The new Age of Nostalgia
From Trump to Brexit and beyond, politicians of late have been promising to make things great again. The thing is, writes Cathal Kelly, they never were
The word nostalgia – from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain) – was coined in the 1680s by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer. He used it to identify a particular sort of depressive state – one linked to pining for a past time or place. Physicians were urged to treat the infirmity as a psychopathology. By the mid-19th century, it was thought that, if left untreated, nostalgia killed. In more ways than one.
The condition was most acute in soldiers. To prevent this debilitating and contagious homesickness, on a march into Germany, one 18th-century Russian general threatened to bury alive any man so afflicted. Then he did.
In his study Dying of the Past, historian Michael Roth quotes a French dissertation of the Romantic Era on what were considered some of the "predisposing causes" of the ailment – "too lenient" an education; no education; "strong and sad passions"; "disappointed ambition"; "love (especially happy love)."
Essentially, life caused nostalgia and nostalgia caused death. Little wonder the theory of nostalgia as a mental illness – rather than as a potential symptom of one – lost ground quickly.
Roth notes one remarkable case of the day suffered by a two-year-old, "Eugene L." Baby Eugene was born in Paris, but sent to the countryside to wet-nurse. Upon returning home, the child became "pale, sad and morose." His decline was precipitous, but no physical cause could be found. He spent hours staring at the doorway of his room, as if waiting for someone to come through it.
It was decided that Eugene was dying of loneliness for the woman who had nursed him. He was brought to her and began to recover immediately. Over a course of months, he was weaned away from her, as if off a drug. Eventually, Eugene learned to live contentedly in the present. His nostalgia had been cured.
Ours has resurfaced on a vast scale. Across the developed world, people and movements are reaching back to an often illusory past trying to chart the future through a form of retreat. From Trump to Brexit and beyond – we've collectively entered a funhouse time machine trudging backward.
The current political moment might be called the new Age of Nostalgia. The question is – can we break ourselves of the habit?
Though he references it constantly, it has proven difficult to pin U.S. president-elect Donald Trump down on when, exactly, America was last "great."
During the election campaign, the question was put directly to him by NBC.
"Great slogan," Trump first blurted out, in a sort of twisted tautology.
But when was the last time America was great?
"I would say during the administration of Ronald Reagan you felt proud to be an American. You felt really proud," Trump said. "I don't think that, since then, to any great extent, people were proud."
This is nostalgia as an echo of itself. Reagan's campaign slogan was also "Let's make America great again." Like Trump, Reagan followed a president whose political rationale was a cautious hopefulness that things might be getting better. Like Trump, he undid his predecessor without benefit of a real vision. His version of progress was an attack on the future.
Jimmy Carter helped enormously in this effort. Near the end of his only term, in the midst of an energy crisis, he delivered a deeply unpopular wake-up call to the country.
In his "Crisis of Confidence" speech, Carter touched on many of the themes that would define U.S. politics for the coming decades – Washington insularity, a weakening in family values and religious observance, as well as the gauzy ideal of American "unity." The polemic was specifically about oil, but more generally about decline.
He framed his argument in terms of building on the past. But what was heard was Carter's dismissal of those who wanted to return there permanently.
"For the first time in the history of our country, a majority of people believe that the next five years will be worse than the last five years," Carter warned.
That address would later widely be seen as the beginning of the end of Carter's administration.
All Reagan – a man pulled from Hollywood westerns, and therefore a sort of living embodiment of American nostalgia – had to do was publicly scoff. It remains an effective strategy.
This magical populism remains an alluring idea buried in our psyche – things were good once. Rather than build on that, we might instead try recreating it.
This past spring, polling company Morning Consult tried to determine when, exactly, Americans thought their country had last been great.
The answers varied broadly based on political affiliation, race and socioeconomic standing, but there was a strong overarching pull toward the era of the respondents' youths.
People born in the thirties and forties tend to think the fifties were best. Those born in the sixties and seventies favoured the eighties. And those from the eighties and nineties preferred a time just 20 years ago. Few thought things were "great" now, and fewer still thought they were getting greater soon.
Unsurprisingly, events do not inform our sentimentality. Our place in them does. Whenever we were young and hopeful and just beginning to figure life out – that's when things were best. Even if they weren't.
