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The Paradoxes of Nostalgia

Nostalgia offers an escape from life’s burdens, but it can’t keep its promises.

By now we are all acquainted with the pandemic’s pathology of feeling. We know about the loneliness, the hopelessness, and the grief. But there are other reactions, less prominent but not rare. In my case, the past two years have been accompanied by a curiously persistent case of nostalgia. I go on little quests of memory, in search of images tediously generic and blazingly specific. Fall leaves brushing against school bus windows, the otherworldly glow of high-school football games at night, the slow crawl of school closures across the TV screen on snowy mornings. Sometimes these reminiscences turn obsessive. I look at maps of my old stomping grounds around the Seattle suburbs to recall minute details about the road from the bowling alley to the movie theater. I look up old newspaper stories to relive the thrill of a minor earthquake during a Mariners game from 1996. I fixate on one recollection in the hope that it will revive its slumbering brothers. The name of a Little League teammate: Jason Porter? Portman? Porterfield? The stickiness of middle school dances. The math problems I did at those dances to distract from the terror of actually dancing. The eye-licking frog on the cover of my biology book. The texture of my girlfriend’s thumbnail.

I would like to know the meaning of these sojourns. What is this nostalgia about? What causes it, what sustains it, what anxieties does it betray?

Conventional wisdom starts with the idea that nostalgia is a preference for the past. If you tell your friends you’re feeling nostalgic, they may agree with you—things were better back then. Or they may try to talk you out of it by reminding you about the cholera epidemic of 1832. But I think this conception is a mistake. A preference for how things used to be may be a symptom of nostalgia, but the underlying condition is not so simple. This point becomes clear once we observe how far nostalgia can stray from our opinions about value. I can be nostalgic for hardship, heartbreak, and the Macarena. I can have nostalgia for things that I didn’t like then and don’t like now. I can be nostalgic for things I was mostly indifferent to or barely aware of. Sometimes I think I feel nostalgic for Mel’s Drive-In and the St. Louis World’s Fair. Of course, we do sense a tension in the idea of nostalgia for the bad. So we look for silver linings, and sometimes we confabulate. We suffered in the old country, but life was so much simpler. Middle school was a pageant of indignities, but I didn’t have a mortgage or a job or kids, so it too was simpler. I think these are obvious rationalizations. Middle school is simple only if we trivialize the problems of middle schoolers, and I can be wistful about those times without truly desiring them.

The fact that we cite simplicity as the cardinal value of the past does hint at nostalgia’s true quarry. What we really seek in our nostalgic reveries, I want to suggest, is the inertness of the past. The present is a torrent: bills to pay, meals to cook, classes to teach, meetings to attend, children to mind. And more abstractly: projects to pursue, relationships to honor, selves to tend, puzzles to solve. These are the demands we labor under simply because we can do things; they are the burdens of agency. But the past has none of this. It is fixed, settled, complete. There is nothing for us to do because there is nothing that can be done. And for this reason, certain forms of retrospection can seem to offer relief from the burdens of agency. The sound of a dialup modem, the smell of a Blockbuster video store, and the smoothness of school bus vinyl are enchanting because of their exquisite stillness. Because they ask nothing of me.

The Raven Feather

If I am right about this, then the relief we seek in nostalgia is not so different from another kind of respite, memorably described by Schopenhauer. For most of our lives, Schopenhauer says, we suffer under the lash of the will. We need things, want things, and hunger for things. When we get them, we have only a moment’s rest before being tossed off in pursuit of other things. But, Schopenhauer says, aesthetic experience offers an exception to this pattern. When I attend to something of beauty, my will is suspended, and my attention becomes freer and more disinterested. I do not think about what it might do for me. I experience it for its own sake. And this experience offers me something remarkable: a “Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing,” a moment when “the wheel of Ixion stands still.”

Unfortunately, this relief is not easily come by. The influence of the will on our perception is so persistent that it takes an object of unusual formal power—an object of beauty—to liberate us. But this is also why nostalgia is so tempting. If you can think of something sufficiently dead, something like the past, then you can have a holiday from agency almost any time you want. Just retreat to images of the past and let them wash over you. A virtue of this hypothesis is that it explains why we are especially prone to nostalgia in periods, such as the time of the pandemic, when we feel powerless and aesthetic opportunities are in short supply.

Of course, we could seek relief from the burdens of agency in other places. We could take drugs. We could entertain thoughts about an even more distant past, the Battle of Agincourt or the first vertebrates. People do these things, but for many they are unsatisfying because the relief quickly devolves into tedium. Nostalgia, by contrast, promises to be perpetually fascinating because of its dazzling subject: me. The usual objects of nostalgia, even the most trivial, will hold a kind of default and inalienable significance for us because of their place in our identity.

