Life & Liberty: What Are People Really Nostalgic For?


Nostalgia: 1. a severe melancholia caused by protracted absence from home. 2. any wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes morbid, yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary)

Nostalgia has gripped the country, inflating the price of antique campaign buttons and even coloring our politics. The Moral Majority wants to return to an era when society was governed by Christian ethics, oblivious to the question whether such an era ever existed at all (unless one's model is the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, or the Thirty Years' War). The Democrats hanker for a return to a Rooseveltian era of paternalist collectivism, to make us all one close "family" again, willing even to brave some pundit's dubbing a Mondale administration "Godfather III." The Republicans pine, too, but for the olden days of Eisenhower-era complacency, when the unchallenged moral basis of conservatism and capitalism was a condensed, comic book–style melding of those creaky classics, Utilitarianism and the Bible.

The phenomenon, however, is not without its positive side. There has been a renewed interest in 19th-century art, especially in Neo-Classical Realism. A number of capable young artists are quietly rediscovering the disciplines of painting and sculpture and have been delighting art-starved patrons around the country with contemporary themes and settings. There has been a revival of the well-made and Romantic play genres on the fringes of modern theater. Classical music and opera seem to be thriving still, thanks to the videocassette and the compact disk. Publishers, following the lead of Harper & Row, are reissuing the mystery and suspense novels of decades ago. A number of radio stations have brought back "drama" and "mystery" hours for their listeners. Antique shops specializing in the artifacts of late decades have proliferated in most of our cities. People are furnishing their homes and apartments in Art Deco. And, depending on the health of one's bank account, one can even book a roomette on the "new" Orient Express.

Even Hollywood is trying its hand at nostalgia. Morally bankrupt, esthetically banal, and intellectually mute (except when some well-paid denizen has a left-wing statement to make), it has appropriated the look, sound, and pace of the action movies of yore—at the expense of characterization, content, and plot. But while it is attempting to breathe new life into a form it helped to asphyxiate and will condescend to giving audiences as many thrills for their money as is technologically possible, Hollywood does have its principles: it will not take romanticism seriously.

The idea that there might be a need or even a demand for movies the unadulterated stature of, say, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Separate Tables (1958), The Four Feathers (1939), or even the grandiose, almost Shakespearean Lawrence of Arabia (1962)—sans the coyness, sans the self-deprecating humor, sans the swollen-tongue-in-cheek—leaves producers and directors rolling in their lucrative aisles. What they give us are the James Bond films and increasingly complex science-fiction reels for which we applaud, not the cast, screenwriter, or director, but the third-unit camera crews and special-effects technicians.

Hollywood's more earnest efforts have produced The Verdict, a courtroom drama in the best tradition of earlier decades, except for its vulgarity and the fact that to win his case and rise from defeat and self-pity, the hero is obliged to commit a criminal action; Ragtime, an aimless sociological slice of naturalism, screenwritten and directed by aging sixties campus rebels, in which we learn that early 20th-century capitalists were either certifiably crazy or hopelessly repressed, and the middle class a bunch of posturing buffoons; and The Big Chill, which is about aging campus rebels and their guilt about being co-opted by reality, the establishment, money, and the necessity of being mature, responsible adults.

However, the nostalgia phenomenon is not entirely complimentary to our times, whatever relief it offers us. Such wide-scale preoccupation with the past is not the sign of a healthy, self-assured culture. If people choose to look to the past so much, there must be something there that they can't find in the present.

The phenomenon has not gone unnoticed. Critics, observers, and commentators have all looked for an answer. They sense that something is wrong. But they are not equipped to find an answer, as they are heirs to an intellectual movement that helped to destroy what people are looking for through nostalgia. In a recent Harper's article, Christopher Lasch opens with the statement: "Nostalgia was a medical term until this century, and it has never completely lost its pathological overtones." This is a true enough statement. However, in the discussion that follows it, the clearest sentence to be found is, "Intellectual as well as emotional objections militate against the claim that nostalgia springs from a clear understanding of the downward course of our civilization." Though of awkward syntax, this is a perceptive observation, but it is lost in a swamp of sociological gibberish.

Lasch's article is typical of many, addressing the issue almost exclusively in terms of a social malady and never in terms of values. This is tantamount to addressing the issue of hunger without considering the role of food. Most of these essays end inconclusively, because their authors are incapable of delving further into the kernel of the problem, which is the fact that values must first originate and reside in individuals, and only then—if at all—in groups. The causes of cultural nostalgia must forever remain inexplicable to these writers, for they are no longer (if they ever were) able to think of man, or even of men. Their concept of man is not an abstract symbol derived from his nature in reality, but an amorphous mountain of living bodies straining pointlessly and futilely for an eternal reason forever elusive.

If one were to rename the phenomenon of cultural nostalgia with more precision, one would have to call it the "value crisis syndrome." (Ayn Rand wrote the best discussion of what preceded nostalgia in her essay "Our Cultural Value Deprivation.") Nostalgia, if its medical denotation is to be maintained, is a symptom of a psychological disease, which is the deep-rooted, natural yearning, by many today, for demonstrative values that are no longer explicit or operative in our culture but which seemed to be years ago, even half a century ago.

It isn't fashions or customs people go to see in old movies or read in reissued books. Nor do they simply expect to be entertained. It isn't even for a "glimpse into the past"; the past can be made to be as boring as can be the present, as any number of modern films, books, and plays amply demonstrate. No, the phenomenon can be explained only in terms of the values people may see in those films or books.

