Despite its pedigree as a fundamental element in civilization’s greatest stories, nostalgia has come to be associated with treacly sentimentality, defeatism, and spurious spiritual inclinations. Homer, Vergil, Dante, the Biblical writers, and their ilk would demur, of course, but they have been dead for a few years, so progress’s mantra urges us to get on with it. This is now.
But now is always, and like its twin – exile – nostalgia is perpetual. The aching for “home” – from Greek algos, pain + nostos, homecoming – is not simply a desire for the past, whether in reality or imagination, time or place, but a passionate yearning for the best from the past to be brought into the future.
Nostalgia may be more a long ache of old people, but it is also a feeling that follows everyone along life’s way. Its presence may be shorter in youth, and it may be brief, intermittent, and unrecognized, but it is there. Surely it grows with experience. As everyone knows, a taste, a smell, a sight, a sound, a song – can conjure up a moment’s happiness, a reverie of possibility. Paradise regained, but differently. A yearning recognized, as with seeing for the first time how Van Gogh’s blue paint opens a door to ecstasy or a line of poetry cracks open a space in one’s heart for prospective love. Hope reborn as an aperture to the beyond reimagined and made possible.
There is no need to ever leave where we are to find that we are already no longer there, for living is a perpetual leaving-taking, and the ache of loss is its price.
But like all pains, it is one we wish to relieve in the future; and in order to make a future, we must be able to imagine or remember it first. We are all exiled in our own ways. Home was yesterday, and our lost homes lie in our futures, if we hold to the dream of homecoming, whatever that may mean to each person. But it also has a universal meaning, since we dwell on this earth together, our one home for our entire human family.
You may think I am engaging in fluff and puff and flimsy imaginings. But no.
All across the world there are hundreds of millions of exiles, forced by wars, power politics, poverty, starvation, destructive capitalism, and modernization’s calamitous consequences to leave their homes and suffer the disorientation of wandering. Emigration, immigration, salvaging bits of the old in the new strange lands – thus is their plight. So much lost and small hopes found in nostalgic remembering. Piecing together the fragments.
But in a far less physical sense, the homeless mind is the rule today. There are very few people these days who don’t wish to somehow return to a time when the madness that engulfs us didn’t exist; to escape the whirligig of fragmented consciousness in which the world appears – i.e. is presented by the media – as a pointillistic painting whose dots move so rapidly that a coherent picture is near impossible. This feeling is widespread. It is not a question of politics. It crisscrosses the world following the hyper-real unreality of the technologies that join us in a state of transcendental homelessness and anxiety. All the propaganda about a “new normal” and a digital disembodied future ring hollow. The Great Reset is the Great Nightmare. Nothing seems normal anymore and the future seems even less so.
The world has become Weirdsville. This is something that most people – young and old – feel, even if they can’t articulate it. The feeling that all the news is false and that some massive con game is underway is pandemic.
Here is an insignificant bit of nostalgia. I mention it because it points beyond itself, then and now. It has always been nostalgia for the future. I think it is a commonplace experience.
When I was in high school, there was a tiny cheese shop on Lexington Avenue and 85th St. in New York City near the subway that I took to and home from school. It was the size of a walk-in closet. Thousands of cheeses surrounded you when you entered. The smells were overwhelming. I would often stop in there with empty pockets on my way home from school. The proprietor, knowing I was in awe of the thousands of cheeses, would often give me little samples with pieces of crusty French bread. He would regale me with tales of Paris and the histories of the various European cheeses. He would emphasize their livingness, how they breathed. By the door was a large basket filled with long loaves of fragrant French bread flown in every morning from Paris by Air France. These were the days before every supermarket sold knockoff versions of the genuine thing. Each long loaf was in a colorful French tricolored paper bag.
Those loaves of bread in the French colors always transported me to Paris, a place I had never been, but whose language I was studying. Then, and for years afterwards, I was nostalgic for a Paris that was not yet part of my physical experience. How could this be? I asked myself. One day I realized that I was not nostalgic for Paris or the cheese shop, nor for the cheese or the bread, which I had tasted many times, but for the paper bags the bread came in. Why?
