This site’s description page states that ‘our images have been appreciated for their distinct nostalgic and melancholic aesthetic.’ It is also obvious that the studio’s name and visual identity draws inspiration from Norse mythology. “Wyrd” is an Old English word for ‘fate’ or ‘personal destiny’, which also corresponds to the Old Norse “urðr” of similar meaning and a rich mythological substrate.
I am well aware that nostalgia has a bad reputation in the contemporary zeitgeist; mentioning it as a creative drive is likely to raise a barrage of criticisms and red flags from almost every category of readers. The purpose of this article and the following two is to explore and recover the notion and in doing so, to deal with the most common critiques and objections. The main reference in this analysis will be Svetlana Boym’s book, “The Future of Nostalgia”.
‘Nostalgia’ is a pseudo-Greek word composed of two words: “nostos” (coming home) and “algia” (longing). The term was first used in the 18th century to describe the incurable homesickness of Swiss soldiers. Considered initially to be a medical illness, it later became known as a condition of modernity. The appearence of the mechanic clock and later the industrial revolution created a new perception on time as an objective entity; an immense machine that ticks irreversibly and independent of individual rhythms and priorities. Globalisation, colonialism and technological progress had a similar effect on our perception of space. Systematised, filled with similar transport systems and standardised topographic maps, it became understood as an abstract cartesian coordinate system. The modern man viewed these transformations as a great liberation from the inertia of the past. The desire to begin anew, reinvent society, be happy and live in the moment led to a teleology of progress in which technology was regarded as a miraculous ingredient. This radical rupture with the past and the transience of the modern condition also caused a nostalgic reaction that romanticised the past and aimed to recover its stability, sense of community, tradition and what Nietzsche called ‘the mythic womb’ – a sense of being at home in the world. Many historians and philosophers such as Walter Benjamin or Bruno Latour have pointed out that the modern myths of progress and the anti-modern longing for tradition are twins who fail to recognise each other, both being consequences of the new conceptualisation of time and the irreversible rupture with the past caused by the Industrial Revolution.
‘The Iron Rolling Mill’ by Adolph Menzel. Image source: Quora
The 19th century illustrated this reality through the strange juxtaposition of the new monuments of progress (cast iron pavilions, truss bridges, railways) and places of memory (museums, mausoleums, heritage foundations). The traumatic rupture with the past and the overall sense of amnesia was not disputed by anyone. The question was whether to celebrate forgetfulness as a unique opportunity to live the present to the full or rather to start digging frantically for the roots. And not even Romantics or traditionalists could agree on what was lost and needed to be recovered. If the ‘algia’ was shared by everyone, the ‘nostos’ differed greatly between groups. The modern concept of ‘history’ as a unified phenomenon which develops gradually, in a darwinian fashion, was clearly influenced by nostalgia. The philosophical and ideological systems that shared hegelian roots were also seeking continuity with the past, some immutable laws of history that would set us at home in the world and light or way to the future. Nationalism monopolised the homesickness of poets and incorporated their songs in narratives of belonging, shared values and collective liberation. Marxists also dreamed about “integrated” ancient civilisations (Georg Lukacs) or the prefeudal “primitive communist society” (Marx). Volkisch movements glorified and sought continuity with their ancestral heathen customs while American Restaurationist Christians were seeking a return to the apostolic early church. The distinction between traditional and modern society lies at the very core of modern sociology, which tends to idealise the completeness and integrated character of traditional societies (S. Boym, ‘The Future of Nostalgia’, 2. The Angel of History: Nostalgia and Modernity).
Instead of analysing all these disparate manifestations of nostalgia, we will follow Svetlana Boym’s proposition to divide the notion into three categories based on the object of the longing: nostalgia for traditional communities, nature’s eternal return and flâneur’s ‘love at last sight’.
