In the previous article we have split nostalgia into three categories: longing for traditional communities, nature’s eternal return and flâneur’s love at last sight. In this particular one we will continue to examine the phenomenon while dealing with the fashionable criticisms of our contemporary society.
Many critical theorists regard the melancholia and mourning for ‘integrated’ ancient civilisations to be signs of weakness or mystification of past ages based on the fantasies of modernity. If we were to travel back in time to those ages, they argue, we would become nostalgic for the unique advantages of modernity. However, no one disputes the traumatic rupture with the past and the amnesia caused by the Industrial Revolution. No one debates that emerging technologies like the internet and social media continue to accentuate this rupture and induce a series of negative manifestations varying from anxiety, depression, a sense of meaninglessness and existential angst – symptoms that were completely alien to past cultures.
1. GHOST DANCES. MOURNING AND MELANCHOLIA
Our Christian forefathers were at home in the world; their highest ideals – Truth, Goodness and Beauty were crystallised as the attributes of God. Their hope lied in the past sacrifice of God’s Son as much as it lied in the coming Kingdom of Heaven. The Christian faith and worldview provided a higher purpose than encompassed all the aspects of life – veneration, knowledge, artistic creativity, suffering with dignity. All this was torn asunder by the traumatic technological changes of the last 2 centuries; it is what Nietzsche called ‘the death of God’ – the annihilation of every coherent worldview, moral system and artistic tradition. This results in mourning and melancholia.
“One becomes aware of the collective frameworks of memories when one distances oneself from one’s community or when the community itself enters the moment of twilight. Collective frameworks of memory are rediscovered in mourning. Freud made a distinction between mourning and melancholia. Mourning is connected to the loss of a loved one or the loss of some abstraction, such as a homeland, liberty or an ideal. Mourning passes with the elapsing of time needed for the “work of grief”. In mourning “deference to reality gains the day”, even if its “behest cannot be at once obeyed”. In melancholia the loss is not clearly defined and is more unconscious. Melancholia doesn’t pass with the labor of grief and has less connection to the outside world. It can lead to self-knowledge or to continuous narcissistic self-flagellation. “The complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, draining the ego until it is utterly depleted.” Reflective nostalgia has elements of both mourning and melancholia. While its loss is never completely recalled, it has some connection to the loss of collective frameworks of memory. Reflective nostalgia is a form of deep mourning that performs a labor of grief both through pondering pain and through play that points to the future” – Svetlana Boym, ‘The Future of Nostalgia’, 3. Reflective Nostalgia: Virtual Reality and Collective Memory.
These two symptoms, when not transfigured through an artistic process or belief system can prove incredibly dangerous. This is what the critics of nostalgia usually refer to when discussing the entire phenomenon. They will be quick to point out the Volkisch movement and other nostalgics who joined far right groups or embraced xenophobic ideologies that proved murderous. The artistic and ideological products of such groups resemble the North American Indian ‘ghost dance’ – a religious cult of the second half of the 19th century, based on the performance of a ritual dance, which, it was believed, would drive away the white colonists and restore the traditional lands and way of life (Wikipedia).
In most cases, however, the very same ardent critics of nostalgia will deny the necessity of a worldview or will insist that the only acceptable one should be grounded solely in reason and the belief in teleological progress. It is precisely this “abstract education, abstract mores, abstract law, abstract government; […] the result of a Socratism bent on the extermination of myth” (Nietzsche, 1872, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music) that caused the ghost dance in the first place. “Abstract man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his past and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?” (Idem).
‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’, by Caspar David Friedrich. Image source
There is nothing to be gained from denying the need for veneration, for cultural continuity and an integrated existence. Homo religiosus will stay with us for the entirety of our life as a species. Without integrating these drives we will be bound to endlessly swing from radical Utopianisms to reactionary ghost dances. On the other hand, the critics are right in pointing out that the changes are irreversible; that we cannot return to past beliefs, at least not in the same form. How should we then proceed? First, by using mourning and melancholia as creative drives; by opting for a reflective rather than restorative form of nostalgia.
2. REFLECTIVE VS. RESTORATIVE NOSTALGIA
Svetlana Boym dedicates an entire chapter to the illuminating distinction between two types of nostalgia. Restoration is a self-explanatory term; it means a return to an original state, to the time before the fall. The restorative nostalgic therefore sacralises a particular historical age, which he considers to be of value for the present. The evoked age is a perfect snapshot, eternally young, without any shortcomings or signs of decay. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, is concerned with the passage of time and its irreversible nature.
“The focus here is not on recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth but on the mediation on history and passage of time. To paraphrase Nabokov, these kind of nostalgics are often “amateurs of Time, epicures of duration” who resist the pressure of external efficiency and take sensual delight in the texture of time not measurable by clocks and calendars” (Idem).
Restorative nostalgia tends to focus on national narratives, pictorial symbols and folklore. Its goal is to reconstruct the ideal homeland in an attempt to conquer and spatialise time. Althoughs the triggers of restorative and reflective nostalgia can overlap, the latter tends to focus on individual narratives and unsystematic cultural memories. It relishes details, shattered fragments and memorial signs and it tends to temporalise space by constantly deferring homecoming (Idem).
Restorative nostalgia is often humourless and sees itself in tragic colours. Reflective nostalgia can be humorous and is always capable of self-irony. It proves that longing and reason are not incompatible, as affective memories do not absolve us from admitting our wrongdoings or questioning our past motives.