The disillusionment that comes with age is projected onto society. Nothing is ever really our fault. Rather, it's the times we live in that are to blame.
It is a peculiarity of politics that nostalgia only works in opposition to something. Reagan had Carter. Trump had Obama. In Britain, Brexit had the modern vision of the country to tilt against, rather than any one person.
The move to sever that nation from a largely successful European project was an overt appeal to time travel.
"The dream of Brexit isn't that we might make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it's a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday," wrote AA Gill, in an excoriating précis of the Out-ist mindset. "In the Brexit fantasy, the best we can hope for is to kick out all the work-all-hours foreigners and become caretakers to our own past in this self-congratulatory island of moaning pomposity."
The same ideas, filtered through various national strainers into an edible sludge palatable to the good-old-days culture particular to that region, are now being served all over Europe. They aren't yet winning en masse, but they are getting a serious hearing everywhere.
Whether or not you agree with Gill's assessment, it puts its finger on the key problem of nostalgia as a viable route forward – it points to a place that did not quite exist, and certainly not in the form we recall.
Sigmund Freud called this tendency "screen memory."
Think back on your fondest childhood recollection. Usually, it is reassuring and warm. In all likelihood, it is remarkably detailed. Almost too real to be credited.
According to Freud, that's because it is. This singular touchstone in your life is instead an amalgamation of several memories, pastiched into one "screen memory" – one that covers the others. In the process, negative feeling is removed.
For Christians, this drive to rewrite early life is especially strong at this time of year.
"Religious practices may be viewed as an immersion in institutionalized nostalgia – unchanged over the millennia, hence gratifying nostalgic wishes," psychiatrist Alan Hirsch writes. "This explains how the intertwining of religion with the major holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter) achieves the greatest impact and relief of nostalgic drives."
The Adult You may remember, in crystalline form, the buoyant excitement of coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. You are less likely to recall the fistfight with your brother a half-hour later or squabbles around the dinner table.
In essence, while time is healing all wounds, it is also redeeming all memories. Eventually, what might actually have been bad begins to seem good. Or certainly better than the fresh wounds of today. It also sets patterns of behaviour. Freudian psychoanalysts believe this is why we often repeat the misfortunes of childhood – seeking out comfort in dysfunction, if that was the way we were raised.
That might be the best lens through which to consider Trump and his fellow travellers – as peddlers of false memories and delusory reassurance.
Trump himself is the nostalgist par excellence. He's fit his whole existence around recreating the world as it was when he liked it best. As just one example, he still consumes all his news in print, since he's never learned how to use a computer. Most of us are forced into the future by economic necessity. Trump's wealth functions as a bubble impermeable to time, allowing him to remain in place.
He spends most of his time cosseted in Manhattan, but Trump's true home is Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.
When you approach that sprawling southern manse, you're struck by an image of Jay Gatsby's Long Island castle, spread ostentatiously along the water. It was built in the Gilded Age and remains stuck there. The only difference I could see when I visited during last year's campaign was the Ferraris parked on the lawn.
The appointments at Mar-a-Lago are unfashionably ornate – gold-plated, fussy; rooms you just know had been entirely designed around a chandelier.
You can always tell where someone's head's at by their taste in furnishings and fashion. Evidently, Trump's is still in the twenties.
On that March night, he'd secured the Florida primary and, with it, the Republican nomination. It was a moment of forward-thinking possibility. Trump would have none of that.
He spent the largest part of his speech describing the handsomeness of a pro golfer he knows and then ripping the assembled media. The wealthy supporters on hand were well refreshed and surly despite the win. While Trump meandered about in his victory speech, referencing, as he tends to do, only things that have already happened, his people turned to jeer the reporters wedged into the back of the ballroom.
There was none of the crude violence of Trump's arena-sized town halls, but there was an unmistakable air of wistful triumph for the shouters. For them, things were returning to a better time when people knew their place. They were back in charge again.
For all of us, a desire to return to the nostalgic past is inextricable from a yearning for control. The unpredictability of events has overtaken us. We want to impose order on them. Your specific past may be either good or bad, but it is inevitably one in which you understood the patterns. Looking back on it, you now know how things will go. Counterintuitively, the fulfilment of nostalgia represents a form of reliable fortune-telling.
