Nostalgia is a peculiar thing.
It is a pleasure coupled with sadness, for it is, in essence, a fondness for something that is ineluctably unattainable, being both indefinite and lost. It is a wistful pleasure, laden with regret for we-know-not-what. A pleasure stunted by the non-existence of the very thing it treasures.
For some, nostalgia is personal, defining us, or who we once were. Perhaps it is the inevitable product of a generation coming of age—as the last sprigs of nonage seem sparse, we look inwards and backwards to our own childhoods, to a time when our needs were (surely?) simple, our pleasures intense, and the illusion of freedom held never-ending promise. We romanticise and censor memory.
Then there is the cultural nostaligian, who is convinced of the creative power of the past. We immerse ourselves in the literature of the dead and let out a silent plaintive cry, ‘Oh! to be there, to be then!’ In deference to the means of writers whom time has judged as great, we trade our laptops for stiff typewriters, as though it were the machine that generated elegance and wisdom, and not our selves at all.
For others, nostalgic yearnings are less precise, perhaps centred on a notion that ways of living were once, simply, better. They think, not of themselves, but of indistinct collective goodness. Didn’t we have more when we had less? Weren’t we healthier when our peaches and lemons came from trees in neighbours’ yards, our eggs from hens we fed with scattered grain, and our children’s milk from a bottle on the doorstep? Weren’t we happier when our toys were few but lasting, when television and magazines demanded respect, and when missives from friends came, not in bites of text stored in bytes of data, but in paragraphs of informative leisure imprinted on creamy pages? When our expectations could still be exceeded by the feats of humanity, when wonder could still be roused?
Although many of us long to shift our lives into the past, few of us can point when pressed to an epoch that satisfies our generally vague and varying desires. One day it is the 1920s and Paris, where we live in an apartment above a baker’s shop with a fledgling Picasso on the wall and take morning excursions to Sylvia Beach’s bookshop. The next day, we crave wartime London—we breeze through the Blitz, blaring swing from an already-retro gramophone, dressing in hats and coats and polka dots. Or perhaps it is the seventies and New York, where we have dinner at Max’s Kansas City, attend poetry readings, and drift in and out of the Chelsea Hotel. Or the 1890s and nightclubs, the sixties and music, the 1930s and Hollywood. Everything is ideal, conceptual, and unchallengeable in its impossibility.
But say it were possible; say we could go back—here whispering doubt raises its sly voice. We wonder if, having somehow effected our journey to the bygone, we might find ourselves yet muddling through those great mises en scènes of the imagination, blind to our extraordinary condition. For if we are muddlers now, are we not simply the muddling sort, ever destined to life at the periphery? Or is it that we all feel dissatisfaction with the known, and only see the spectacle of our lives, the momentousness of our time, once it has passed?
Thus we yearn for that unspecified ‘simpler time,’ or that better, more romantic time, as though our interior worlds would somehow match the imagined simplicity and romance of the exterior, as though the equanimity we now lack would then reign, and the cruel provocations of life would be dampened and soothed by the hands of some agent that has since jilted us.
But no age is any simpler than another, for the clamour and commotion of the mind endures. Now is as good a moment as those before, for romance lies not in time at all.