One of life’s seldom-noted pleasures is being disagreed with politely, thoughtfully, interestingly. It’s a rare treat, preferable to being scolded. Even the reasonably secure and mature among us can feel a flash of defensiveness when challenged. In last Friday’s post, I dismissed nostalgia as “cheap and easy” and cited Roger Scruton’s dismissal of it as “unhealthy.” Nige of Nigeness replied in a gentlemanly manner:
“Agreed, nostalgia certainly can be cheap and easy – but there’s a more exalted form, isn’t there, which is a kind of painful longing or homesickness (the root meaning). This might be ‘unhealthy’, but it’s genuine and quite profound, and, like other forms of longing (Sehnsucht), has certainly inspired some great art. Think Schubert’s songs, Housman’s ‘Into my heart’, etc. . . .”
Of course, Nige is correct. Too often I associate nostalgia with such sentimental sops as Mister Ed, “Classic Rock” and the Kennedy administration, all favorites of my generation, the Boomers. It’s safe to say these things are “unhealthy,” not to mention cheesy. Nige’s etymology is solid. The Greek root means “return home.” The word arrived in English in the eighteenth century, though our modern sense evolved late in the nineteenth. The OED defines that usage as “sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past, esp. one in an individual’s own lifetime; (also) sentimental imagining or evocation of a period of the past.” In other words, an unearned longing for something that likely never existed, a comforting pipedream.
In his essay “On Being Conservative,” Michael Oakeshott argues that to be truly conservative is to display “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” We can think of progressives as reverse nostalgists, longing for a future that will never be. A nostalgist of genius is Vladimir Nabokov.
I waited to respond to Nige, not wishing to sound touchy or petty. The best readers, as usual, go on educating me. I was moved to write something while reading Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman (1978). Here is the final line of a poem from his first volume, “East Congress and McDougall Streets, Detroit, May 25”: “My thirst for the past is easy to appease.” Detroit was Sissman’s hometown.