The Promise of Nostalgia

Looking to a golden past can be just as useful as dreaming of a chrome-plated future

| July/August 1998

The word nostalgia implies an escape to a rosy past that never actually existed--a fantasy time when the skies were never cloudy, the lilacs were always in bloom, and hopelessly romantic dreams routinely came true.

Yet British psychiatrist Trevor Turner points out in The New Internationalist (Nov. 1997) that nostalgia entered our language as a medical term describing the psychological condition of soldiers who had spent too much time away from home. The word comes from the Greek nostos (return home) and algos (pain). 'Treatises were written on the symptoms and diagnosis, the causes and treatments,' Turner writes. 'It was agreed that...the only effective management was the nostos, the journey back home.'

That something treated as a depressive disorder as recently as World War II can today be dismissed as a silly, sentimental mood says much about how we view the world. A trip back home now seems as impossible as travel to the moon once did. It's almost guaranteed that the place where you grew up, the campus where you went to school, the spot where you first whispered 'I love you' to your future mate doesn't look the same anymore. We don't have any expectations of the past being there for us--nostalgia has morphed from a longing for home to a hopeless pining for never-never land.

Leaders in universities, the media, and business have always been dismissive of nostalgia, even the harmless sentimental variety, notes Rutgers University historian Jackson Lears. 'For centuries,' he writes in Lingua Franca (Dec. 1997), 'it's been the bete noire of every forward-thinking intellectual, right, left, or center.'

That's because it defies the modern ideology of Progress--the cherished belief that the future always represents an improvement over the past. 'From the viewpoint of American liberal intellectuals,' Lears writes, 'nostalgic people suffered from a failure of nerve: They refused the challenges of modern industrial society, taking refuge in dreams of lost innocence.' Conservatives, Lears adds, take an equally dim view of anyone pondering if the world might have been better in some ways before the advent of global, corporate capitalism.

By contrast, Lears notes the continuing appeal of nostalgia--from Happy Days reruns to Civil War paraphernalia--for everyday Americans and wonders why this should cause such consternation among intellectual elites: 'Surely the longing for times lost deserves to be treated as more than a symptom of intellectual weakness. Surely the devotees of a past Golden Age deserve as much credibility as those whose Golden Age lies in the future. Why grant legitimacy to one form of sentimentality and not the other?'

Nostalgia, he says, doesn't necessarily mean a retreat from the future; it might actually aid us in efforts to create a better society. The environmental movement, for instance, has shown that the pursuit of progress sometimes causes more problems than it solves. 'Renewed respect for nostalgia could provide a powerful antidote to linear notions of progress--by underwriting the conviction that once, at least in some ways, life was more humane and satisfying than it is today,' he writes.

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