by Emrys Westacott
Nostalgia is a fascinating and remarkably common phenomenon. We have all heard older people comparing the present unfavorably with the past in spite of–or even because of–obvious material improvements in the standard of living. Most of us over the age of twenty-five have probably done this ourselves. Often the fond remembrance involves some account of how we lived more cheaply, were closer to nature, were more self-sufficient, enjoyed uncomplicated daily routines, or contented themselves with humble pleasures. The underlying idea is that things were better because they were simpler.
But nostalgia for simplicity is not confined to individuals reminiscing; across cultures it is also a persistent motif in oral and written literary traditions. In religion, philosophy and literature, it has often taken the form of harking back to an unsullied past or a golden age of happiness and virtue. The biblical account of Adam and Eve in paradise is paradigmatic, but there are many other examples. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing over two and half thousand years ago, laments the sorry condition of the world he lives in compared to that inhabited by the first humans, a “golden race of men,” who lived “free from toil and grief…..for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly.” The Roman poet Ovid similarly describes a Golden Age when
…..of her own accord the earth produced
A store of every fruit. The harrow touched her not,
Nor did the ploughshare wound her fields.
And man content with given food,
And none compelling, gathered arbute fruits
And wild strawberries on the mountain sides…..
The lines underscore not just the absence of toil or tools but also the way people desired little and lived harmoniously with nature. In these idyllic circumstances there was no need for laws, since “rectitude spontaneous in the heart prevailed.”
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by Jenny White
My friend and colleague Corky White likes to regale me with family legends, some of which are quite dramatic in both human and historic terms. They form a stark contrast to my own family history, much of which is unknown, and the part that is known consists of Bavarian peasants all the way down. At some point my grandparents moved from the Old Mill Valley to a regional city and their offspring spread themselves wide across the class spectrum and, in our case, across the globe. My uncle once put together a shallow genealogy, showing where family members were born, toiled, reproduced, and died. There are personal sagas involved in all this – my grandmother met my grandfather when they worked on the same farm, she as housemaid, he as stable boy. He stole up the stairs at night. My mother brought me with her on an ocean liner that docked in New York, where neither of us had ever been. But these are not family legends, they are not even stories people tell each other. They’re too personal, or too uninteresting to other family members who, after all, are living their own complicated stories.
What’s the difference between people who trace genealogies and families like Corky’s that collect legends? As legend has it, Corky’s grandfather, Mark Isaacs, was Abel to his elder brother’s Cain. Cain was Sir Rufus Isaacs, Marquess of Reading, Viceroy to India, who was implicated in the 1912 Marconi scandal in England. Somehow Sir Rufus put the family shame on Mark, who was expunged from the family and given a choice of Canada or Australia, where criminals were sent. If you google Marconi Scandal, you find a third Isaacs brother mentioned who actually managed the Marconi Company, but not the youngest brother, Mark aka Abel. Corky’s legend diverges from the historical narrative because legends privilege those parts of the story that have psychological saliency for the group that owns the legends. What do people learn or gain from performing these narratives at the dinner table, in the car, to children and friends?
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Nostalgia, according to Webster's New World Dictionary1, is “a longing for something far away or long ago”. We all feel it, and it seems to play a larger role in our lives the older we get. Which makes perfect logical sense because the older we get the more we think about the “good old days”. Eventually there comes a point where there are more days in the past than in the future.2
I recently went with my wife and our two children to her high school reunion down in Centreville, Maryland. She graduated from Gunston Day School, class of 1985. I never had an experience like that when I was in high school (or college for that matter). Since Gunston at the time was a boarding school, my wife lived there during the school year and obviously went back home to New Jersey when summer came around. I never left home. I took the bus to high school, and I commuted to college. When we arrived at that reunion, I could feel that nostalgia even though I never went there. I could tell my wife had this sense of such joy from remembering all her best friends from high school. That was accompanied by a feeling that you can never get back to those days, the sadness, the brink of tears.
It's that mix that describes nostalgia for me.
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