1. "Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of the time now labeled The Sixties was that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense, it was indeed a utopian moment."
That's a thought from Susan Sontag, in an essay from 1996, in which reflects on Against Interpretation, 30 years after its publication. (The whole piece is available here.) She later notes with irony that the spirit of dissent of the early 60s has been quashed, even as it has become "an intense object of nostalgia."
2. I used to think of nostalgia as a pleasant bittersweetness, a safe place, distinct from homesickness, something like entering a melancholy song. I liked to catalogue people's accounts of nostalgia for a time or place they hadn't actually known. How it chooses you, the ache of recognition, a visceral sense of belonging that must be paid its due, in some way. (Instagram filter, anyone?)
3. But what if nostalgia actually does more harm than good, what if it's actually what Milan Kundera refers to as "kitsch"?
4. In psychological terms, more than any mystical past life, nostalgia probably indicates youthful dissatisfaction with the present (e.g., the suburban teenager who longs for California in the 1960s, Paris in the 1920s, London in the 1990s, etc.), or else that you're getting old.
5. I suspect my own interest in nostalgia is rooted in having left one country for another as a child.
6. Nostalgia used to be thought of as an actual medical condition, associated especially with the Swiss (thanks, Wikipedia):
"The term was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer (1669–1752) in his Basel dissertation. Hofer introduced nostalgia or mal du pays ''homesickness' for the condition also known as mal du Suisse 'Swiss illness' or Schweizerheimweh 'Swiss homesickness,' because of its frequent occurrence in Swiss mercenaries who in the plains of lowlands of France or Italy were pining for their native mountain landscapes. Symptoms were also thought to include fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death."
7. "In the eighteenth century, scientists were looking for a locus of nostalgia, a nostalgic bone."
8. The metaphor that comes to my mind is of a fine liquor: there's a golden flush, the thrill of belonging that comes from imbibing a suitable quantity, and a delirium, a distorted sense of reality, a dependence, that comes with consuming it in excess.
9. Anyone who moves to New York City has to contend with other people's nostalgia. It was all better before you got here, whenever that happened to be. It's one of the ways New Yorkers establish a pecking order (others involve your rent and your neighborhood). Probably they lived through some shitty stuff growing up here, or when they moved here, too, and nostalgia is a way of giving it some currency.
(I don't mean that maliciously, I've done it myself, as in, "When I lived in this neighborhood, there was human excrement on the subway stairs and a long-time resident advised me not to buy meat from the grocery store"; this is true).... And there's more to it than that, of course--there's something to be said for having lived through a time or place that doesn't exist any more, for having witnessed and had both good and bad times.)
10. Nostalgia is the movie version.
11. The new thought that Sontag gave me: The absence of nostalgia is a way to live and create spectacularly in your own circumstances. Or as Patti Smith would have it:
"I believe that we, that this planet, hasn't seen its Golden Age. Everybody says its finished ... art's finished, rock and roll is dead, God is dead. Fuck that! This is my chance in the world. I didn't live back there in Mesopotamia, I wasn't there in the Garden of Eden, I wasn't there with Emperor Han, I'm right here right now and I want now to be the Golden Age ...if only each generation would realize that the time for greatness is right now when they're alive ... the time to flower is now."
12. Nostalgia is easy, like walking along the shore, picking up pretty pieces of once-jagged glass worn smooth by the waves of time. It's what's left; it excludes the lousy art, boring books, ethical compromises, disposable architecture, bad sex, environmental pollution, hypocritical people, daily violence and general pettiness of any time. The present is hard because you're in contact with all of that junk and have to find some way to sort it.
13. To get better at this sorting project, I've resolved to give up nostalgia, like cigarettes.
Thank you for reading, and thanks again to Stacey and David for having me on the blog this week.