1. NOSTALGIA FOR TRADITIONAL COMMUNITIES
“Lukacs’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) opens with an elegy of epic proportions: “Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths – ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars.” This is no longer nostalgia for one’s local home but for being at home in the world, yearning for a “transcendental topography of the mind” that characterizes presumably “integrated” ancient civilization. The object of nostalgia in Lukacs is a totality of existence hopelessly fragmented in the modern age” (Idem).
What is it about traditional rural communities that is so enticing to the modern nostalgic?
The post-structuralist philosopher Jean Baudrillard splits the origin myth into two psychological components, both deriving from the mythical remembrance of birth: authenticity and nostalgia of origins. The preoccupation with authenticity focuses on certainty: the object’s origin, its date of fabrication, its author and his signature. The mere fact that it belonged to a powerful, influential person, gives it value. It is the fascination with the handmade object, unique because the moment of creation is irreversible.
“Seeking evidence of the creation of the object is characteristic of paternal transcendence. Authority always comes from a father who confers value. Thus, the vintage object stirs the owner’s imagination, offering him the sense of this sublime filiation, as well as the involution towards the maternal presence” (Baudrillard, “The System of Objects”).
According to him, seeking authenticity is in fact the quest for an alibi (being somewhere else). Baudrillard considered the nostalgia of origins to be a maternal regression. The older the vintage object is, the more it gets us closer to an older era, to “Divinity”, to nature, to primitive knowledge etc. Although unfalsifiable, this psychoanalytic hypothesis could explain myths of humanity’s decline such as the Greek myth of the Ages of Man, the book of Daniel or Kali Yuga.
One could also explain the attraction of a pre-civilisational stage through the sacred / profane dichotomy proposed by Mircea Eliade. We long for a transcendental order; the hierophany that manifested itself before the beginning of time and separated order from chaos; the primordial archetypes which we strive to reenact; the sacred values that allowed our tribal ancestors to transcend individual gratification and focus on a greater good. The struggle to attain it, which gave their life meaning. The harmony and togetherness of worshiping and chanting together in sacred groves; the blissful abandonment of shamanic trances.
From the perspective of a moral psychologist like Jonathan Haidt, one could argue that the worldviews of traditional societies integrated all human moral intuitions – care/harm, justice, liberty, loyalty, respect, purity, while the philosophical systems of Western industrialised societies focus only on the individualistic ones – care/harm and justice. One might discover that sacralising individual autonomy cannot provide a meaning strong enough to replace all the aspects of traditional belief systems; that the rhythm of technological change and the quick devaluation of gadgets creates unbridgeable generation gaps, preventing the transference of moral values from one generation to another. The ‘illo tempore’ (mythic time of the gods) of pre-Christian societies allowed one to respect and honour their ancestors instead of compulsively deconstruct their myths.
Finally, in traditional societies space and time were not mere Cartesian abstractions; they were punctuated by sacred experiences and epiphanies. Pilgrimages, rituals, feasts, sacred mountains, sacred groves – they all conveyed a sense of mystery, of unexplored potential. The pre-modern experience appears to be sublime both within the community as well as outside of it. Allowing space for the transcendent guarantees that exploration will be fruitful; that there are still things to be known, mysteries to be solved; beauties to be discovered.
I believe there is a certain cynicism in the approach of many critical theorists. Max Weber decried the modern “rationalization” and bureaucratic subjugation of human relations to the utilitarian ethics which resulted in the “disenchantment of the world.” He went on to say that “the retreat into a newly found religion or reinvented communal tradition wasn’t the answer to the challenge of modernity, but an escape from it.” (Boym, Idem).
Others like him seem to regard any modern revival of ancient traditions to be false down to the core, to be telling more about the longing of the restaurationist than of the restored tradition. Although it is undeniable that the biases of modernity will be present in every such endeavour, certain traditions can survive the test of time or be brought back to life. There are lost languages (Hebrew, Cornish, Greek) that have been at least partially resurrected and successfully integrated in the cultures of modern communities. A Baptist restaurationist is not just an incurable nostalgic, but has tapped into the worldview and spiritual practices of a past age and is living according to it.
