Nostalgia for the Imaginary

So, given that we seem to be opening up—I’ve eaten at restaurants three times in the past two weeks, and after five months of isolation, each time felt like a revelation—I’ll be taking my blog out of “Isolated Thoughts” mode. Hopefully I won’t need to return to it.

I mean, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a way of titling my posts. But I won’t pretend it isn’t a relief, and touch wood hoping I didn’t just jinx it.

***

The article I’m currently working on is all about The Lord of the Rings, nostalgia, and the ways in which Tolkien imbues various conceptions of “home” with magic. To that end, I’ve been reading a lot of theory about nostalgia as a concept—not something new to me, but I’ve been finding a lot of cool stuff—and thinking as I go about how our own notions and thoughts about “home” inform us, especially in this moment of dislocation and uncertainty. “Home” during a period of self-quarantine and lockdown takes on a weightier significance, both when we are separated from family, and when we are contained with family. I am fortunate that I consider the house I live in with my partner home—but I also miss my family in Ontario, and there is a sense in which my parents’ house will always also be home. The other day my partner Stephanie’s mom visited us for the first time since the pandemic struck, and, because of the fact that St. John’s has loosened restrictions, we went for lunch on a brilliant summer day downtown. I have been many times now to Steph’s family’s house in Clarenville, and it is also now a home to me.

Home, ideally, is where we feel safe and secure. So it is perhaps not surprising that “nostalgia” literally means homesickness: the term was coined in 1688 by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation, in which he sought to diagnose puzzling illnesses experienced by Swiss people abroad. Reading his account today, it is easy to see that what he is talking about are the physical manifestations of depression and anxiety; what clued Hofer into his patients’ malaises was the fact that when they were told they were being sent home to Switzerland, they almost immediately recovered.

hofer-nostalgia

And so Hofer coined a term, a combination of the Greek word nostos (νόστος), meaning homecoming, and algos (άλγος), meaning longing. Or as Milan Kundera put it, “The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” In the final episode of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper gets this translation totally wrong in literal terms, but pretty much hits the nail on the head in spiritual terms:

“It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Don Draper’s voice grows rough with emotion as he uses his own family pictures to make his pitch, inadvertently introducing his own emotional ambivalence about his recent separation from his wife. That much may be specific to him, but in terms of advertising, he is—as usual—intuitively shrewd, given that nostalgia’s “ache” isn’t necessarily tied to specific moments or events.

Nostalgia, indeed, can be collective and cultural. And it can be for things that never happened. I said as much in an earlier draft of the article on which I’m working, in a section I discarded, but which works well enough here:

Whenever I have the occasion to teach fantasy—or for that matter, to talk about fantasy in relation to whatever else might comprise the focus of a given class—I always make the assertion that fantasy is, or at least largely has been, an inherently nostalgic genre. In this, I suggest, it shares a sensibility with post-apocalyptic narratives that return survivors to a premodern existence in which moral choices tend to be more starkly delineated. The erasure of the confusions of modernity (or postmodernity, as the case may be) and the return to a more putatively authentic state of being is not substantively different from fantasy’s imagining of alternate, usually neo-medieval realities (the most crucial difference, it should go without saying, is the absence of magic from your average post-apocalyptic story). Usually when I make this assertion in my classes, the students nod along, either accepting my argument without question, or (more likely) not really paying attention. Every so often, however, I am fortunate enough to have a student who raises their hand to protest, “Wait, how can we be nostalgic for something that never happened?” And then we’re off to the races.

My instinctive, snarky response to the question is to say “Ask a Trump voter,” and press the class to speculate on just what moment or phase of American history the Trump campaign was alluding to with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

I’ll come back to MAGA, but I do want to cite a section of Johannes Hofer’s treatise on nostalgia that resonated rather jarringly. I’m quoting it directly, but have put it into bullet points for clarity’s sake. When listing the ways one might see “the diagnostic signs which indicate an imminent nostalgia,” Hofer enumerates of possible sufferers that:

  • they frequently wander about sad
  •  they scorn foreign manners
  •  they are seized by a distaste of strange conversations
  •  they incline by nature to melancholy
  •  they bear jokes or the slightest injuries or other petty inconveniences in the most unhealthy frame of mind
  •  they frequently make a show of the delights of the Fatherland and prefer them to all foreign things

While some of these “symptoms” are indicative of straightforward depression, the nativism Hofer hints at—the scorn of “foreign manners,” the distaste of “strange conversations”—is certainly symptomatic of the MAGA crowd. Also, the description of thin-skinned humourlessness so entirely describes Trump that it’s a little eerie. And I have to say, it is—perhaps serendipitously—disturbing that the nationalist jingoism suggested by the final indicator refers to the home country as the “Fatherland”–perhaps not a bad reminder that the fascist movements of the 20th century were themselves nostalgic in nature.

