What if Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be?

Nobody is more nostalgic than diarists, who believe that no moment has been fully lived until it’s been recorded and made available for later reawakening. And, for both diarists and non-diarists, probably no nostalgic pangs are keener than those felt for a time through which they never lived at all. My own diary tells me that, in Rome on October 19, 1989, “I knew as I looked up at the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a sharp, beautiful, half-ruin against the lowering sun, that I was not feeling anything of ancient Rome—just the Rome of my 19th-century Englishmen, the Rome of twilight, crumblings & white melancholy.” I was longing for Keats and Shelley and Arthur Hugh Clough, men I knew through books, and who themselves had visited a Rome they knew only through their reading.

The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in a brief volume called “Retrotopia” (2017), cited the seventeenth-century tendency to consider nostalgia “eminently curable”; it could be treated with opium or with “a trip to the mountains.” Such a journey would likely be futile, however, unless one had been born in the particular mountains selected as a destination. Other scholars of nostalgia have noted that until the nineteenth century it was regarded as more a geographic longing than a temporal one, homesickness for a place rather than for an era. Bauman himself saw it as “but one member of the rather extended family of affectionate relationship with an ‘elsewhere’ ”—something that can be found in the vast “optionality of human choices.” As Virginia Woolf once mused on the difficulty of attending the opera, “Wherever I seat myself, I die in exile.” Nostalgia’s pain can be exquisite, and many of those susceptible to it have sought to cultivate rather than banish the condition. In the same seventeenth century that prescribed methods of relief for nostalgia, writers like Milton and Burton went hunting for twinges of wistfulness as if they were magic mushrooms.

Nostalgia has broad artistic and political dimensions; it is a matter of cultural consequence. It also never ceases to be a private preoccupation—sometimes a harmless solace and occasionally a dangerous indulgence. The term “nostalgie de la boue,” originating in the mid-nineteenth century, describes a primal longing for the “mud” of depravity on which the fleurs du mal can float. Viewed most harshly, nostalgia is the mud itself, a mental quicksand in which we allow the past to drown the present.

The latest study of the subject is Tobias Becker’s “Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia” (Harvard), which is so respectful of the past that it promises to be “cautious and careful” while “considering all texts on nostalgia, no matter when they appeared, as primary sources.” The author’s deference reaches a point where his own work becomes more historiography than history. Becker delves into volume after academic volume on the subject (Bauman’s “Retrotopia” was preceded, some six years earlier, by Simon Reynolds’s “Retromania”) and finds a remarkable consistency within “the existing literature”: for centuries now, the verdict on nostalgia has been “overwhelmingly pejorative.”

Historians have rendered this judgment more vociferously than anyone else, as if only they should be allowed visitation rights with the past. Politicians seeking victory in the present display surprising unanimity in deploring, or at least cautioning against, nostalgia. In its adjectival form, the word is almost always, Becker demonstrates, a “political insult,” even when uttered by a reactionary. From the liberal side, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., inveighed against nostalgia in his mid-nineteen-fifties indictment of the New Conservatism, though he fell gauzily into the mood a decade later, once the New Frontier had become another lost and longed-for country. Becker doesn’t note Schlesinger’s sentimental lapse, or the way George McGovern, a left-wing Democrat, accepted the Party’s 1972 Presidential nomination with the refrain “Come home, America!,” wrapping temporal nostalgia for lost ideals inside figurative language derived from nostalgia’s older, spatial sense.

But Becker is generally convincing in showing the whole political spectrum’s reluctance to be caught trafficking in any direct invocation of the concept. Irving Kristol assured potential liberal converts that neoconservatism was “resolutely free of nostalgia,” and George Will located Ronald Reagan’s only nostalgic impulse in the way “he wants to return to the past’s way of facing the future,” which was to say, from a non-defeatist posture. Becker hardly seems a deep student of Reagan, but he’s correct in pointing out the surprising infrequency with which Reagan referred to the nineteen-fifties, the decade where his opponents presumed his heart lay. Word-search quantification reveals that Reagan “used the term future more often than past, god, peace, and even freedom; the only term he used more often was America.”

Margaret Thatcher, however often she might have invoked her hardworking grocer father, generally regarded the past as a place where she wouldn’t be caught dead. After a flirtation with “Victorian values” in the run-up to her second term, she swapped them out for “fundamental” ones. During her time in office, she cut government funding for museums, in keeping with her over-all austerity, but also out of a personal aversion to museums themselves. A radical modernizer, she was happy to pose atop a bulldozer for the demolition of London’s Broad Street station, which had been open since 1865.

Nostalgia has been offered as a blunt instrument of explanation for both Brexit and Trump. Becker shows that proponents of Brexit talked surprisingly little about the past and tried, in fact, to hang nostalgia’s toxic millstone around the necks of Remainers, accusing them of a softhearted attachment to the now sclerotic dream of European unity. With “Make America Great Again” as his slogan, Trump could hardly deny his own embrace of nostalgia, though Becker says that he “neither employed nostalgic tropes nor referred to any specific events or periods in the past.” He instead let his listeners drift off into their own “meanings, memories, and feelings.” He may, however, if only unconsciously, have parsed the MAGA acronym more finely than Becker himself does. Trump promised to make America great again, but he never said that greatness would look like it had before. His would be a new greatness, a gold-plated authoritarian spectacle; no more barbershop harmonies coming from the village band shell but, rather, a single voice blaring from the stadium loudspeaker.

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