Tuesday, 16 February 2016

THE ALCHEMY OF NOSTALGIA

The following is an excerpt from an as yet unfinished work, tentatively titled Alienated in the 80s: A Compendium of Negative Nostalgia



Nostalgia is always unfathomable, except in retrospect, which is why one only “appreciates” the present when it recedes into the past.

This may appear to be a mere reflexive observation, since nostalgia refers to a yearning for the past, and the past cannot be regarded any other way than retrospectively, but a greater point is concealed within this bit of staid factuality. One never misses something until it is no longer present; indeed, one never comprehends that what is gone is worthy of being missed until one suddenly finds one’s nose pushed against the mystically malign barrier that divides the present from the past. When it becomes apparent that one can no more gain access to the past than step into a magical fairy realm, one at that moment feels oneself overcome with a sense of wonder and awe for that which had previously seemed drearily mundane.

It is, in fact, only when one smacks helplessly against that same barrier—whose very existence frustrates as it entices and “beckons as it baffles,” kept firmly in place by that force called temporality, whose unmerciful if impersonal will forever prevents a person from obtaining passage into the past—that antecedent eras begin to assume a certain lustrous sheen to the mind’s eye, becoming desirable, even positively celestial, in aspect.

To observe this isn’t simply to utter a circuitous iteration of that stale and sentimental dictum, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Indeed, the past isn’t good just because we find ourselves pining for it; instead, we couldn’t and wouldn’t pine for something if we actually possessed it, because in such a circumstance there would obviously be no need to do so. Nor am I simply dilating upon the notion that “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” though such may be said to be more to the point, at least in a certain sense. We do indeed grow fond of the past due in part to its absence; however, there is a greater significance to it than that, because the nostalgic impulse causes us not merely to like the past, but rather to be in awe of it, since it retains such an elusive allure over our collective consciousness.

It was the past, after all, under its past guise as the “present,” which once held our awareness with such effortless aplomb, to the point where we barely even noticed its existence; we “took it for granted,” as is often said, because its essence was so omnipresent as to be utterly inconspicuous. When the past’s presence was “present,” that is, we hardly knew it was there. Yet when the present receded into the past, as the present invariably does, we then suddenly took stock of it and marveled at how it had vanished.

A movie from the past, when that past was present, about traveling to the past.
For the past does not, in fact, ever “vanish without a trace”; indeed, it always leaves numerous traces behind, yet it is not any less thoroughly flown for all that. Instead, its absence only grows more pointed due to the artifacts it leaves behind; one would think that something so thoroughly extinct wouldn’t manage to fling so many tantalizing reminders of itself into the present. Why does it so generously share so much of what characterized its essence, while at the same time actually hiding the actuality of its essence from all those with whom once shared this actuality so faithfully, so promiscuously?

It is when we perceive of the past in this mystical sense, as akin to an enchanted land—familiar but set apart from our apprehension and barred from our access—that we begin to yearn for that which we cannot have, which in turn triggers that sensation of bittersweet longing known as nostalgia. We pine for the past’s return because we are quite aware that it will not return; it comes to possess its sweetly, sadly seductive appeal due to its concomitant presence and absence. Its presence is broadcast, as earlier remarked, in the form of the artifacts it thrusts into our awareness (creating a condition of mind which caused one thinker to remark, “The past isn’t dead. It isn't even past!”), yet its absence is likewise asserted, in the crucial sense of having torn away the essential aspect of its being, leaving us poor orphan inhabitants of this present with nothing but a jumble of scraps, a “heap of broken images.”

For this reason, a person finds himself feeling nostalgic, even for a past which he had never particularly enjoyed or treasured when that past was present. Through an odd psychological alchemy, he becomes convinced, against surer understanding and better judgment, that he was actually happier in bygone days. Even when he is quite aware that such is plainly not the case—that in fact he was miserable in the past, and has much greater cause to be content in the present—still, he finds that contemplation of that past nevertheless yields a poignant aftertaste; it impresses him with the aura of a lost love who faithlessly fled, leaving him vexed, heartbroken and bewildered. He now yearns for this love’s return, even though he knows well another that she was never terribly good to him back when this past was in fact present.

Nostalgia also captures our imagination due to its tendency to provoke our implacable sense of vanished youth. Youth strikes us as an era uniquely alive with pleasurable possibilities; we are impressed with the notion of being young, even to the extent of making an idol of youthfulness; we lavish attention upon it; we attempt to find it, to be restored to it, to be enabled to bask in it again. Yet we forget, perhaps willfully, that youth as such is hardly glorious in its essence; oftentimes, in fact, it is a plainly wretched and vilely tainted and degraded time of life. Yet since youth as we understand cannot but belong to the past (as we are inevitably less youthful now than we were then), and we cannot retain it, we wind up foolishly glorifying it while under the influence of the alchemy of nostalgia.


Andy Nowicki, assistant editor of Alternative Right, is the author of eight books, including Under the NihilThe Columbine PilgrimConsidering Suicide, and Beauty and the Least. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so. Visit his Soundcloud page.


 

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