Friday, May 11, 2012

Comparative Nostalgia

"Nostalgia, it can be said, is universal and persistent; only other men's nostalgias offend."
--Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)

I read portions of this book recently as background for a paper I've been writing on land-use planning legislation in the state of Oregon in the late '60s and early '70s.  (A Linn County farmer and state legislator--and, clearly, polymath--by the name of Hector Macpherson found Cambridge literature professor Williams' vision of the relationship between urban and rural useful in developing his planning vision.)

Comparative nostalgia... this is a subject worth several books.  Most of us have visions of the good to be taken from the "past."  All I have to hear are the first few strains of the theme music to "The Lawrence Welk Show" and I'm transported to a state of yearning, and my existence barely overlaps with the show's original run.  I long for something I never experienced, and yet I know that what I long for completely elides the realities of pantyhose, artificial homogeneity and the restricted opportunities for women that also characterized the era.  No; I miss people long gone now and the idea of living in the comfort of a large extended family, and Larry cues that world up for me.  I long for the world I've heard about and touched, however briefly, as a child.  Even that, I realize, was not the ideal I create, but that only serves to better demonstrate the way we manufacture our pasts -- we create our own nostalgias.

Your nostalgia, I'm sure, differs strongly from this example... I'm a very strange 33-year-old and I realize that.  To a certain degree this is harmless.  We hold to things that remind us of happiness, contentment, peace or security.  The problem comes when we start to impose too much nostalgia upon the present.  It's one thing to enjoy a rousing chorus of "Calcutta" (or "Stairway to Heaven," or "Johnny B. Goode"); it's another thing to decide X period represents all that was good and true in our past and we should therefore attempt to recreate it in the present.

Why is this such a problem?  The problem comes, I'd argue, in the reality that our present is manufactured from our collective nostalgias.  We combine my past with your past, and her past, and his past, and the product of all of our shared experiences and ideas, beliefs and understandings is today.  We bring our conceptions and our misconceptions with us through life.  The past is an essential tool for learning about our present and planning our future, but we can only do that well when we realize that the past -- despite our nostalgia -- is always going to be more complicated and contingent than our memory (real or imagined) preserves.

Here lies the intersection between nostalgia and history.  If nostalgia is singular, history is plural -- not universal, perhaps, but plural.  History is about the attempt to bring ourselves as close as possible to what really happened while realizing that we are humans living in the context of our lived experience.  My sense of nostalgia makes me a Welk-loving sentimentalist and I don't plan to change that... I doubt I could change that without losing part of what makes me, me.  As a historian, however, I understand and appreciate the complexity of the period during which the man "a-one, a-twoed" his way through ABC Saturday nights and years of syndication, and that helps me -- I'd argue -- attain a clearer-eyed vision for how the past informs our future.

History education, well practiced, will do the same.  I hope it is something I manage to do in the classroom, and I'd argue it is something we should be striving for in the wider polity.

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