It’s Gone, All Gone – Introduction: The Various Uses For Nostalgia

by TylerJ

At that very instant:
Oh, what I would not give for the joy
of being at your side in Iceland
inside the great unmoving daytime
and of sharing this now
the way one shares music
or the taste of fruit.
At that very instant
the man was at her side in Iceland.

I recently watched Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris. The film follows Gil Pender’s (Owen Wilson) struggle with nostalgia for 1920s Paris–a time he considers to be a golden age. In a key scene, Gil and his fiance’s “pedantic” friend Paul discuss Gil’s golden age and Paul tells him rather bluntly: “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present.”

2011 had the usual amounts of oh-my-God-I’m-old moments (the return of Beavis of Butthead, Doug, All That, Salute Your Shirts; the 20th Anniversary Edition of NevermindPitchfork turned 15; and Is This It turned 10) and the requisite love letters to our past selves. For people of a certain age, those cultural artifacts elicit warm feelings of nostalgia by allowing us to leave our complicated contemporary selves for a few fleeting moments and return to simpler times. Indeed, as Psychology Today tells us, “the occasional detour down memory lane can give your spirits a significant lift.”

Of course, while nostalgia is a “denial of the painful present,” it’s important to remember that nostalgia is also a denial of a painful past. After all, the flip side of the warm feelings brought on by wistful remembrance is the knowledge that you can never truly go back. The crucial thing to remember, however, is that those wistful feelings are not based on any sort historical facticity–those feelings are based on an idealized version of the past. We know this because of Proust: “It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture memory.” We also know this because of science. Jonah Lehrer explains in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, that immediately after an event happens, “we begin warping the memory…to fit our own personal narrative,” and, Lehrer continues, “the past is never past. As long as we are alive, our memories remain wonderfully volatile. In their mercurial mirror, we see ourselves.” Nostalgia, then, is one of the many techniques one has for making not only the past intelligible, but the present as well. When Proust eats his madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, we see his past through the rose-colored eyes of the present.

However, it is crucial to understand that the glasses are not only rose-colored, but are also uni-directional. The price of a rose-colored past is a disappointing present. In Midnight In Paris, Gil Pender left his painful present each night by literally transporting back to Golden Twenties era Paris. It wasn’t until Gil realized that the inhabitants of 1920s Paris looked back on La Belle Époque with the same fervor as he looked back upon the the Golden Twenties that he decided to fix his painful present by leaving his vapid fiancee and quitting his job as a screenwriter. By turning his rose-colored glasses from the past to the present, Gil Pender was able to find a present worth living for.

It’s a beautiful cliche, but the present is what you make of it.

Over the next few posts I intend to take a closer look at instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. In particular, I’ll be examining articles and arguments that criticize nostalgia while simultaneously using nostalgia as their primary mode of engagement.

Objects of Inquiry

  • Part 1: Instagram and The Faux-Vintage Photo
  • Part 2: Social Media and the Difference Between Nostalgia and Scrapbooks
  • Part 3: The Case of Simon Reynolds

Nostalgia, like most things, is best in moderation.