Thinking Back: Notes toward a Defense of Nostalgia

by Debra Morris

“I remember when I really used to be into nostalgia.”

—Demetri Martin

MilkmanAnd I remember when it began, about a year ago; when the artifacts of my past, most of them long gone, began to take on the shimmer of buried treasure. It's an odd sensation, to be struck by loss, to begin to see the world through the prism of what no longer exists. I can even imagine recollecting, in what I hope is the distant future, the first stirrings of nostalgia. “Grandma, tell me about your early-onset nostalgia. How did it feel when you first realized that no one under 25 could use a paper dictionary?”

For I seem to have grown very nostalgic lately (I humbly submit as evidence any one of my three posts for 3QD: see here, here, or here). Recently my husband and I were talking about something we wanted to write together, and we quickly realized that many of the touchstones for it—the objects, experiences, feelings, or points of reference that we wanted to discuss—were all things that had nearly disappeared within the space of our lives. It's not that we wished to resurrect them, or even imagined that they could be recreated. Rather, at least for me, the problem seemed to be that their disappearance left gaps where we might once have found knowledge, or even just know-how; tools or directions for coping with the challenges of parenthood, career, marriage, citizenship. Even tools for grappling with questions that, as academically trained theorists, we were used to engaging on a much more abstract level. An example: my husband is a devotee of 40s and 50s American cinema, and one thing that has caught his attention is that there used to be a whole range of jobs—careers, even, in that they were capable of sustaining a family; they conferred respectability; they carried an entire world of practice, sense-experience, and meaning in their wake—that no longer exist, though they featured in these films surprisingly often. The private eye was a stock character in film noir, of course, but so, my husband discovered to his surprise, was the milkman. (What, I wonder, can Thomas Piketty tell us about that?)

As the list of long-lost items grew, we both were careful to insist that, whatever shape the analysis took, it couldn't simply be that sad and disreputable thing, “an exercise in nostalgia.” Owing to long academic training, both of us harbored a suspicion of any personal reminiscence not thoroughly and rigorously analyzed, contextualized, interrogated. Reviled by historians, social scientists, and political activists alike; suspect among left-leaning literary and cultural theorists; called “insidious,” a “fight against the future,” an abject defense against “existential risk” whenever the topic of intractable old people comes up[1]: we were pretty sure that, among our former colleagues, the phenomenon of nostalgia would be considered not only laughable but an intellectual dead-end. The historian Charles Maier has famously said, of nostalgia, that it is to historical study what kitsch is to art; it is “history without [the] guilt,” essentially. Neither my husband nor I have seen a single episode of Mad Men, and this may be why: we can't quite trust a show that generates so much kitsch, so much product fetishism (as when perfectly serviceable hair gel must be rebranded as “pomade,” as I discovered on a recent trip to the grocery store).

So I've begun to do some thinking about nostalgia; it seems the responsible thing to do, i.e., to give due suspicion to my knee-jerk suspicion of it. For I wonder if anyone but the most demagogic politician or pundit engages in “pure” nostalgia[2]; I doubt that any serious writer or thinker is ever merely reminiscing. Rather, it seems to me that the charge of “nostalgia” often functions, on the left, much as “political correctness” functions on the right, namely as a quick means of branding something indefensible. Since I feel pretty sure that defenders of all things PC could, if asked, actually provide a thoughtful and detailed defense of any one of their values—it wouldn't be too hard to explain why we value “equality,” say, or “diversity”—I think it's also worth assuming, of anything we're tempted to condemn as nostalgic, that there is something defensible in it.

