Nostalgia

1

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

From Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
– William Wordsworth

2

Nostalgia is a longing for a time of real or imagined happiness where experience is saturated in meaning, significance, and emotional depth. In my childhood I had a dream of a green grass-covered hill meeting a blue sky. A memory of this dream, like one when I was older of standing on the second floor of a wooden house with the sea visible from the windows and the open door with a gray floor, white walls, and paintings of the sea on the walls, evoked a sense of wonder, beauty, and most of all, significance. There was a desire to inhabit that realm.

Something similar occurred in playing with my mother’s and her siblings’ toys from the 1930s kept at my grandparents’ house. These simple objects, a yo-yo with “Pepsodent” in a defunct font for instance, brought with them a feeling for the lost context and world. The latter could be described as a time before time wore out.

C.S. Lewis writes on this theme in Surprised by Joy. “As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden. And every day there were what we called “the Green Hills”; that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing–Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.”[1]

Wordsworth’s poem Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood links these feelings and perceptions with our heavenly origins, and by implication, our heavenly destination. This connection between memory and the numinous is prominent in that father of Western philosophy, Plato. In both cases this memory points to both the past and the future; providing grounds for faith and hope.

Mircea Eliade[2] writes of “religious man” having rituals to deal with the sense of time wearing out. Gods strode the earth when the earth was being created and ennobled it with their sacred presence; making it sacred too. The difficulty is that as time progresses we get further from the time of sacred origins, an idea with clear links to Wordsworth and Plato, and more and more profane. This corresponds to the seeming repetition of human experience. Since literal repetition is not possible – the hundredth time something is done is quite different usually from the first time – what is actually happening is that a person’s own behavior and modes of perception have become routine and stereotyped. The cynical teenager is bored and disgusted. What makes the teen revolting is the adult’s knowledge that it is not the world that has let the youth down, but the youth’s own efforts. The tendency for perceptions, without extra effort, to become mundane as time goes by, combines with a temporal distance from a more divine childhood sensibility. Good poetry, like Wordsworth, or good fiction, like the tales of Narnia in C.S. Lewis can help to remedy both facts.

3

The cure for boredom is to become interested in something, and to strive. This exertion is likely to have a certain amount of its own boredom, whether practicing a musical instrument, studying Greek, learning how to fix cars, reading philosophy books, or practicing a sport.

Nostalgia as a desire for a literal return to childhood, like the notion of the noble savage, is pathological. To go back to some happy time when a person was six, he would have to relinquish every advance in his tastes, intellectual and moral development, every step towards independence and self-sufficiency he has made since then. It would make no more sense than getting a frontal lobotomy in order to develop a “What, me worry?” attitude. Nostalgia as an intimation of heaven and paradise, however, is beautiful and good.

Religious man developed rituals whereby he reenacted the formative acts of the gods through homology. A recurrent notion is that the ordered cosmos is created by killing chaos and chaos is commonly symbolized by a dragon or snake. The god kills the snake with a spear and creates order. Religious man exactly copies these actions, picking up a spear and thrusting it in an exact replication of the original act, and momentarily becomes one with the gods. The world is then ritualistically made new again. Linear time is made cyclical. Very many cultures impute significance to the new year. Eliade points out that secular man’s New Year’s resolutions are pale remnants of these rituals. New Year’s resolutions represent a chance to start again and do it right this time. Each new year is the opportunity to change something and improve.

New Year’s rituals represent a cure for the phenomenological sense of time wearing out, and getting farther and farther away from sacred origins, when time was new and the gods walked the earth. Without making these kinds of efforts the tendency is to get stuck in a rut and to notice a disparity between how life once felt and how it feels now.

Separating from your mother through birth introduces all sorts of new problems into someone’s life. Now it is possible to get cold, to be hungry, and to feel alone and alienated. The solution cannot be to return to the womb, but to move forward and to learn to overcome these problems. In the process, growth, and new capacities and enjoyments emerge.

Plato writes that philosophy begins with wonder and ends with wonder. There is something healthy about taking an interest in UFOs, the lost city of Atlantis, and the puzzle about megaliths. Anything, within reason, that inhibits cynicism and encourages taking an active interest in life is good. Very young children naturally have a sense of wonder and actually can be hard to impress because to them nearly everything seems remarkable and adults seem superhuman in their abilities. It has been claimed that many adults simply largely stop learning when they hit twenty-five. While avoiding the suffering that making an effort creates, it will simply give rise to new suffering and even despair.

4

Constant enchantment by the images on a smartphone is pure distraction and will just increase the frenzy of boredom – like eating food that has no calories would just make things worse for a starving person. It takes self-discipline to learn.

Phenomenologically, childhood experiences can often seem dense with meaning and emotional depth. For Wordsworth it is because children retain a stronger connection with their spiritual home. As time goes by though, experience can often seem “thinner;” more like a sparsely populated mostly blue sky, than the rich soil of the underbrush, perhaps until the other end of life approaches with the prospect of death and a return to our original home. To strain credulity to the utmost perhaps, some have claimed that some children’s “invisible friends” really are spiritual beings who accompany the children until a certain age. Whatever the reality, it is consistent with the idea that children retain a closer connection with our spiritual origin. And then there are adults who “talk” to deceased relatives in their minds on a regular basis.

The quest for meaning and significance should be given precedence over happiness. As much time as possible should be spent doing what is found meaningful and significant and this will redeem the suffering that everyone faces, such as the fact that everyone a person cares about will get sick and die, and if not them, then him. By pursuing meaning, a certain amount of happiness will hopefully accompany a life reasonably well lived.

