Buddhist Nagarjuna, who declared that absolutely nothing differentiates samsara, this world’s illusion, from nirvana, spiritual reality. Is such a statement anything more than a verbal game, a playing with abstract paradoxes?
In Samuel R. Delany’s novel Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), a young African-American stumbles across Spinoza’s Ethics as a teenager and spends the rest of his life trying to understand it. Any teacher might be moved at such a will to understanding, but why that particular book? Spinoza believed in a God or spiritual reality that is absolutely coterminous with this world, a belief usually dismissed as “pantheism.” I think Delany is suggesting that there is no separate spiritual world or afterlife. It is this life that is spiritual, that is what we have of heaven. I also think it is the perspective of Northrop Frye in his significantly titled book The Double Vision, written in the last year of his life. Delany is a declared atheist; Frye is a declared Christian. Whatever.
How do we know that this is true, know not just conceptually but through some kind of experience? Here is the use of nostalgia, for “Burnt Norton” says that “Only through time is time conquered.” Delany has an earlier novel, The Einstein Intersection (1967) that retells the story of Orpheus in science fictional terms. In it, the Orpheus figure recovers his tragically lost love when he makes music. The leitmotif phrase is “She is with me,” although she has not been brought back from the dead literally. In Proust, the past is recaptured when the protagonist Marcel sits down to write about it: the end of the book coincides with the beginning of the novel we read, which is also true (as M.H. Abrams points out) of Wordsworth’s Prelude. Another essay in the same volume as Eliade’s essay on death opens with a touching anecdote about the famous historian Mommsen, who, without any notes, gave a lecture in his old age on Socrates and sketched the entire plan of the city of Athens in Plato’s time on the board. But after the lecture the elderly Mommsen had to be taken in hand and guided back to his home lest he become lost in his own native city. Eliade says that “Like most creative scholars, he probably lived in two worlds,” a dead past that was not dead but “his world—that place where he could move, think, and enjoy the beatitude of being alive and creative” and the, for him, “meaningless and ultimately chaotic space of modern Berlin” (19).
Through personal memory, in which images of the past are transmuted into something beyond themselves, rising out of the failures and miseries and ugliness of ordinary time; through love, especially lost love; through art; through scholarship: in these ways is the past recaptured, paradise regained. But that promise is no opiate of the masses, and the experience, however one comes to it, remains bittersweet. The pain is not dulled, not for a minute. It is merely made worthwhile.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959.
Eliade, Mircea. “Mythologies of Death” and “The World, the City, the House,” in Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religions. University of Chicago Press, 1976. 32-46, 18-31 respectively.
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: A Parallel Text. Edited by J.C. Maxwell. Penguin, 1971.