One can begin formulating the framework of an explanation of cultural nostalgia by appreciating the extent to which government intervention has swayed our lives. It has undoubtedly affected our relationships with our jobs, careers, each other—the things we work for and value. The generation that can recall when taxes and regulations were minimal, when our money was composed of gold, silver, and trustworthy notes, when we did not have to subvert our mental processes and honesty by scheming against a multitude of inane laws and two-bit bureaucrats to keep as much as possible of what was ours, when we were not being constantly harangued and harassed by committees of experts and councils of concerned amateurs, by package warnings, subtle and blatant propaganda, pseudo issues, and appeals to either consume this or deny ourselves that for one's own good and for that of the public, when the future was relatively obstacle-free and our own to plan confidently—well, that generation is all but gone. That generation, whose few bewildered, sad, and resigned survivors one may still encounter or remember in one's own life, can even recall when there was such a thing as benevolence and good will among men. There were so many attributes of a civilized society that those of the earlier generation took for granted, and which are simply unknown in personal terms by later generations, that it would be impossible to list them here. No doubt many of those attributes contribute to the magic that many people experience in older art. Only one, however, need concern us here, and that is the ineluctable fact that values were taken seriously.

A tilt toward altruism and the rapid growth of statism took care of all that. It was only after World War I that those attributes—minimal regulation, self-reliance, etc.—began to vanish as norms in society. The war changed more than just the economies or political make-up and direction of Western nations. It began to work inexorable psychological consequences as well. Perhaps the biggest change, in terms of this discussion, is that, over the decades, more and more of our time, energy, and attention has been abridged or removed from our direct control. We can reserve only an ever-diminishing fraction of our lives for what is important to us. Regardless of what any one of us holds as important to the happiness of his life, that importance as a personal issue is being eroded by external issues, by other-oriented values. Life is no longer an adventure—it is a chore of survival.

This dilemma contributes to an alienation that many people can neither grasp nor be even vaguely aware of. Forced upon them is the decision to live for their most important values or to simply live as comfortably as they can (which in itself can demand as much or more energy). They sense that a truly personal purpose in their lives has escaped them. Their whole approach to living and working has somehow been distorted. They've pigeonholed the things they cherished most and hoped to have time for them later, but in time they've either lost them altogether or forgot them until they return to haunt. They've prepared for a comfortable retirement, found the best tax shelters, connived for the maximum in government benefits, and exhausted themselves to protect themselves from society. The best of them ask themselves if this is all there is to living. The more honest among them say no. To what end did they expend, or are in the process of expending, a lifetime of vitality?

Another ingredient of the explanation of this current cultural nostalgia lies in the victory of nonobjective art, one so complete and pervasive that not only can we not see art in our culture (except in extremely rare instances) but we don't expect to see it, either. Most people have accepted the notion that representational art was just a phase—that plays such as The Miracle Worker and Cyrano de Bergerac are just as, though not more, interesting as is any caricature study by modern playwrights like John Guare and Sam Shepard, and that popular music is interchangeable with classical music.

Ayn Rand's prophecy of the complete inversion of esthetic criteria came to pass decades ago. The victory of nonobjective art has left people wandering in an endless junkyard of artistic medium mix-and-matches, ferocious anti-art, and plagiarized plagiarisms. Their senses have been so dulled by the monotonous "big beat" of glorified tripe that when something of value does manage to emerge, it is perceived as accidental, amusing, and, of course, subjective. (All the art dealers, museum directors, critics, and intellectuals say so.)

And here we come to the crux of the paradox: oddly enough, these same people still search for those values, against their conscious or professed convictions, against their best pragmatic instincts, against even their certain knowledge that finding them will cause the wrenching pain of an awareness of a dichotomy between their real lives and their most profound values. But—they still search.

Why? They're still human. Their public souls may have been conquered by Pollack's drippings, Peckinpah's gore, Nevelson's welded monstrosities, and Stravinsky's clamorous chaos, but their private souls—repressed, bruised, and disavowed—still function as private souls, untouched by insistent subjectivism and by their own compromises.

But even here, their saving grace is flawed. They may value what they see in the past, but they equate the incidentals or superficials with the essential attributes of an older film or play or book, and then compound this fallacy by viewing both aspects as its intrinsic attributes, that is, as things exclusively indigenous to a particular era or time period. They see values taken seriously in another time and place but believe that such commitment and loyalty and the drama they can make possible are not possible today. Thus they perpetuate their nostalgia, ruling out the chance that the dominant value in an art work may be possible in their own lives and their own time.

For this reason, if one had to select one of the definitions of nostalgia at the beginning of this article, one would have to choose the second as the kind of nostalgia prevalent today, with the emphasis on irrecoverable. The values one may seek in the past are irrecoverable if treated as being beyond one's control or inapplicable to one's own life.

"Worthy books are not companions," wrote James Philip Bailey, a 19th-century poet. "They are solitudes; we lose ourselves in them and all our cares." The same can be said about movies, music, and paintings, though one should amend the paraphrase to read, "we lose ourselves in them because of our cares." The tragic philosophical and psychological roots of nostalgia are not indigenous to our century, either.

Edward Cline is an Institute for Humane Studies staff member and is also at work on his fifth novel, a murder mystery.