‘Stour Valley and Dedham Church’ – by John Constable. Source: MFA.org
2. NATURE’S ETERNAL RETURN.
The second type of nostalgia identified by Svetlana Boym is exemplified by Nietzsche’s notion of cosmic eternal return. It is a paradoxical form of nostalgia because it looks for fulfilment beyond the integrated civilisations and traditional communities of the past. It is a solitary escape into the metaphysical Universe of pure will he envisioned – a Universe that transcends the irreversibility of time and uniqueness of experience characteristic of modern transience:
“This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not extend itself, but only transforms itself… a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without income… a sea of forces flowing and flushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back with tremendous years of recurrence, with ebb and a flow of its forms” (Idem).
The idea of an irreversible escape from civilisation cast its spell on many Romantic authors. Nature or wilderness sometimes seems to promise a definitive cure to our sense of estrangement. If only one could live as a recluse for the entirety of their life, they would escape the ephemeral treacherous character of human culture and civilisation.
“Nietzsche’s poetic fragments about eternal return evoke Greek philosophy; however, like the word nostalgia, this kind of eternal return is only nostalgically Greek. Moreover, it has a distinct modern aspect: self-creating modern subjectivity characterized by the “will to power”. […] his icon of modern nostalgia is […] a well-known superman, Zarathustra, at home only in his own soul: “One should live upon mountains. With happy nostrils I breathe again mountain freedom. At last my nose is delivered from the odour of all humankind” (Idem).
The mountain as a symbol of self-sufficiency and autonomy was also evoked by Karl Jung. Although he relied heavily on Nietzsche’s imagery, Jung believed that a prolonged stay on the peaks would inevitably lead to monotony and sickness.
“A man who can no longer climb down from his heights is sick, and he brings himself and others to torment. If you have reached your depths, then you see your height light up brightly over you, worthy of desire and far-off, as if unreachable, since secretly you would prefer not to reach it since it seems unattainable to you. […] Your heights are your own mountain, which belongs to you and you alone. There you are individual and live your very own life. If you live your own life, you do not live the common life, which is always continuing and never-ending, the life of history and the inalienable and ever-present burdens and products of the human race. There you live the endlessness of being, but not the becoming. Becoming belongs to the heights and is full of torment. How can you become if you never are? Therefore you need your bottommost, since there you are. But therefore you also need your heights, since there you become.” (Liber Secundus, Karl Jung).
One could argue that dwelling too long on the mountains of individuality and becoming (the modern condition) makes one nostalgic for the depths of tradition, the desire to become part of a greater whole and simply go with the flow. On the other hand, the total abandonment to the depths makes one long for the unreachable mountaintops. In Jung’s words, “The God is where you are not” (Liber Primus, idem). Maybe unconsciously, the comforting forgetfulness of the depths enticed Nietzsche and nostalgia crept into his mountainous landscape where he was hoping to move beyond memory into that cosmic state. The place becomes reminiscent of the Alpine landscape of the romantic sublime and Swiss souvenir postcards, complete with cowbells (Boym, Idem). Overcome by homesickness, he fails to be at home in a household “without expenses and without losses”. He envies the cows for living in the moment and longs for their unphilosophical worldview.
‘Among the Sierra Nevada, California’ – by Albert Bierstadt
3. THE FLÁNEUR’S ‘LOVE AT LAST SIGHT’
Many nostalgics have serious reservations about urban living. The ideal home of traditionalists, as well as the adepts of nature’s eternal return seems to have a distinctive rural component. Cities have always been the vanguard of revolutionary ideas and the sweeping winds of progress, while rural places have remained bastions of stable traditional communities. It’s no wonder that the English word ‘heathen’ is derived from ‘heath’, just like the word ‘pagan’ is derived from the Latin ‘paganus’, which means ‘of the countryside, rural, rustic’.