I've been aided in my reappraisal of nostalgia by several writers who attempt to complicate the notion, who emphasize, variously, nostalgia's “ethical,” “utopian,” “dissident,” and “critical” dimensions. (Also, perhaps more significantly, these writers raise the question whether we are actually doing something else, raising other issues altogether, when we speak or think “nostalgically.” So, not only may nostalgia embrace good or productive or even progressive dimensions, impulses, etc., it may simply be a more complex activity than we've assumed. I will also consider this question, if only tangentially, in what follows.) Avishai Margalit, for one, struck by the difference between his memories as a teacher in a youth village in Jerusalem and those of his former students, many of whom were orphans or refugees, glimpses in this difference something of nostalgia's ethical potential.[3] “Their memories were far more detailed and vivid than mine,” says Margalit, but also “… highly idealized, not just stylized, but idealized”—meaning, of course, the type of memories usually dismissed as nostalgic. If nostalgia is rarely recognized as having anything to do with ethics, Margalit suggests that this is due to our reluctance to accord ethical value to things outside our control—as memory, and forgetfulness, and the nostalgia that so often seems a vexing combination of the two, would surely seem to be. But the ethical dimension of memory doesn't spring from control, according to Margalit. The “thick relations” of ethics, in contrast to morality's “thin relations … based solely on being human,” originate in gratitude. “The basis of gratefulness is memory; the memory of good done to us,” says Margalit. “Accordingly, the relation between memory and gratefulness is intrinsic. There is no way for you to be grateful without actively remembering the good done to you” (277). Margalit senses that this is why the students' memories were more idealized, infused with more longing and more frankly nostalgic than his own: their memories not only began in gratitude but, it could be said, they ended there as well. No doubt “[n]ostalgia takes a free ride on memory,” by which Margalit acknowledges a common criticism of nostalgia, that it typically removes the bad from the good parts of memory. Even so, he concludes, when nostalgia “turn[s] a longing into a belonging to a place and people, which creates a sense of home,” in the very least it is “endearing…, for it expresse[s] a strong sense of being grateful” (280).

Svetlana Boym has done as much as anyone to plumb the concept of nostalgia and to distinguish a narrow and politically suspect “restorative” nostalgia from a more promising “reflective” kind.[4] While both kinds of nostalgia “rebe[l] against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress…, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition,” they do so in very different ways, according to Boym:

This typology of nostalgia allows me to distinguish between national memory that is based on a single version of national identity, on the one hand, and social memory, which consists of collective frameworks that mark but do not define individual memory, on the other hand. The rhetoric of restorative nostalgia is not about ‘the past' [pace historians like Maier], but rather about universal values, family, nature, homeland, truth. The rhetoric of reflective nostalgia is about taking time out of time and about grasping the fleeing present. (13-14; my emph.)

I emphasize the aspect of time, nostalgia's relationship to it, because it is here that Margalit's reflections intersect with Boym's, in the care both take to distinguish nostalgia from a regressive and authoritarian “politics of memory” (Margalit). By definition, memory is always memory of “the past,” but the only kind of past that a politics could hope to restore, in Boym's word, is one abstracted from all concrete circumstances, contingencies, “details”; a past distilled as “universal values, family, nature, homeland, truth.” While this too may seem to “tak[e] time out of time,” as Boym says of the good, reflective kind of nostalgia, at least by implying that we can have our way with time, restoring parts of it as we see fit, it leaves the “modern idea of time” untouched, the notion that time's irreversibility “plagues the human condition.” This modern idea of time is, unsurprisingly, uniquely congruent with other modern ideals—like control, or intention; like morality's “thin relations … based solely on being human,” as Margalit puts it—which explains, among other things, its intuitive appeal, its seeming reality. But perhaps those ethical “thick relations” that Margalit discusses require something more, at least something else: time taken “out of time” so that it can be felt otherwise—as “belonging” or “being at home,” for Margalit; residing in the intricacies of the “fleeing present,” for Boym. (Reflective nostalgia, she says, “loves details, not symbols.”)

Boym's emphasis, though, as opposed to Margalit's, is almost always on what we may find, rather than feel, through nostalgic reverie. (She doesn't call it “reflective nostalgia” for nothing.) And what we find are connections, intersections—turns perhaps better described as missed opportunities—that replenish thought by giving it wider latitude. So, even though Boym denies that nostalgia is yearning for a particular time period—a particular past, in other words—she acknowledges the yearning for a particular experience of time, “the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams….The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space” (my emph.)—the point being, though, to enlarge thought by reminding us of options, by recovering “details” that might function, once again, as possible choices. Reflective nostalgia isn't really about the past, but neither is the hope that it generates directed to the future. Rather, as Boym puts it, it looks ever “sideways”:

In fact, there is a tradition of critical reflection on the modern condition that incorporates nostalgia. It can be called “off-modern.” The adverb “off” confuses our sense of direction. It makes us explore side shadows and back alleys, rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narratives of history.

Boym echoes others who have noted that, far from being trapped in the past, nostalgia is often an exquisitely sensitive response to the present: as a defense against contemporary anxieties, it tells us where society's fault-lines lie. (We should take it seriously as critique, then, even if we discount it as a reliable history.) Nostalgia is not always for, e.g., “a fallen empire,” insists Boym, “but also for the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that have become obsolete” (10).