This question perplexed me until I realized my notion of nostalgia was wrong. For those bags had always represented the future for me, the birds of flight a sign of freedom beckoning as my youthful world expanded. My nostalgia for the Air France bags was a way to go back to go forward, not to wallow in sentimentality and the “good old days,” but to read the entrails for their prophetic message: the small-life world is limiting – expand your horizons.
It was not a question of jumping on a plane and going somewhere different, although that in time would also be good. It was not an invitation to revisit that cheese shop, as if that were possible, for the store was long gone and in any case it would not mean the same thing. It was not a desire to become a teenager again. You cannot repeat an experience, despite F. Scott Fitzgerald writing: “You can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can.”
The past in that sense is quicksand, a death wish. For many people (and this is the prevalent understanding of nostalgia as an exclusively negative way of thinking), embittered nostalgia is their way of denying the present and the future, often by the fictitious creation of “the good old days” when everything was supposedly so much better.
But nostalgia can also be an impetus to create a better future, a reminder that good aspects of what has been lost need to be regained to change the course of the present’s future trajectory.
Today most people are bamboozled by world events, as an idiot wind blows through the putrescent words of the media sycophants who churn out their endlessly deceptive and confusing propaganda on behalf of their elite masters. Given a few minutes peace of mind to analyze this drivel – a tranquility destroyed by the electronic frenzy – it becomes apparent that their fear, anxiety, and contradictory reports are intentional, part of a strategy to pound down the public into drooling, quaking morons.
But many people in their better moments do recall times when they experienced glimpses of a better life, transitory as those experiences might have been. Moments when they felt more at home in their skin in a world where they belonged and they could make better sense of the news they received. Not lost and wandering and constantly fearfully agitated by a future seemingly chaotic, leading to dusty death in a story told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
I suggest that those nostalgic moments revolve around the changing nature of our experience of space and time. There was a time when time was time and space and speed had some human meaning, for people lived within the limits of the natural world of which they were a part. As I wrote once before:
In former days you could cross over to other people’s lives and come back with a different perspective, knowing what was obvious was true and that to exist meant to be composed of flesh and blood like all the others in different places and to be bound by the natural cycles of life and death, spring and fall, summer and winter. There were limits then, on the land, water, and even in the sky, where space too had dimensions and the stars and planets weren’t imaginary landing strips for mad scientists and their partners in celluloid fantasies.
In that rapidly disappearing world where people felt situated in space and time, life was not yet a holographic spectacle of repetitive images and words, a pseudo-world of shadowy figures engaging in pseudo-debates on electronic screens with people traveling from one place to another only to find that they never left home. When the mind is homeless and the grey magic of digital propaganda is its element, life becomes a vast circinate wandering to nowhere. The experience of traveling thousands of miles only to see the same chain of stores lining the same roads in the same towns across a country where the same people live with their same machines and same thoughts in their same lives in their same clothes. A mass society of mass minds in the hive created by cell phones and measured in nanoseconds where the choices are the freedom to choose what is always the same within a cage of categories meant to render all reality a ‘mediated reality.’
Nostalgia is always about time and space. In that sense, it is equivalent to all human experience that also takes place within these dimensions. And when technology has radically disrupted our human sense of limits in their regard, it becomes harder and harder to feel at home, to dwell enough to grasp what is happening in the world.
I believe that many people feel nostalgic for slower and more silent days when they could hear themselves think a bit. When the sense of always being on the go and lacking time predominates as it does today, thinking becomes very difficult. To think, one must dethrone King Rush and silence Queen Noise, the two conditions that the speed and noise of digital technology render impossible. Tranquilized by the beeping trivia pouring out of the omnipresent electronic gadgets, the very devices being used by the elites to control the masses, a profound grasp of the source of one’s disquietude is impossible. The world becomes impossible to read. The sense of always being away, ungrounded, and mentally homeless in a cacophonous madhouse becomes the norm. One feels sick in heart and mind.
Most people sense this, and whether they think of it as nostalgia or not, I believe they feel that something important is missing and that they are wandering like rolling stones, as Dylan voiced it so poetically, with no direction home.
How does it feel? It feels lousy.