But to come back to my discarded passage—I decided against using this section in its original form—I have a shorter, more succinct edit that I still may cut—in part because it’s a bit glib, and it’s probably not the best form in an essay on J.R.R. Tolkien to snark at Donald Trump (though I’m also working on an article about Game of Thrones and The Wire, and I think such snark would be fair game there). That being said, one of the key points I always raise when discussing nostalgia is that it always necessarily entails a certain amount of fabulation: even when remembering a specific happy time or event, nostalgia sands down the edges, embellishes the pleasure, and elides any incidental unpleasantness. So, you remember a summer spent at a cottage in your youth as sunny and idyllic, but your memory leaves out the rainy days, the mosquitoes, and your rage when your little brother cheated at Monopoly. Or as Dylan Moran puts it:

(To be fair, I think I would actively repress memories of Japanese fighting spiders).

In and of itself, unconsciously burnishing happy memories is harmless, except for when your longing for happier days impedes your capacity for happiness in the present, or sabotages your ability to imagine a better future.

And what if you’re nostalgic not for a specific memory, but for something that never happened?

That brings us back to my student’s question: fantasy’s nostalgia isn’t for an actual Narnia or Middle-Earth, but rather a set of qualities evoked by the magical, neo-medieval setting—not least of which is a desire for (post)modernity’s erasure and a return to a simpler, cleaner, less confused world. And when I say “cleaner,” I mean less morally or ethically complex—in which there’s usually an unequivocal evil to be combatted, and a hero destined to do the combatting—but it’s worth thinking about how the larger portion of fantasy fiction does not, despite the usual medieval setting, tend to dwell on, or really even acknowledge the filth and unhygienic reality of a world without sanitation, nor the disease endemic to such contexts.

As it happens, there’s a word for this kind of nostalgia: “anemoia,” which the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” (To be clear: not an actual dictionary, but a “fictionary,” developed by writer John Koenig, that features words he coins to fill a lexical gap. It’s actually quite brilliant). And I cannot think of anything more anemoiac than the MAGA desire to return the United States to an imagined past. Though it’s a vanishingly rare thing to use the words “Trump” and “brilliant” in the same sentence, “Make America Great Again” is a genuinely brilliant—and genuinely pernicious—slogan, precisely because it evokes nostalgia for an imaginary past. Its elemental power is grievance, dissatisfaction with the present moment combined with an instinctive belief in America’s greatness; hence, if one is unhappy or disaffected now, it must be because that greatness has been eroded. So there is a powerful but vague sense of decline, but never during any of his campaigning before or after winning the presidency did Trump ever clarify when in American history the U.S. was great. We can infer from his putative concern for blue-collar workers and his preoccupation with factories and coal mines that he’s pointing to the 1950s and 60s, when a working-class job could support a family, but again, he’s never specific—and given the racial animus that stokes much of his rhetoric, one has to imagine that for some of his supporters it’s the 1850s that comes to mind.

But if, for the sake of argument, we assume that it is in fact the 1950s to which MAGA refers, we cannot escape the fact that this vision of America’s history is imaginary. I’d make the obvious point that this was a period of prosperity that solely benefited white men, while marginalizing Blacks and women, and criminalizing LGBTQ people, but it’s not as though that isn’t one of its principal selling points for Trump’s base. There’s also the inconvenient fact that the kind of jobs Trump promised to bring back were only possible then because of strong private sector unions. And then, of course, there’s the even more inconvenient fact that America’s mid-century prosperity was more or less sui generis, an ephemeral economic phase made possible by the fact that the U.S., unlike the rest of the world, emerged from WWII with its manufacturing base intact, and no global economic competition. But let me make you all nostalgic by letting someone else explain this particular historical reality:

Of course, even Trump has been cognizant of the fact that after one term in office, “Make America Great Again” is going to wear thin, hence the shift to the infinitely lamer “Keep America Great.” Unfortunately for him (and, well, everybody), now that his incomparable incompetence in the face of a pandemic and the largest protest movement since the 60s has turned the U.S. into a genuine dumpster fire, we haven’t heard that slogan in a while. Instead, the strategy now seems to be pointing to the current chaos and saying that this is what America will look like under a Biden presidency, and hoping people don’t recognize that this is the reality of the Trump presidency.

Ironically, if (when, please be when) Biden wins in November, part of what will carry him to the White House is nostalgia for Obama’s presidency.

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