A brief look at nostalgia

Did you know you can play old versions of Oregon Trail, and apparently other computer games of a bygone era, for free online?

I discovered this through friends a couple of years ago when we were reminiscing about computer-typing classes in grade school, and how most of our time was actually spent trekking across the pixelated wilderness and losing beloved family members one-by-one to dysentery. Well, we promptly fired up the old game on a web browser and marveled, appreciatively, at the ancient graphics.

This morning, another Buzzfeed article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed, trying to remind me of all the childhood memorabilia and literature I’ve forgotten about. Boxcar children, anyone? Slinkies?

And I’m sure you’ve noticed the avalanche of reboots and sequels in the movie industry in the past five or ten years. From live-action or CGI new versions of classic Disney animations to new iterations of Spiderman and Batman, from Sherlock and Endeavor to one last Gilmore Girls, from Star Trek to Marvel to Star Wars, it seems like there’s no end to this digging up and repackaging of old treasures.

Why, I wonder?

I mentioned in my last post that the biggest problem with the new Star Wars franchise seems to be difficulties with story-telling, with crafting tight and compelling plots. Is it that we are having a harder time telling good stories—and so we must keep looking back to the older stories that once compelled us?

Yet some of these reboots end up not only being updates but also critiques; as The Last Jedi was for Star Wars, and I imagine Joker is for Batman (haven’t seen it), and the live-action Beauty and the Beast was for the un-woke original.

But all the reboots, whether they be homages, inferior repetitions or edgy critiques, are riding on the powerful engines of nostalgia. That’s why we go to see these things, even when we already know the plot by heart. That’s why we click on the Buzzfeed articles. That’s why we play Oregon trail with our friends. We want to feel nostalgia—or, we want to sharpen the nostalgia we are almost always already feeling under the surface.

This term nostalgia, though it’s based on Greek words nóstos (“homecoming”) and álgos (“pain”), isn’t actually quite as old as it sounds. It was coined in the 17th century by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer and originally used to describe the severe homesickness of Swiss mercenary soldiers.

Though it means something like “the pain of homecoming,” it’s a kind of pain that a lot of us rather enjoy.

Remember this?

Yeah. Abrams is really good at nostalgia.

It’s a concept that is increasingly interesting to me.

I think that nostalgia in a more literal sense, as a longing for one’s homeland, is a timeless part of being human, attested to throughout the ages. One thinks of Odysseus:

Nevertheless I long—I pine, all my days—
to travel home and see the dawn of my homecoming.
And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea,
I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure.
Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now
in the waves and wars. Add this to the total—
bring the trial on! (Book V)

Or the exiles in Babylon remembering Jerusalem with intense grief in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon
We sat and wept, remembering Zion.
There on poplars we hung our harps
For there our captors asked us for songs;
Our tormentors, for joy:
“Sing for us a song of Zion!”

But how could we sing a song of the Lord
in a foreign land?

Or in Genesis, beyond the punishment of toil and pain in childbirth, the irrevocable sense of banishment from home:

“He expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (3:24)

Yes, nostalgia has been with us for a long time. But I wonder if some of the strains we’re experiencing now aren’t a little different than those expressed by Odysseus and the Jewish people and our first parents. We seem less desirous today of specific places than of specific times—or, really, experiences.

A famous example of modern nostalgia is the experience of the titular character in The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve always thought rather underwhelming except for passages like this—and these are the last words of the book:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Oof. Now that’s nostalgia—but in a distinctly modern key; it’s the kind that merges a hoped-for future with the dreamt-of past, a past that probably never really existed no matter how much we insist that it did. It’s a longing for an experience rather than for a specific place, or even really a specific time. Gatsby loves what Daisy represents for him; not Daisy herself.

Christmastime nostalgia is a bit like this, I think. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” resonates with us so deeply not just because of the song’s original purpose in honoring soldiers serving overseas, but rather because the “home” it describes really is the stuff of “dreams.” One cannot really ever get there, even if you beat the traffic and are blessed enough to go to the house you grew up in and spend the holidays with your family.

So much of our modern and post-modern experience, even for the most forward-thinking and progressive among us, seems to be tinged with nostalgia. There are hopes for a Friends reboot or The Office (it only ended in 2013!). Stranger Things, though very much a unique show, relies heavily on nostalgia for 80’s pop-culture. Why?

It would be interesting for those more informed than I to look at the Classical education movement through this lens as well, or even the traditional Latin Mass movement. I say this with respect: there seems to be a strange kind of longing in those communities for something that never really was—at least, not quite in the way we now imagine it to have been.

I have no conclusive thoughts on all this. I think that maybe our contemporary preoccupation with nostalgia might have something to do with how home has been problematized—we are far more mobile and global; we identify less with specific places, much less with nationalities. There seems to be no home to long for—but there are still memories, and experiences that, when excavated by memory, look rather like home.

But Billy Collins has a poem entitled “Nostalgia” we could end with, for now:

Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.

Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.

The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.

I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.

Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.


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