Without some intimation of heaven and the afterlife, life would be unbearable. Wordsworth’s poem has the child “trailing clouds of glory.” It is understandable that we might look backwards to find this glory and use it to inform our sentimental education. Glory can be found in great literature, also with a connection to the past, that is rich in significance and meaning. By striving to retain a sense of wonder as an adult we can hope to survive the interlude between birth and death with a modicum of sanguinity, with moments of joy, until we realize our immortal destination and no longer have to make do with intimations. Philosophy begins with an intuition of the divine and continues by speculations as to its implications; and a careful parsing of what belongs to this world and what to the next.

Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind

Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,

[1] Quotation provided by JMSmith.

[2] Mare-chay-a El-ee-aa-dey

12 thoughts on “Nostalgia

  1. You may be right that nostalgia is pathological, but I don’t think it is immoral. We may regret that a person finds the present unbearable, but I don’t think we should blame him. The present is often unbearable and adult experience is often very bleak. Growing nostalgic is in some ways like catching a cold.

    But I agree with you when you say that nostalgia is harmful when it prevents a person from developing more mature ways of coping with the unbearable and bleak. I would liken it to alcohol, which may be harmless as an occasional means of escape, but which all too easily prevents development of more mature ways of coping with disappointment, self-consciousness, depression, etc.

    I have a natural disposition to nostalgia, just as I do to melancholy (to which it is closely connected). I thus try to neither repress these natural impulses nor let then get out of control. I don’t feel guilty if I spend a couple of hours in a nostalgic revery or melancholy brooding, but then I tell my self it is time to get back to living in the real world.

  2. Pingback: Nostalgia | Reaction Times

  3. The etymological meaning of nostalgia is “a painful yearning” (the algia part) “to return home” (the nostos part). The plot of Homer’s Odyssey is predicated on the nostalgia of its hero, whom the modern globalist politics of the time has alienated from his native soil in Ithaca. Homer prefigures Plato, in whose dialogues the yearning to return home — to the realm of Immortality and the Forms — motivates philosophy. There is a pathos in nostalgia, but not, I think, a pathology. It would indeed be a failure of consciousness not to long for the home-ground when involuntarily alienated from it. Hence the episode of the Lotus Eaters, concerning the effect of whose narcotic addiction Homer is explicit: Eat the lotus-flower and you forget your origins.

    Under modernity we are all involuntarily alienated from the home ground.

    The poisonous element in the modern condition is the opposite of nostalgia: It consists of contempt for the home-ground and of the deliberate annihilation of all traces of the home-ground in the memory. (See statue-toppling and the defacement of monuments.)

    But nothing makes me happier than flying saucers or Atlantis. As soon as international quarantines are suspended, I plan to travel by flying saucer to Atlantis. One of my remote ancestors invested heavily in Atlantean real-estate, all of which is now sea-front property. I hope to cash-in on the connection.

    • One of the many perversities of the modern condition is that it both stimulates and shames nostalgia. Modernity is extremely good at producing alienation, alienation means feeling not at home, and people who feel like aliens are bound to feel a little homesick. My view is that an age that denounces escapism is very likely an age men and women long to escape. Prison wardens really hate escapism.

      • The real way to measure escapism qualitatively is to measure it against that from which it seeks escape.

    • Heaven is our origin and our destination. There is a proper nostalgia for this intuited realm – improperly imagined as a golden age in historical time. A future oriented nostalgia would be the Second Coming – which also signifies the victory of eternity, and the end of time. Imagining history as heavenly is no more justified that imagining a heavenly utopian future. We have a home, as Odysseus does, but it is not this one.

      I can’t posit a past that was significantly superior to the present because the past lead to this present. No matter how idyllic aspects of the past might have seemed, in it were the seeds of the current situation.

      Everything I write at the moment seems to center around the heavenly contrasted with the earthly.,

      • Would you be willing to allow that nostalgia is the way that some people imagine paradise? That is how C. S. Lewis described it in Surprised by Joy. This is not to say that Heaven looks like the past, but that nostalgia provides a sort of sentimental education.

        “As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden. And every day there were what we called “the Green Hills”; that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing–Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.”

      • Sure! We really do have a closer experiential and remembered connection to paradise when young. We bring paradise with us. Our experience of the world is permeated by the remnants and memory of this divine reality at that age, coupled with earthly phenomenology. It’s only a mistake to imagine, say,1962, is magic or inherently better than the present.

      • Nostalgia is the past with all embarrassing parts redacted. And the boring parts. And the painful parts. It’s really memory photoshopped.

      • That’s definitely part of it. For me, it tends to be a memory of intense feeling – and then you get the illusion that you were spending all your time feeling intensely. But, for me, “trailing clouds of glory” is a big part of it.

  4. “Heaven is our… destination.”

    You refer, I take it, to Penny from The Big Bang Theory — or is it Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager?

    If either Penny or Seven of Nine = destination, then my money is on the things-are-getting-better theory, as counter-empirical as it seems. In which case, nostalgia is unnecessary and I can hardly wait to get into the future.* If Species 8472 = destination, then all I can say is, “Yech!” — and retreat into the past.

    Borg Lives Matter!

    *It seems as though we stumble into the future whether we want to or not. I’ve stumbled a bit farther into the future than I would like. You wake up and it’s tomorrow!

    ADDED LATER: Penny — from The Big Bang Theory — is short for Penelope, the uxorious home ground to which Odysseus was trying to return.

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