When asked about their views on modern city living, nostalgics often express themselves in apocalyptic terms. After visiting Paris, Dostoevsky declared it to be a whore of Babylon and a symbol of Western decadence: “It is a kind of Biblical scene, something about Babylon, a kind of prophecy from the Apocalypse fulfilled before your very eyes. You feel that it would require a great deal of eternal spiritual resistance not to succumb, not to surrender to the impression, not to bow down to the fact, and not to idolize Baal, not to accept it as your ideal” (Idem).
There is, however, one category of nostalgics who love the poetics of urban experience – the flâneurs. These are nostalgics who embrace modernity. The ever-changing qualities of urban crowds excite them; the beauty of the city of blinding lights evokes openness and unpredictability. Baudelaire was one of these poets who celebrated the modern experience for its sublime qualities. In his essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”, he states that “modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the hall of art of which the other half is eternal and the immutable” (Idem). His goal was to represent the present, to capture the potential condensed in every anonymous encounter. In his poem, ‘To a Passerby’, modernity is impersonated by an unknown widow of dubious morals, lost in a crowd, wearing a veil and provocative makeup:
“The traffic roared around me, deafening!
Tall, slender, in mourning – noble grief –
A woman passed, and with a jewelled hand
gathered up her black embroidered hem;
stately, yet blithe, as if the statue walked…
and trembling like a fool, I drank from eyes
as ashen as the clouds before the gale
the grace that beckons and the joy that kills.
Lighting… then darkness! Lovely fugitive
whose glance has brought me back to life! But where
is life – not this side of eternity?
Elsewhere! Too far, too late or never at all!
Of me you know nothing, I nothing of you – you
whom I might have loved and who knew it too!” (Idem).
The poet becomes haunted of what could have happened if he had seized the moment. The woman disappeared forever in the crowd of anonymity. The modern quest for arresting the moment results in erotic failure and gives way to nostalgia; not for the ideal past, but rather for the present perfect and its lost potential (Idem). All that is left for him to do is turn this failure into a lasting work of art and encapsulate the transience of modern beauty into the rhymes of a traditional sonnet.
“The urban crowd is not merely a background but an actor in the scene, its collective anonymity highlighting the singularity of the encounter. The modern city is the poet’s imperfect home” (Idem).
‘Boulevard Poissonniere in the Rain’ by Jean Beraud
This nostalgia for the present perfect and what could have been might differentiate a poet from an ideologue; an artist from a mere opportunist; a flâneur from a boulevardier.
In a blog post from 2014, professor Joseph Suglia emphasised a few differences between the flâneur and the boulevardier:
“1.) A boulevardier drinks in the fashionable atmospheres; a flâneur drifts like a ghost through fashionable spaces, which are less remarkable to him than emptied factories.
2.) A flâneur takes pictures in the mind of landfills; a boulevardier takes pictures of tourist attractions.
3.) A flâneur is a seer; a boulevardier is a sightseer.
4.) A boulevardier strolls down prescribed paths; a flâneur is a mapless wanderer.
5.) A boulevardier walks to be seen; a flâneur walks to see.”
This contemplative attitude turned Baudelaire into a critic of the belief in the uninterrupted march of progress, which he regarded as an enslaver of human nature. He cherished the present and new because of their openness and unpredictability and therefore rejected the teleology of progress. The impurities of modern life were in fact its redeeming feature (Idem).
Walter Benjamin shared Baudelaire’s fondness for the present perfect. That which is lost can be recovered and find new resonances in the future. In the same way that the French poet transformed his erotic failure into a lasting work of art, stories of the marginal or disenfranchised people of the past can be rescued and made meaningful again. As Henry Bergson put it, “the past is not merely that which doesn’t exist anymore; it might act and will act by inserting itself into a present sensation from which it borrows the vitality” (Idem).