Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

A Little More on Nostalgia

I’ve had some interesting snippets of conversation over the last day or so about my dislike of nostalgia, and it’s gotten me thinking about memory and the difference between having a personal comfort with our own past versus Golden-Age nostalgia. I still maintain that the latter is a bad thing, and that that’s what Keillor was engaging in when he wrote his Op-Ed. I’ll get into that more in a bit.

One brief note about one of the comments here. While in the shower earlier, I remembered one example of something that was better in the past than it is now: supersonic passenger jet travel. We don’t do it anymore, and I’ve long found it bothersome that when the first Concorde failed, all of them were pulled out of service immediately and there’s been no move to restore that sort of service. I have had similar thoughts about the US’s manned space program in the past, but I’ve been so impressed by the unmanned exploration we’ve done of Mars recently that I’m willing to withhold judgment on that for now. But I think that the fact that I could only think of this example, and that my commenter couldn’t find one at all, really makes my point stronger. The arc of history bends toward progress and equality, and I wouldn’t live in a past era on a bet.

What got me thinking about memory and nostalgia was a comment from Katrina Vandenberg, who said “Nostalgia gets happy-fuzzy only b/c one knows shape of whole, how things end. Hike feels shorter coming back, not going out.” I replied that I’d always thought the hike thing worked because I had context for the distance–the unknown feels longer than the known. Katrina replied “maybe when ppl think good old days=better, they’re just reacting to feeling more comfortable, b/c they have context?” I think there’s some truth to this, but it also illustrates the problem of nostalgia.

We humans have a remarkable ability to find the good in a bad situation. The psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls this “synthesizing happiness.” Synthesizing happiness is what makes a man kept in jail for a crime he didn’t commit say, after he’s released, that he’s a better person for the experience. Hell, I’ll just let him tell you himself.

Now I’m really glad that we have the ability to synthesize happiness, or else I might have been suicidal when, at age 26, I lost my faith and my marriage ended in a period of two months. I look back at that moment now and say it was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I also look back at my marriage and say it was, all in all, a not-bad six years, even though I’m fairly sure both me and my ex were miserable for large chunks of it. Personal nostalgia seems to be a bit of a defense mechanism.

The problem, for me, arises when we take that personal nostalgia and extend it to the world as a whole, when we start fantasizing about the past as a Golden Age, where everything was better, where the schools were better and where people got along more and where there was less crime and violence, where the air was cleaner and the food was better, and where government was less corrupt. And where, in Keillor’s case, the publishing world was better, and by extension, so was the writing. The reason I say nostalgia is a lie is because pretty much all of those claims about the past are false, and even if a single example can be argued against, as a whole, the human race is better off now than it was a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten, though the differences are less noticeable as you get nearer in time.

Take, for instance, my favorite old person complaint–one I’ve been tempted to make myself, dealing as I do with college students–that kids today are just getting dumber as time passes. I’ve heard this claim recently, I heard it when I was in my twenties, and I heard it when I was ten, and I’m fairly sure every person alive has heard something similar in their lifetimes. And yet, if that were actually the case, if each generation were dumber than the one before it, how on earth is it that we continue to make such amazing technological, medical and social progress? If we really are decaying with every succeeding generation, why is it that we have iPhones and our ancestors thought 2 of every animal would actually fit on a boat that could ride out a global flood? Okay, not the best example, given that some people still believe that, but I’m not talking to them, I imagine. Still, you see my point. I am, at this point in my life, more knowledgeable about a wider range of things than my parents were at a similar point in their lives, and I expect the same will happen with my daughter–or more properly stated, I expect that the average 20 year old today will be more adept with knowledge and technology at age 40 than I am currently, because things tend to improve and act more efficiently over time.

I should be clear on one point. More efficient doesn’t necessarily mean good in a moral sense. One of the examples Matt Cozart pointed out to me in a conversation yesterday was that of weapons. He’s nostalgic for a time when weapons were less efficient, and I don’t say I blame him. I’d rather we lived in a world where the most harm we could do to each other would be via a drive-by shouting, or one of Dr. Heller’s awesome non-lethal inventions.

