Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Nostalgia

I’ve always thought of nostalgia as a bittersweet feeling that everyone should, and would, inevitably experience, something innocent and personal that was a natural part of growing old. Reading Luc Sante’s Low Life though, gave me a different perspective of the word and of the feeling.

“The common word for this kind of distortion is “nostalgia.” This word can be generally defined as a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future, in concert with a yearning for order, constancy, safety, and community---qualities that were last enjoyed in childhood and are retroactively imagined as gracing the whole of the time before one’s birth.”

“Past decades come into vogue at regular intervals, at the point at which people who experienced those decades as children and adolescents attain positions of power in the world. In their years of struggle they primarily looked to the future; having both achieved their goals and failed to realize their fondest wishes, they have the rue and leisure, the complacency and dissatisfaction to look backward, and the means to broadcast and idealized version of the remembered past, from which, however, the grime of history cannot entirely be washed. Then the tales, the legends, the styles and prejudices and assumptions of those decades are transmitted to younger generations, and these pass along the lore in further fragmented form to their successors.”

- Luc Sante, Low Life (Preface xi-xii)

[Note: Yes, I read the prefaces of books. I’ve been given weird looks when mentioning that in the past, so I thought it should be clarified and reiterated.]

Suddenly, the idea of ‘nostalgia’ seemed so much more ominous and unappealing. True, every once in a while I think of how life used to be, and how I think I remember feeling during that time (I say “I think I remember” because I’ve become increasingly aware of how inaccurate my memories can be) compared to the frustration and dissatisfaction of ‘now,’ but they are fleeting feelings and not ones I would (from Sante’s point of view) wish upon anyone else.

No one deserves to hold the burden of falling short of a fictionalized grandeur that their own parents don’t quite remember, but are adamant existed. If I ever have kids, I do not want them to think that the past was so much better than the now, that the generations that have come and gone before them are the greatest model of wot they should achieve to be. True, there were certain bright points in the past that should be revered, and people who should be held on a pedestal, but it doesn’t mean that the past, collectively, deserves such recognition.

Each generation should learn from their ancestors mistakes and build on their triumphs, but always look forward and strive to surpass their own standards.

God I feel old.