I want to end with one potentially devastating critique of Boym—devastating because it insists upon the psychological, as opposed to the intellectual, uses of nostalgia. If, with psychoanalytic critic Derek Hook, we take seriously the “psychical operations occurring within nostalgia,” then we are in the best position to gauge its “critical” or “utopian” potential.[5] While Hook agrees with Boym's and other recuperative accounts that contest the typical view of nostalgia as “reactionary, sentimental, even melancholic” (Hook, 227), he proposes testing them against the personal histories collected as part of South Africa's Apartheid Archive Project. As Hook reminds us, “Nostalgia is, after all, … a mode of experience, of memory, indeed, of affect.” If it is claimed that any retreat into nostalgia can be re-read as a canny assessment of society's current ills—a defense is, after all, also a response—the reverse is true, too: every such response may serve powerfully defensive needs, overwhelming whatever insights or critical perspective might otherwise emerge:

[G]ains are always shadowed by what in psychoanalytic terms is the very opposite of a transformative impulse: an ego-substantiating means of affirming, supporting and strengthening an identity. Although this may seem of less than immediate political importance, one should bear in mind that such functions of “ego-conservation” are not simply psychological. They are emblematic of imaginary operations which pertain as much to the maintenance of a given society's self-image—its defensive narcissism in respect of its repressed histories, its inability to confront or recall difficult or self-compromising truths—as that of an individual ego. (231)

What is strange, and fascinating, in Hook's discussion of the apartheid narratives—in particular their sheer variety, which can't help but disclose the limits of “official” history and any given self-image—is the way he sometimes subtly distinguishes such accounts from nostalgia, while nevertheless continuing to view them as, in essence, “nostalgic.” (This is not an altogether bad thing if it encourages us to view nostalgia more capaciously, perhaps more positively, since it can't be claimed that the memories of black South Africans evince a merely “sentimental” or “melancholic” longing for a lost apartheid world. Whether it broadens the concept beyond all meaning is a valid question but not one I can address here.) The elision is clear here: referring to J. Dlamini's Native Nostalgia, Hook praises it for offering “a sense of the type of critique that nostalgia—or in this case, personal reminiscence aligned with scholarly reflection—may deliver” (228; my emph.). One might reasonably ask whether a rigorous and honest “scholarly reflection” might not suffice—or, put another way, what more, exactly, does “nostalgia … or in this case, personal reminiscence” contribute. Elsewhere, Hook affirms nostalgia's utopian potential, asking us to “recognize aspects of the past as the basis for renewal and satisfaction in the future,” generating “desire for engagement with difference, with aspiration and critique” (228). But again, if it is possible otherwise to engage with difference, to aspire (to something better), and to maintain a critical perspective on the present, then what is “nostalgia” over and above this?

For Hook, “critique”—one might say, critique properly understood—”becomes a type of counterintuition, a means of unsettling commonplaces and metanarratives.” There is something in the variety of and differences among a plethora of local narratives that makes “Dlamini's use of nostalgia … neither restorative nor palliative; it does not wish for a return, and it inverts rather than affirms political platitudes. One example is the idea … that the world of apartheid ‘was not simply black and white, with resisters on one hand and oppressors on the other'” (Hook 228, quoting Dlamini). Still, Dlamini, in being in a position to “use” nostalgia, is already somewhat immune to the charge of sentimentality, of melancholia, leveled against the garden-variety nostalgic (meaning you or me, when our thoughts wander to the past). The question remains: What—and who—is nostalgia for?

Adam Phillips, a brilliant psychoanalytic essayist and someone who can be counted upon to take very seriously the “psychical operations” at work in something like nostalgia, the uses to which we often can't help but put it, has a few tantalizing suggestions. They are all the more tantalizing given that Phillips does not insist upon the word “nostalgia”—the title of the brief essay I'll discuss is “Making Old”—yet he ends up providing a largely congruent, though far more nuanced, account of the “personal reminiscences” that Hook often simply elides with nostalgia.[6] It is vitally important, for both Hook and Phillips, that there is a (more or less) official history—this is, as Phillips puts it, “the more consensual past”—and something in contrast to it.