I think–and I don’t have the statistics handy to back me up, so I’m open to being proved wrong here–that as a percentage of the population, we’re killing each other less often than we have in the past, whether we’re talking about conflicts between nations or on a personal level. I know that in the US, crime rates have been falling for years, though it’s difficult to believe based on the stories that I see in the news almost daily. And we’re certainly a less violent society today than we were a hundred years ago. We value life to a far greater degree.

I think one of the reasons we try to imagine a Golden Age, especially as we get older, is because change is scary at the best of times, and in our current world, it happens so fast that it’s hard to adjust to, no matter how nimble we are. The more complex our world, the more difficult it is to navigate, the easier it is to get lost–and being lost is terrifying. The desire for a simpler past is perfectly understandable, but we do ourselves no favors by insisting that the past was better, or by clamoring for a return to it. All we’re signaling when we do that is our irrelevance, I think.

Postscript: One other thing I should be absolutely clear about as regards Keillor’s post. I don’t think that self-publishing is superior to either the current system or whatever this system evolves into thanks to new communications technologies. Editors are great, or at least they can be, and there’s certainly value in having someone look at your work and say “not yet.” But I also think it’s ridiculous to suggest that self-publishing will be the death of the current model, and it’s foolish to look at the past model and suggest that it was the awesomest publishing model evar no lieeeess!!! like Keillor seemed to be saying. (By the way, to the people who suggested I just didn’t get Keillor’s schtick: Keillor the Lake Wobegon dude and Keillor the Op-Ed writer are not the same person. The former is a persona and the latter is a person, just as Ali G is a persona and Sasha Baron Cohen is a person. Cohen’s separation is just more extreme.)

Update: in the comments, Amy points to another Ted video, this one from Steven Pinker who notes that humans are getting less violent. Take the 20 minutes or so to watch it.

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May 27, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

4 Comments »

  1. GK’s piece–and I don’t care if it’s him talking or a fictional construct–is painfully sentimental, like most of his written work. I can’t see how any serious thinker can read his stuff and not wince. Buying baby shoes? Running through cornfields w/ a letter from NY? Might as well be holding a puppy in the other hand.

    And I agree about the progress and equality, and not wanting to go back to the fifties, etc. But sure, some things were better in the past: vast network of street cars in most major american citites, glass vs plastic drinking glasses, etc. The problem with GK’s nostalgia, is it’s v emotional and maybe even political. Obviously much worse on the Right–much of their platform is predicated on cultivating nostalgia. I don’t trust either one. Besides, nostalgia can be the precursor to violence.

    I also think it’s a mistake to imagine that “this time it’s different,” in regards to progress and technology. There are changes and advances every decade, and the changes we see now are analogous to changes in the 50’s, etc. Old cranks like GK used to op-ed about how transistor radios were the bane of the new generation, etc.

    Comment by Rich | May 27, 2010 | Reply

  2. We are getting smarter by most measures. Google the Flynn effect.

    Comment by Elisa | May 27, 2010 | Reply

  3. I’d been thinking about nostalgia lately in the sense of small towns, factories and family farms, and wondering whether some of the political split that we have is a nostalgia for production vs. service. The GK article is also a good example.

    Nostalgia seems to me dangerous not because it is always untrue (actually, I think it often has a core of truth tied up in a big pink ball of mist) but because it can effectively prevent a dialogue about how to move forward. Rather than looking to see what characteristics worked about the past and finding a way to combine them with the present/future, nostalgia fuels the tendency to try to turn back time. Bad not only because it’s impossible, but because it’s undesirable– since the circumstances aren’t as nostalgia paints them. Think about our obsessive fantasy recreation of the 50s nuclear family.

    Comment by Cheryl Gilbert | May 28, 2010 | Reply

  4. Some support for your feeling that we’re getting more peaceful: it’s not just you thinking that, it’s the truth!

    Comment by amy | May 28, 2010 | Reply


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