You are there at the end of one thing (the past as it was), and set the terms for the beginning of the next (the future as predicated on the past).
That feeling – that we live at either the start or finish of some epic swath of history – is another of those false tendencies of the human mind. For the political nostalgist, this is primary – that things have broken or are just about to break, and must be set right. This resetting will be radically different from whatever it directly follows.
American physicist Richard Gott used this misapprehension to formulate a method by which we might tell the future (sort of).
Gott's leaping-off point is the Copernican principle – that the Earth and its sun are not central to the universe.
"It's simply the idea that your location is not special," Gott once explained in The New Yorker. "The reason the Copernican principle works is that, of all the places for intelligent observers to be, there are by definition a few special places and many non-special places. So you're likely to be in one of the non-special places."
Gott applied this idea to time and events. Working on the theory that we are not likely to be at the beginning of anything (the first two-and-a-half per cent of any one thing's or idea's or epoch's lifespan) or the end (the final two-and-a-half), we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty how long it will survive, based on its current longevity. The longer its present lifespan, the lengthier its future is likely to be. Gott once used this as a way to predict the runs of Broadway plays, with total accuracy.
It's an exceedingly rough tool (Gott has calculated that the human race will end somewhere between 5,100 years and 7.8 million years from now – the duration of the middle 95 per cent based on the 200,000 years we have already existed). But it hits at the heart of what animates nostalgia as a political instrument – that we (whoever "we" are) are a special people in a special place.
It is far more likely that we are non-special in every way.
Your memories may mean a great deal to you, but they aren't a signpost to anything. They're probably not true in the strictest sense. They aren't portentous.
When groups of people come together to agree they are, it's an exercise in stacking delusions upon delusions.
What makes us susceptible to charlatans peddling this bilge is that it is primordial. Even the very worst times can seem halcyon in retrospect.
In this manner, groups of disaffected people have managed to redeem the Nazis, or fascism, or the management style of Josef Stalin. The further away you get from the reality, the easier it is to concentrate on the ritualism and perverse ideas of purity, rather than the death cult and its resultant misery. The vast majority of these people have no connection to the creeds they're adopting nostalgically. The Vladimir Putin boosters have no living memory of the Great Terror, and the ISIS converts have no practical understanding of the last Caliphate. They may as well be dressing up as Vikings or Huns. This variety of nostalgia is a sort of malign cosplay.
In his oral history of the Second World War, The Good War, respondents repeatedly told Studs Terkel how much better America had been then, as millions were falling.
"World War Two was just an innocent time," one said. "I was innocent. My parents were innocent. The country was innocent."
"It was the last time that most Americans thought they were innocent and good, without qualifications," another said, hitting the same beats.
When commenting on the temporality of American greatness, the polls show that most U.S. citizens currently draw a hard line underneath 9/11. That was when things got bad and stayed that way.
In another 20 years, one can see how some might look back on it fondly – not the events themselves (since dimmed in the collective memory), but the coming together that followed. You can envision some future presidential hopefully pointing back from 2040 and saying, "September 11. That was the last time we believed in each other. When we were proud."
No mention will be made of the division, inequality, scandals, ruinous military adventures or economic crises that also attended that era – as they have every single one that Americans now think of as "great." That part will be edited out by mutual agreement.
Perhaps what insulates the Canadian polity from being swamped by nostalgia is that our history is neither as deep nor as exciting as that of our neighbours in the developed world. One time looks just as good as any other to us.
But for most, there remains no cure for nostalgia. It can be managed, but not expunged. It ebbs and flows alongside history, which is its antithesis. History is what happened. Nostalgia is what we wish had happened.
The two are inseparable, but only one is a good basis for governance.
It's for that reason that when Proust goes off a doorstopper of a digression about his childhood madeleine, he's speaking of a time "lost," rather than forgotten. There is no getting it back, since it never quite was.
Carson McCullers put it more succinctly, in what might be the core principle of the politics of the Nostalgic Age: "We are homesick most for the places we have never known."
Cathal Kelly is a writer at The Globe and Mail.
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