Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Collective Nostalgia

Terry Teachout's recent musings on nostalgia, particularly the thought that "the English language needs a word whose definition would be 'nostalgia for that which one has not experienced,'" made me think of the novel Prague, by Arthur Phillips, and this passage in particular:
To quantify nostalgia, to graph it backward into the misty and sweet-smelling past, to enumerate its causes and its expressions and its costs, to determine the nature of societies and personalities most affected by the disorder -- these were Mark Payton's obsessions, and he wove academic laurels from their leaves. He strained to establish laws as measurable and irrefutable as the laws of physics or meteorology. He strove, for example, to determine whether there was, within a given population, a ratio, p/c, that could predict the relationship between individuals with a "strong" or "very strong" leaning to Personal Nostalgia (i.e. nostalgia for events within one's own past) and those with a commensurate leaning to Collective Nostalgia (i.e. nostalgia for eras or styles or places that were outside of one's personal experience). In other words, if you were likely to be affected by recollections of your Hungarian grandmother's sour cherry soup served in the Herend bowl with the ladybug at the bottom, were you more or less likely to feel fondness for movies that treated with tender, nearly eroticized affection the life of English aristocrats in their country houses prior to the First World War? Payton felt certain he could arrive at a predictable ratio p/m, the relationship between a strong tendency to Personal Nostalgia and the possession of an objectively good Memory. Either hypothesis (that the relationship was direct, or that it was inverse) seemed feasible to him. Finally, the ratio c/h, the relationship of an individual's propensity to Collective Nostalgia and his or her actual Historical Knowledge of the place-era for which he or she felt this nostalgia, was theoretically determinable, and here the scholar strongly suspected an inverse proportion: The less you knew about life in those country houses, the more you wished you had lived there.
Prague explored the theme of Collective Nostalgia -- and in particular, the nostalgia that Americans have for beautiful European cities -- ten years before Midnight in Paris did, and with even more wit and insight than the film. Mark Payton's quixotic quest to quantify nostalgia, which eventually drives him insane, is not the main plot, but it underlines some of the book's key themes. After all, the story takes place in Budapest, and most of the characters are convinced that they'd be far happier in Prague. They yearn for a change of place, while Mark yearns for a change of time.

Collective Nostalgia is something I find myself thinking about a lot. (Conversely, I am not very prone to Personal Nostalgia -- e.g. I had a good college experience, but seldom have I ever wished I could go back there.) As a kid, I loved time-travel stories -- not the sci-fi ones that involved traveling to the future or investigated philosophical conundrums like the grandfather paradox, but the ones that were really historical fiction disguised as time-travel fantasy. I desperately wished that it were possible to visit other historical eras, and I would still like to do so -- but, as Terry Teachout says, to visit, not to live. No 21st-century feminist woman can sincerely say that she would prefer to live in an earlier decade -- the idea of traveling to the past and making a home there is totally a white-male privilege. (Interesting, then, that in Midnight in Paris, the character who chooses to stay behind in the past is a woman. But then, I have some issues with that movie -- I didn't love it as much as you might assume.) I am grateful for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, secular humanism. I would never want to turn back the clock to a more racist, sexist era. I may decry some of the uncouth excesses of the modern world, but I realize that, to a large extent, they are the price we pay for freedom. And I am willing to pay that price. I may wish that people used their freedom more prudently and thoughtfully, but that is no reason to take their freedom away.

Yet at the same time, I have that intense collective nostalgia for so many aspects of the past -- culture and customs that I never experienced for myself. I wonder if it would be possible to bring back some of those things without bringing back the less enlightened parts of the past, or whether they are inextricably linked. Is swing dancing a super fun way of socializing with friends and dates, or is it an expression of a patriarchal culture? (the man leads, and is strong and stolid! the woman follows, dizzy, frilly, twirling!) More to the point: if partner dancing became popular once again, would it lead to a renewed ossification of gender roles?

In short, I wonder if it is possible to be both a confirmed nostalgist, and a modern-day progressive liberal. Does my attraction to the past mean that, deep down, I am more conservative than I'd like to admit? Can I resolve my contradictions, or do I hold, within me, some kind of time-travel paradox?

See also: my post from 2008 about watching Mad Men and imagining living in that era.


Connor Burke said...

I'm glad that I'm not the only one thinking about this idea of "collective nostalgia" as well. It seems very evident that this nostalgia (something that was once to be an illness by immigrants in the early 20th century) is sort of just becoming something that is fashionable; for example, instagram, takes something that could be flawless, a digital photo, and just filters it, muds it up, in order to make it look "cool" and vintage. It's like we don't want things to be perfect or imperfect anymore so nostalgia is just becoming a way to cope with that. I've also noticed that young people in their early twenties have become obsessed with 90's pop culture in a fit of nostalgia. It's not necessarily a wholly negative thing (unless it is crippling your life, haha) but it just seems like a way of coping with an unsatisfactory present. I'm actually writing a short film right now based around some of these thoughts.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Hi Connor, thanks for commenting. Your film sounds really interesting. I've noticed that young people are having 1990s nostalgia as well. And I'd agree that it's a way of "coping with an unsatisfactory present" because in retrospect, the '90s were great for the USA: we weren't fighting in any wars, and the economy was booming. Also, I feel like young people are realizing that a lot of really cool things came out in the '90s, but we were too young to appreciate them at the time.