Monday, June 01, 2015

`I Do Not Write This from Nostalgia'

Just when we think we understand ourselves and attain such a degree of self-mastery that surprise is no longer imaginable, we slip and do something foolish, contradictory and probably embarrassing. That is, something irredeemably human. I thought I had reached a cool equanimity about my past. After all, I’m appalled when people publically bewail their childhoods or burnish them with nostalgia. It’s indecent to carry on about long-ago slights and hurts, real or imagined, or, at the other extreme, bemoan the paradise lost. It’s time to put away childish things, whether bruises or trophies, and get on with today. 

But then I find myself slipping into nostalgia for things that in some cases never existed; usually simple things, not grandiose – the rapture of school letting out in June, picking buckets of blackberries, reading Edgar Rice Burroughs all summer. Let’s take them one at a time: I graduated from high school a long time ago and my job doesn’t coincide with the school year, I don’t know if blackberries even grow in Texas (and I wouldn’t like the mosquitoes, even if they did), and Burroughs is unreadable by adults. James Russell Lowell even provides a soundtrack for such emotional lapses unworthy of a man downwind from middle age: 

“And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays.”

That’s a poem I had to memorize half a century ago. It’s a comfort to know such sentiments, even in their falsity, are possible to entertain. Maybe that’s the way to deal with swoons of nostalgia – think of them as wholly unreal snapshots of terrestrial perfection that should never be mistaken for “the way things used to be.” I’ve never suspected my nostalgic yearnings had anything to do with politics, though Theodore Dalrymple, in “Reading Your Stasi,” says some people think otherwise. I understand that politicians manipulate such longings, just as others manipulate visions of the future, which are even less rooted in anything I recognize as reality. Dalrymple, as usual, is an intrepid explorer of the customarily ignored regions of our sensibilities: 

“It is true that nostalgia may serve to make us prudent or cautious, for it reminds us that loss is as possible as gain, and indeed is often inseparable from it; but it is not in itself an obstacle to progress, any more than it is a defence against deterioration. If one does not regret the past, one regrets one’s life.” 

No, nostalgia, visited but not lingered over, may be benign, though it might be likened to a gateway drug to the hard stuff – in this case, bitterness and disappointment. In “Railways Stanzas” (Coastlines, 1992), Eric Ormsby warns:

“I do not write this from nostalgia.
I who once revered as a mercy of
certitude the benignity of fact
am skeptical of every reverie
that leads me backward into dubious time.”

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