The Raven Feather

Nostalgia seems to offer an unbeatable bargain. I can think about things that matter to me without feeling the burden of doing anything about them. I get relief from the rigors of agency without passing into complete apathy. But alas, like many great bargains, this one is premised on an illusion. To say that something is significant or that it matters is to say that it can make demands on us. The mud on the butler’s shoes is significant because it demands that we consider a new theory of the crime. Your betrayal is significant because it demands that I rethink our friendship. Likewise, the significance of all the loose rubble of the past is not a given potency. It is something that makes demands on me. At the very least, it demands that I recognize, affirm, or reject them. The nostalgic makes the mistake of thinking that things can matter to us without demanding anything from us—that if something is central enough to my life and identity it becomes meaningful automatically, without my having to do anything about it. But that, I am claiming, is impossible. This explains why the pleasures of nostalgia are so fleeting: as soon as I recognize something as mattering, I begin to wonder how it matters, and that ends my vacation from agency.

When this happens, the forces that push us toward nostalgia will tend to be sublimated in one of two ways. The first way gives up on the goal of relief. I may respond to my nostalgia by launching an inquiry into the demise of Blockbuster video or tracking down Beth from chemistry. I may affirm my youthful interests by buying Star Wars toys or listening to a podcast about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I may come to regret a withered friendship and try to revive it. These pursuits are very much exercises of agency, so they will not satisfy the original temptation of nostalgia.  This failure creates a vicious cycle: exhaustion from the burdens of agency leads to nostalgia, which involves engagement with meaningful things from my past, but responding to this meaning in the normal way requires the exercise of my agency, and so the exhaustion remains. The process repeats, and after a while I am still exhausted but have a closet full of kitsch.

The second form of sublimation is more nihilistic. We can hold on to the essential restfulness of nostalgia if we abandon the notion that our own past is significant. If I insist that certain events and ideas really don’t matter to me, that they are as dead to me as French calvary and the Cambrian explosion, then I can continue to look to the past as a source of relief. But this comes at a heavy cost. I can achieve this relief from agency only through a kind of self-alienation—only by supposing that my own past self is of merely academic interest to me.

This kind of nostalgia makes the past seem uncanny: something that looks alive, that should be brimming with meaning but turns out to be quite dead. The word ‘nostalgia’ actually suggests this dynamic. ‘Nostos’ is the Homeric word for homecoming, and ‘algos’ the word for pain. In the original nostos, Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find his home overrun by a pestilence: 108 young men eating his food, soiling his furniture, and courting his wife. This homecoming is painful not only because of the violation but because of its uncanniness. Odysseus’s home should be as the nostalgic imagines the past—an established and welcoming normative order. But the suitors have defiled it and made a true homecoming impossible. Odysseus discovers that Ithaca is not a home to return to but one more labor. That’s the pain of nostalgia: the realization that the significance of the past, like everything else, is not something given to us, but something left for us to create.

The Raven Feather

For all nostalgia’s contradictions, there is something unquestionably cogent about its response to the burdens of agency. And so it seems cruel to respond to the chronic nostalgic by describing their error and insisting that they face up to their burdens. But then what should they do? The answer, I think, takes us back to Schopenhauer. I am not going to make the glib suggestion that we should seek beauty whenever we feel the tug of melancholy. We are going to have nostalgic fancies no matter how many flowers we see. What we can do, though, is make these retrospective episodes more like our experience of flowers.

In other words, we can aestheticize our remembering. When we look at a painting or read a poem, we are not discovering a fixed and independent meaning. Whatever significance the artwork has depends on our interaction with it—on how we follow a heavy line in the painting or play with a metaphor in the poem, on what the work makes us think and feel. The same, I think, is true of our past selves. Instead of resting content with the received meanings of my memories and wallowing in them—in the immaculate innocence of first love or the angst of middle-school dances—I can do something more creative. I can occupy different perspectives on these memories. I can pluck them from context and compare them to other events. I can look for unseen resonances between them and other parts of my life—or others’ lives. I can search for thematic connections and alternative narrative forms. I should do these things not because I think the received view is wrong and I want to get it right. I should do them as a way of taking responsibility for myself. There is enough slack between my recollections and the meaning I ascribe to them for me to play with them—for me to approach my past with the same spirit of invention that I bring to a painting or poem. And when I do this, I am, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, giving style to myself.

But why, we might ask, should the weary nostalgic of all people be interested in this project—in what sounds like a lot of work? For the same reason that weary Odysseus slays the suitors. It’s the best he can do. Total relief from the burdens of agency is impossible. But aesthetic engagement offers the next best thing. It offers a holiday from the mundane forms of agency, the agency of embodied creatures who need to eat and sleep and take shelter, in favor of a form that is less servile. Our aesthetic agency is not in service of wants and needs. It a faculty for play, invention, and experimentation, and turning this kind of agency on our own selves is as close as we can come to satisfying nostalgia’s impossible temptation.

Kenny Walden is associate professor of philosophy at Dartmouth College.