So it’s not a question of returning to “the good old days.” The future beckons. But if we don’t find a way to rediscover those essential human needs of slowness and silence, to name but two, I am afraid we will find ourselves speeding along into an inferno of our own making, where it’s noisy as hell and not fit for human habitation.
12 thoughts on “Nostalgic for the Future”
Another beautiful and deeply insightful piece Ed, thank you.
I just returned from a brief excursion fly fishing in Nevada with two old and dear friends. We fished on the Paiute reservation north of Reno. I’ve fly fished and camped in many places in the west over many decades, and not so “ironically” I suppose, it has always been Native American “reservations” that have been the most untouched, unpolluted, and the least despoiled “natural” landscapes that I’ve encountered. Lacking the strip malls, bill boards, endless fencing and neon that metastasizes where ever our “progress” takes root. As AIM leader Russel Means once put it, when describing the difference between European American and Native American sensibilities: “We didn’t get the greed gene.”
On the way north while driving I listened to a long lecture by another AIM member artist and activist John Trudel. John always seems a voice of sanity in our mad world, reminding us that we humans are literally “made up of the metals, minerals and liquids of Mother Earth.” That we literally “are forms of Mother Earth.” So how is it we have officially enshrined and valorized the desecration and exploitation and plunder of that earth that is both “us” and is our only home?
I am one of those lost rootless souls you mentioned Ed – “The world becomes impossible to read. The sense of always being away, ungrounded, and mentally homeless in a cacophonous madhouse becomes the norm. One feels sick in heart and mind.”
It seems only in those remote unspoiled places where I’m rendered so tiny and insignificant amidst vast expanses of water, mountains, desert and sky that I feel at peace and in any real sense at “home.” The “reentry” I performed yesterday in driving back into Southern California as always was completely soul jarring. Surrounded on the freeways by frantic drivers speeding and recklessly weaving amidst an endless series of strip malls, billboards and subdivisions. A soul jarring experience that might be similar I imagine to how many of us entered the grownup’s world for the first time. One minute safe, completely at peace, serene in our mother’s womb, and the next held aloft upside down by our tiny feet with some giant in a mask slapping our behinds in a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Looking back now I realize that I was rather quite young when I first reached the inescapable conclusion that we live amidst the “progress” of madmen.
We’ve traded a prison of the body, for a prison of the mind . Phones and tv the new bars of the cell. We can walk out, the door’s unlocked, to see the sun, but everyone is scared shitless to change. Incarceration, apparently, is safe, secure and steady. Follow the herd, to the slaughterhouse down the road.
This is why there has been such a fuss about the Beatles film. And why dogs are very popular. Both are honest.
Beautiful piece, Edward.
And, beautiful comments, too.
Coincidentally, I was looking at photos of departed family and friends, last evening, and feeling melancholy, and sadness at things left unsaid, and undone.
So wonderful to share this sphere with thoughtful people, such as yourselves.
Nostalgia is filtered memory. And what is memory (or memories)? Could it be we only remember (re-create) from the template of our last memory of a “bakery” for instance – that is the original is gone, and now it’s simply our combined senses which reconstruct from the last time we brought forth the remembered moment.
Then there’s Jorge Luis Borges’ “Funes the Memorious” about a young man who re-members everything – he cannot forget (forgetting is a remedy for this).
I do think Proust (Remembrance of Things Past) had something of import to bear on this with his view that it’s the olfactory (smell) which can bring back a remembered moment. It’s a sense less filtered.
I live near where I grew up, and when I walk around – based on the seasonal odors – I have vivid memories of playing marbles on the school’s playground or just a sense of being back in time for a brief moment.
These moments have little to do, for me, with the future (should the future even be about a progression?).
Here’s another Dylan’s (Dylan Thomas – who it’s said “Bob Dylan” took his name) poetic recall:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
I visited a college town I lived in during the late 70’s, early 80’s. The diner i washed dishes at hadn’t changed much. My buddy and i had a blast remembering those days. I decided to turn the corner and peer into the kitchen and found myself in my old work spot. A machine had taken up space occupied by two of the three sinks where i did my dirty work. The one sink was the original. Then i took a whiff. That was the smell. Wow ! The moment was joyous.
Always moved and expanded by your stream-of-consciousness explorations Ed. Truly a wordsmith in the company of other purveyors of same, akin to tunesmiths John, Paul, & George of whom I grew up singing harmony to my brother’s melody of their It’s All To Much works of aural art.
Your insight about “nostalgia can also be an impetus to create a better future, a reminder that good aspects of what has been lost need to be regained to change the course of the present’s future trajectory” brings up a passage from Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It is intensely meaningful to me – and profoundly apropos what you have brought to the fore here:
Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The “newness” in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components. Body and soul therefore have an intensely historical character and find no proper place in what is new, in things that have just come into being. That is to say, our ancestral components are only partly at home in such things. We are very far from having finished completely with the Middle Ages, classical antiquity, and primitivity, as our modern psyches pretend. Nevertheless, we have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with ever wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots. Once the past has been breached, it is usually annihilated, and there is no stopping the forward motion. But it is precisely the loss of connection with the past, our uprootedness, which has given rise to the “discontents” of civilization and to such a flurry and haste that we live more in the future and its chimerical promises of a golden age than in the present, with which our whole evolutionary background has not yet caught up. We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise. We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us. The less we understand of what our fathers and forefathers sought, the less we understand ourselves, and thus we help with all our might to rob the individual of his roots and his guiding instincts, so that he becomes a particle in the mass, ruled only by what Nietzsche called the spirit of gravity.
Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for. They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole. Mostly, they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before. Omnis festinatio ex parte diaboli est–all haste is of the devil, as the old masters used to say.
We who in whatever way possess some aspect of the antidote that calls us on to dethrone King Rush and silence Queen Noise are fortunate in deed. In this manner, gratitude unbounded for the windows of perception you consistently fling open and share with such radiant light and love.
Steady as She goes….
Thank you Ed. Your last sentence; “I am afraid we will find ourselves speeding along into an inferno of our own making, where it’s noisy as hell and not fit for human habitation.”
“Mutual Aid, a factor of evolution” is a book title. I will ad, a factor of social evolution. We are a divided people, have always been for a number of reasons. (fear ) We don’t learn ‘communing, communication, then having community. We are separated at a young age even before we are separated from our parents and then sent to the indoctrination centers we still call school, where we become disconnected from ourselves and get caught up into the many manifestations of dysfunction and simply learn obedience. At what point, right now, can we figure out how to create REAL communities, small self-sufficient communities that are not noisy as hell and are fit for human habitation? We need a kind of communication that enables people to see themselves in the other person. So talking about the latest car wax, the latest book, the news in New Zealand…., what can we say, that all people have in common, from birth that will connect us, and dissipate the invisible barriers of fear, distrust, skepticism. We say a lot of words and yet we communicate nothing of real value to create an aura of peacefulness, compassion, empathy, likeness. How can we help each other so to help each other? The amount of pure b.s. we speak every single day is also the noise we take everywhere! What I just said can be viewed as b.s. in my opinion. We need the blood and guts of it…not just the brain and tongue noise! We will eventually ‘feel’ for each other while watching our neighbors be hauled away by the troops in stake body trucks.
Why wait that long to ‘feel’ yourself and your fellow human ? Fear of Feelings must be dealt with by every individual. Simply, just look at your fear ! I am fearful and struggle with this everyday. I am fearful of citizens that do not know their fear. I am alone with no community. I love my cat Darcy.
Dear Joseph: The system is bankrupt. For those who aren’t going along for the “ride” into the “inferno”, I suggest starting with your recommended mutual aid and the creation of autonomous communities.
As Buckminster Fuller posed: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Thanks Art…you said, “I suggest starting with your recommended mutual aid and the creation of autonomous communities.”
And that is precisely what I am encouraging, here…., and elsewhere. Few people are interested in getting off the treadmill. Few people are interested in being Human, social beings. The baggage apparently STILL is not heavy enough…, which is unimaginable!
Could it be Edward that when you were in that cheese shop you were totally ‘in the now’, as they say?
Your senses heightened by the smells, tastes and sounds in that store.
We all long for repeats of those experiences, but for the most part they elude us. Or do we elude them with our busyness?
Comments are closed.