The Hang-Ups Of Nostalgia


As with most of what is written, this essay began with a furious thought and some scribbles that tried to capture a bizarre alacrity that had come over me, and also the profound notion—which is also pompous—that I had spiked into a cosmic vein full of truth, but the worst part was that I left the place where I wrote in a notebook confident… well, humble that I had just splayed across a few lined pages some truth.

It’s an urge many of us get from time to time. I took up the pages a few hours later to transcribe. I remember my face tightened, and I turned my head to a side, and debated whether to gently take out the few pages I’d written, or to take the entire notebook outside, get the Ronson fluid out of my desk with some firecrackers, and make the day a little hotter with a small fire and some pops.

But I thought that a waste and probably would put me in a destructive and pessimistic mood for the rest of the afternoon. The other option, which is usually the better of the two, but often the harder to agree with, was to rewrite it all, and pull out the mildly useful ideas.

I wanted to write about nostalgia, about the fact that for a good portion of childhood I felt behind and in a sprint against an unstoppable current triggered by nostalgia. I felt behind because I would drift into a daydream full of people I respected, most often dead ones. The process had a kind of inferiority-like effect. I can remember it bothering friends that their idols or icons had published a book or recorded an album by a certain age, and despite a complete difference in time, they actually belittled, criticized—and worst of all—stymied a lot of their potential when they would wish to be in another time when they would have been better off concentrating on their now.

I never was behind. And that sucks to think about now, the wasted time. I should note that I was not ahead of my time, or anybody. In my case, I drifted in weird mental states that were the process for my progress as an observer. But I was not behind, as I had felt.

Nostalgia is a weird bitch of a thing, which is why I want to write this. I can see many long-time friends who I think are caught up in something like it. Stuck in times and aiming for successes that logically can’t be reached, and shouldn’t be aimed at. An example that kept paralyzing friends in the 1990s was the Beat period. For whatever reason, that period prevailed as an example of lifestyles and work ethics to aim for.

The trick is that nostalgia has an important place in our lives. The adventures we slip into that involve longing for the past inspire dreams and generate the same ancient energy and dust that made up the characters and ideas of the first stories, that brightened cave walls, and patterned Mammoth hides. But nostalgia, if unchecked, can drag a person down, can gain unreasonable control of a person’s emotions, and can make them miserable.

Some feel nostalgia for high school, for college, for camps, for first loves or second houses or third spouses. Some wistfully want to go back to an era of protest and meaningful discourse, like the 1960s. And some even feel nostalgia for eras that haven’t ever existed—The Lord of the Rings is a good example.

Nostalgia is threaded into the same kinds of emotion that send young men, and now women as well, to war. The curious condition men fell into during wartime, the yearning for glory and fame that Wilfred Owen countered and bleakly revealed as the ridiculous horror of war with his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est. “The old lie; it is good and sweet to die for one’s country.” Men went to war, slaves to the manipulant fingers of honor, running into bullets and leaving widows, lovers, and fatherless children to maintain their realities ruined by fantastic notions. Nostalgia is as powerfully felt an emotion as honor, or valor, or glory, or fame. And just as dangerous.

I experienced a bout of nostalgia last weekend when I saw the Woody Allen film, Midnight In Paris. The feeling was odd, a kind of kick that my heart walloped against my brain. I felt the pangs of regret and intense self-critical thought that accompany such moods, and caught myself criticizing past decisions that led me to the apparent “spot” I’d trapped myself in. Again, counterproductive.

I wanted to be a part of a creative hub like Paris in the 1920s. That period in Paris was a time of wild creativity, much of it a natural reaction to the terror and emotional drain of The Great War, as it was known before the Second World War. It was a central hub for conversation and philosophy and creation, in general. That part of the world, at that time, hosted people who changed how the Western world thought. It seemed a place that a wild thinker could go and hone ideas and share work and compete.

I began to feel that most people do not live in an environment that fosters people of creative ilk. And, that the fact was an axiom for however long humanity will lope around. I felt nostalgia for the excitement of those times, an entire decade that seemed to take place just before nightfall and just before dawn. This, of course, ignores the fact that their time was probably not much more exciting than now. We just prefer to look back through history, pick a period of time that appeals to us, and then compare that time with the now.

This was wrong. The effect of nostalgia taken too seriously, allowed too much emotional control. If I thought all the time that I could not live now with the vivid energy of the people I had in mind, denizens of Paris in the 1920s, then I would act as a miserabalist, and fail to recognize the brilliant people and places around. There are creative hubs everywhere. Producing the same energies that artists in Paris in the 1920s painted and wrote and thought with.

Nostalgia reduces smart men and women to defeatists that end up making life that much harder for their friends, family, and acquaintances.

So, cherish bizarre alacrity. It exists everywhere when you stop juxtaposing your life with icons. Slipping into nostalgia is good and healthy, and reminds us of our laurels, that seems true. To get stuck in a dream for a little too long is not shameful, because when it passes you have the wonderful chance to iconoclast and restructure how you look at the world around. With nostalgia checked you think of more, and flow through life along something of a sine curve, let’s say, rather than a straight axis. The ups and downs, when moderate, define the width of one’s capacity for thought. For instance, you see more of a crowd of people if you wander it in curved paths, rather than just straight through.

The movie isn’t really necessary to explain, because like any other Woody Allen movie, it was wistful, mildly more provocative than eating an avocado, and yet somehow funny while never really reaching any definitive point.

Like many, I spent a good deal of youthful time dreaming. Once I grew to a sexual age, the dreaming subsided slightly, and then more and more with the bitter realities of adulthood. I would never give up what I have learned: that strife and fear and a twisted heart are all feelings worth understanding and worth knowing how to control. That last sentence I would not be able to write, were I enveloped in nostalgia for my childhood. Yes, the innocence of children is endearing, but they will grow, and we need to know how to help them do that.

I’ll leave off with this thought: one day, people my age will have to take the place of the current creators and teachers. This is important for several reasons. Nostalgia keeps people from paying attention to the present. And having groups of people interested in teaching and creation—such as the artistic circles of 1920s Paris—makes life a lot more interesting, and fun in spite of the shit and grime.

The artistic circles back then were the centers of the Western world. Our population exploded outward like a firecracker puffing a blowfish. But we have the same kinds of circles, perhaps with less impact, because they seem about as jarringly ineffective as watered whisky, or half-decaf café.

I spent a long time wallowing in a myopic mood that focused only on the thought that there will be no Dubliners or Gatsby or Stein, or groups of excitedly limber minds in our time that will delve through life and figure parts of it out… an ignorant and dumb mood, but important to recognize. I lacked a counter mood in my mind. I have not yet been able to put it better than Scott Fitzgerald in his essay, The Crack Up, so here it is:

… let me make a general observation—the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.

With the bit of luck I have, I’m no longer dumb enough to think that I can end this essay with some line that will inspire. Crave understanding of weird moments, opposed ideas, and nostalgia. And, try to be a friend and family to family and friends… and an artist to everyone else.

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