Whether it is in restaurants or galleries, or reading lists or history books, or television costume dramas, a past has been arranged for us—reminiscences adroitly selected….This provisionally consensual past will carry a range of conscious and unconscious projects with it….It will have what Keats calls a “palpable design” on us:…But however seductive or persuasive or convincing…, its coercions are tempered by whatever else is going on inside ourselves at the time. (229-230)

We arrive at a museum exhibit, or hear a history lecture—or see an episode of Mad Men, for that matter—with “various other things … going on in [our] minds…, which are also coming from the past because there is nowhere else they could come from.” This is the “idiosyncratic past.” Though Phillips is content with the term that psychoanalysis usually employs for all the “various other things” inside—namely, “unconscious desire”—clearly he wishes to highlight the sense in which unconscious desire functions as past: “And psychoanalysis would call unconscious desire itself a form of memory. Our preoccupations are the way our pasts go in search of a future.” Thus it is that the idiosyncratic past can oppose, or at least complicate, the consensual past, the official history, the meta-narrative. But it does so in irrepressibly idiosyncratic fashion: that is to say, unconsciously, unpredictably; one person, one encounter, at one moment in time. “There is the past that can seem to be searching us out, while we go in search of other pasts.” If the idiosyncratic past sponsors or opens up a space for “freedom”—vis-à-vis the “more consensual past” if not the past per se, no future yet conceived being entirely free of the past—then this freedom is best understood, according to Phillips, as “our relative freedom to have our own thoughts and feelings about what is on offer. The freedom to dream rather than merely imitate or repeat.” (231)

I will close with a memory from my own past, my own growing list of endangered things, experiences, opportunities. (Since the story involves an actual endangered species, it is almost, as they say, too good to be true.) The memory is a vivid one, and persistent, in the sense of evoking so much of what I recall of a Texas childhood. It is also intentionally idiosyncratic, by which I mean its cultural or political import is far from obvious—but then, isn't this precisely where we should expect to find “freedom,” as Phillips conceives it? In 1960s and 70s Texas it was possible, if not especially easy, to capture a “horned lizard” (since 1993 the “state reptile” of Texas and a fantastic creature; for a picture go here). Now, the adult lizards may have seemed the more obvious trophy; they (and their horns) were bigger, after all, plus they were rumored to shoot blood from their eyes, an ability sure to electrify any 8-year-old (and something to which the technical concept “auto-hemorrhaging” somehow fails to do justice). But for me the babies were the real prize, and I would devote a good part of every family vacation to finding one. Maybe part of the allure was the exoticism; not only the animal's bizarre appearance, but the way a baby seemed to embody a whole other world, a prehistoric world, in miniature. I could, without causing apparent trauma, keep one in my grandmother's terrarium—another bona fide artifact from the 70s home—for a day or two of observation.

To hold a dinosaur in a bottle! I tended this sensation—marvelous, incongruous—as carefully as I did the rare creature in my keeping. In ten years living in Texas, I haven't once spotted a horned lizard (not that confining one to a terrarium would be considered a legitimate way to spend time any longer). But, what is more to the point, I haven't yet found anything that can convey as well, much less better, how I felt in its proximity. If I were to tell my teenaged daughter how I first experienced “privacy,” how that space felt and the ways in which it seemed to implicate such things as imagination, wonder, compassion, and reverence, I might begin with a story such as this one. If I wanted to express gratitude, the story would serve as well. If I wanted to begin a conversation about custodianship, or the value of diversity, this memory is part of my repertoire, too. I confess that, when I search my daughter's world for other such touchstones, ones more to her liking, I find few that are to mine. Privacy, for instance, seems little more to her than the secrets she keeps. I want to remember, and I want her to know, that it can be so much more.

[1] I admit to ripping these words from the headlines—or, more precisely, titles—of two recent articles in, respectively, the Journal of Aging Studies and Journal of Research in Personality. The analysis within is far more careful and balanced than the words might suggest. But I am trying to express how loaded a term “nostalgia” is, and this is due partly, I think, to how narrowly we tend to construe it: nostalgia is simply the resentful bloviating of grumpy old folks.

[2] In other words, anyone other than Glenn Beck, who seems all too happy to stoke a sense of longing and loss even if it deranges public debate. Of Beck's efforts to organize a march commemorating the day after 9/11, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes, “Is it strange to feel nostalgia for that day?…People's remains still lay smoldering….A time of deep psychic trauma for untold numbers of people, it seems a day that only someone with the most distant and abstract connection to it would want to revisit, much less re-create, and that nothing short of a near-galactic narcissism could bring a person to suggest enshrining it as a state of being.” See Sullivan's excellent piece, “American Grotesque,” in Pulphead: essays (2011, pp. 156-57).

[3] All references are to Margalit's 2011 essay “Nostalgia” in Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21:271-280.

[4] See, of course, Boym's 2001 The Future of Nostalgia—or her very helpful synopsis of the book in “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” Hedgehog Review, Summer 2007. References herein are to the article.

[5] See Hook's 2012 article “Screened History: Nostalgia as Defensive Formation” in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 18(3):225-239.

[6] Find “Making Old” in Phillips' 2013 One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays.