Friday, October 26, 2012
"In France, it is not only the ancien regime that produced the revolution, but in some respect the revolution produced the ancien regime, giving it a shape, a sense of closure and a gilded aura."
"Nostaglia..is about the repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial."
"The word nostalgia comes from two Greek words, yet it did not originate in ancient Greece. Nostalgia is only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek."
"In nineteenth-century America it was believed that the main reasons for homesickness were idleness and a slow and inefficient use of time conducive to daydreaming, erotomania and onanism."
"A contemporary Russian saying claims that the past has become much more unpredictable than the future."
"Nostalgia is to memory what kitsch is to art." Charles Maier (Cited by Svetlana Boym.)
"We long to prolong our time, to make it free, to daydream, against all odds resisting external pressures and flickering computer screens."
"Conspiracy theories, like nostalgic explosions in general, flourish after revolutions."
"Dinosaurs are the ideal animals for the nostalgia industry because nobody remembers them."
"Displacement is cured by a return home, preferably a collective one. Never mind if it's not your home; by the time you reach it you will have already forgotten the difference."
"A modern nostalgic can be homesick and sick of home, at once."
"One remembers best what is colored by emotion."
Svetlana Boym's book, The Future of Nostalgia, is, ironically, a history of nostalgia. It's a brilliant but haphazard tour de horizon of the literature of nostalgia (which she firmly tethers to the literature modernity) and, as such, The Future of Nostalgia wrestles with a variety of theorists of modernity, including Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Pierre Nora, Marshall Berman, Eric Hobsbawm, and Charles Baudelaire. The book's main thesis is that nostalgia--the natural byproduct of capitalism, technological change, clock-time, and modernity in general--is a politically promiscuous and socially disruptive phenomenon which bears some scrutiny by anyone trying to understand the tragedies of the twentieth century. Although we commonly understand nostalgia to be a solitary and victimless activity, more a matter of innocence and self-indulgence than political division and social unrest, Boym maintains that men and women use nostalgia to exclude social groups from their vision of the future. Of course, Boym doesn't have any easy fixes for nostalgia. Nostalgia is the process by which we misremember the past, and yet nostalgia seems to be part and parcel of the experience of living in the modern world.
In a second irony, reading Boym's book about nostalgia makes me nostalgic for that time in graduate school many years ago when I studied nostalgia myself. Although I never really had a command of the subject, I became fascinated with the idea of analyzing my own fascination with the past. Indeed, I took a graduate seminar in nostalgia, and quickly decided that my doctoral dissertation (which was never really begun in earnest) should diagnose this general topic. I even remember reading Svetlana Boym's earlier book, Common Places, which dissected the concept of banality in 1930s Russia. Thus reading this second Boym book, The Future of Nostalgia, takes me back in time, the academic equivalent to the "Proustian madeleine pastry" which once upon a time unleashed thousands of pages of recollections. But what time does it take me to? Boym would suggest that we can't really return to our real pasts, that nostalgia is more about escaping the present to fantasize about a misremembered personal idyll than it is about recovering what actually happened.
I've also been obsessed with the past. This blog, for instance, takes dozens of detours away from Soviet history toward my own memories of childhood and early adulthood. Sometimes I rationalize this fact by telling myself that I would like my son to grow up to read this blog in order to know me more fully. The blog dwells on my mother, or rather on my nostalgic memory of my mother, but it may be more about my son, and for my son, than anything else, a love letter to him in fact. Looking through what my mother left me, I once encountered a college notebook filled with her theology lecture scribbles. I wondered then how it is that somebody could have lived 45 years, and held such an importance place in my heart and mind, yet leave so little by way of a direct testimony? I had to do better. I had to write more, leave my son more. If I could, I would have saved every scrap of paper my mother ever wrote. Or so I think. How odd, even horrible, would it be to be privy to a dead family's member's exhaustive email records today?
I shouldn't have been surprised by the limited records my mother left behind. Many people have lived and died without leaving behind any writing at all. And yet nostalgia, as Boym reminds us, is a form of obsession, so it's not so strange to long for any and all manifestations of a lost mother. When nostalgia was first diagnosed in the 18th century, people thought of this form of remembering as a medical disease: the patient wanted to return home (space, rather than time, was the nostalgic's first Eden) and became increasingly incapacitated by this inordinate desire. Rather than serve productively in the military, for instance, a nostalgic dreamed, fantasized, and lamented away his time, remembering even the most mundane details of his homeland, including songs, smells, and textures.
Loss in general is interesting to me. I lose my keys on a perpetual basis. Is there any significance to this form of loss? A psychoanalyst might say that this form of forgetting is linked to some broader sense of loss. What have I really lost? What does my id gain from this perpetual quest for something that's missing? I once theorized that my lost keys might be discovered in the least amount of time if I would adhere to a rigidly logical, strictly empirical, map of discovery. That is to say that instead of allowing my subconscious mind to thwart all attempts at recovery, I should play the statistical odds. Where once I would allow myself to skip over those areas of the house I had already ransacked in my feverish search for my lost keys, now I would calmly set aside all preconceptions and search (again) the most obvious places, such as my pockets and my bag. When applied to an equivalent search for misplaced glasses, my statistical model of article recovery would force me to begin at the beginning, with my face.
My brother suffers from the same affliction of forgetting all the time. He loses keys and similar objects on a regular basis. Observing the phenomenon of a desperate search for something that was almost impossible to lose (such as glasses) is disorienting. How is it possible to lose the same thing so often? Surely my brother is complicit in this process of systematically forgetting. Once, while camping, my brother announced that he had lost his wallet somewhere. The whole family spread out over the campsite to find the errant object but found nothing. Giving up, I eventually encountered the wallet in the middle of the forrest, next to nothing at all. Finding the wallet in such a random place is perhaps evidence that partially invalidates the statistical model for the discovery of lost artifacts. For when I walked into the wallet I was walking without purpose through the forrest, not even following any discernible path. When I saw the wallet, it seemed as if somebody must have deliberately placed in there, as a sort of religious sign or warning about the inescapable chaos of the world.
I suppose there are three different ways to lose an object. One either loses an object entirely by accident or happenstance (e.g., they are left out on the kitchen table but a squirrel breaks into the house and spirits them away to his nest); one innocently forgets where one put them (e.g., I always put my keys on the kitchen table but I forgot that I loaned my keys to my wife earlier in the day); or one actively forgets (e.g., I would put my keys on the kitchen table if my subconscious wanted my to find them, but instead I put them under a pillow so that my subconscious can enjoy--in some way--the difficult search for them that will inevitably pursue).
I think whole societies forget things using this last category of forgetting, the active one. These days, Russians actively forget what happened under Stalinism and what happened under Communism in general. They seek to return to that place which never existed, a stable, prosperous, happy and unified Soviet past. It takes some effort to conjure up this place in the mind's eye but Russians seem to be willing to put in the work to misremember their own history. I suppose we all do that sort of thing on a personal level, although my own nostalgia is perverse, and I only seem to obsess over a tragic past. (Boym point out, by the way, argues people only have the luxury of obsessing over pain when they aren't in suffering very badly). When I remember the past, it hardly seems idyllic. But perhaps I'm doing the opposite of what modern Russians are doing. While Russians ignore the gulags, purges, and displacements, I ignore the love and fun I experienced as a child.
The other day my son announced that he had a Dia De Los Muertos project. He had to bring a photograph or object to school that recalled a diseased family member. I found a penant that belonged to my grandmother and tried to explain something about her to my child. I remembered her as a nice woman who let us play with cowboy and indian toys in the basement, watched us sometimes, gave us Coke to drink (a privilege at the time), and taught special education. Although I had known the woman for many years, and she was always good to me, I couldn't seem to remember any of the details of her life or personality. I stammered out that she had once visited Guatamala with her sister, but this hardly seemed to define her as a person. How strange it is to forget so much. But when one forgets so much, how easy it is to invent a recollection? As Boym reminds us, "Only false memories can be totally recalled" anyway.
The other object I found for my son was a tiny penant with a picture of my original family on it, my father, mother, and two biological siblings. How strange to be so removed from this family. Who were they? When did they live? What were they like? As Boym books tells us, there's a vast chasm between history and nostalgia. I can easily recover the facts of my family history. I can determine when my parents married, when my brothers were born, and when my mother died, but I can't do anything to view these people as anything other than strangers in a strange time, the past. And yet the distance between me the boy in the picture doesn't prevent me from dwelling constantly on him. Ah well, as Boym tells us, "As for the labor of grief, it could take a lifetime to complete."