“Reflective nostalgia does not pretend to rebuild the mythical place called home; it is “enamored of distance, not of the referent itself”. This type of nostalgic narrative is ironic, inconclusive and fragmentary. Nostalgics of the second type are aware of the gap between identity and resemblance; the home is in ruins or, on the contrary, has been just renovated and gentrified beyond recognition. This defamiliarization and sense of distance drives them to tell their story, to narrate the relationship between past, present and future. Through such longing these nostalgics discover that the past is not merely that which doesn’t exist anymore, but, to quote Henri Bergson, the past “might act and will act by inserting itself into a present sensation from which it borrows the vitality.” The past is not made in the image of the present or seen as foreboding of some present disaster; rather, the past opens up a multitude of potentialities, nonteleological possibilities of historic development” (Idem).
Both Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust regarded this imaginative form of nostalgia as essential in awakening multiple planes of consciousness with unpredictable outcomes; Bergson called them virtual realities. The reflective nostalgic can be homesick and sick of home simultaneously, because (s)he realises that a literal homecoming, if possible, will not recover one’s identity; it would not end the journey in the virtual space of the imagination (Idem).
a. Christian Restorationism
Restorationism, also known as Christian Primitivism, is a good example of restorative nostalgia. It started with early Protestant groups like the Waldensians, Hussites, Puritans, the Anabaptists and continues until present day with American denominations like the Baptist or Seventh-Day Adventist church. All these groups shared the belief that Christianity should be restored along the lines of what is known about the early apostolic church. If you asked any of their founders whether they considered themselves to be nostalgic, they would have denied and considered it a shameful thought. It is not nostalgia they were looking for but Truth – the absolute, atemporal truth as it is revealed in the pages of the good Book. The vast history of Christian theology between the 1st century and present is seen as a perversion of the pure apostolic faith. None of them would admit the everchanging nature of culture and doctrine that is visible even in a comparative study of the different books of the Bible. This refusal to acknowledge the irreversible nature of time blinds them with regards to their own biases and presuppositions; they become unable to see the flaws in their restored faith and would prefer distorting history rather than revising any of its tenets. When it comes to representing their views through art, restorationists tend to struggle. In their view, absolute Truth does not need to rely on metaphors and ambiguity; the purpose of art should be precise and ideological: the glory of God and the salvation of the unbelievers.
Illustrations for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by Alan Lee.
b. Tolkien’s Reflective Nostalgia
When seeking concrete examples of reflective nostalgia, it is much easier to identify individuals rather than movements. J. R. R. Tolkien is among the first that come to mind. An English poet, philologist and academic, he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. During his education he also learned Latin, French, German, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse and Medieval Welsh. His fascination with ancient Germanic or Celtic languages resulted in him inventing entirely fictitious ones which he later used in his fantasy books. He read the ancient tales, epics and sagas of the North-Atlantic and was fascinated with the pre-Christian cultural universe of early Medieval Europe. This long immersion in a world long gone didn’t turn him into a heathen, neither did he attempt to restore any of the lost traditions of the Anglo-Saxons. Instead, as a devout Catholic, he reinterpreted them through Christian symbolism in the fantasy works which composed what was later known as the Middle-Earth legendarium. This syncretistic approach which would have repelled restorationist Christians and heathens alike had its roots in the Christianisation of England, Norway or Iceland. Almost everything we know of the pre-Christian traditions of these countries was collected, transcribed and preserved by monks in Christian monasteries. Their beliefs influenced which stories they collected and how they chose to re-tell them.
The symbolism in Tolkien’s writings is hardly ideological; those who complain about the Manichean narratives miss the entire point of his fantasy, which is meant to reflect the poetic and grandiose character of ancient epics and sagas, not modern novels. The overarching influence of Tolkien’s fiction in contemporary pop culture testifies to his artistic capabilities; he is considered the father of modern fantasy fiction and you can hardly find an author of the genre that was not heavily influenced by him, not to mention the vast number of musicians and video game developers who base their content on his legendarium.
3. REDEMPTION THROUGH ART
In traditional or integrated civilisations, art is directly rooted in religious myths, just like philosophy. The creation of works of art is an act of devotion to the divinity. In Western civilisation, from its inception in the Greek states, artists and philosophers have seen the experience of beauty and sublime as calling them to the divine. Plato, writing in the 4th century BC argued that beauty is the sign of a higher order. “Beholding beauty with the eye of the mind you will be able to nourish true virtue and become the friend of God” – ‘Why Beauty Matters’, Roger Scruton. He believed that humans are mere pilgrims in this world headed towards a transcendental, eternal realm in order to be united with God. In this life we can only glimpse that heavenly sphere through the experience of beauty. The love of beauty originates in eros, a cosmic force which flows through us in the form of sexual desire and which presents us with a choice between adoration or appetite; love or lust. To reach the source of beauty we must overcome lust. This longing without lust is what we understand as Platonic love (Idem).
This view on art as a harbinger of God’s transcendental realm dominated Western thought for over 2000 years. It ended in the 17th century, in the wake of the Scientific Revolution which brought about the Newtonian view of a clockwork Universe. No place was left for gods and spirits, values and ideals. What was the purpose of art and beauty in this Universe, then? This was one of the main concerns of many philosophers. The 3rd earl of Shaftesbury provided a new perspective which was later adopted by Kant, Schopenhauer, Schiller and many other philosophers. According to Shaftesbury, the empirical method employed by scientists explains many things but its account of the world is incomplete. We can see the world from another perspective – not seeking to use it or explain it, but simply contemplating its appearance as we might contemplate a landscape or a flower (Idem). Beauty need not have been planted by God; the world is still intrinsically meaningful, full of an enchantment that needs no religious doctrine to perceive. Instead of being illustrators of the sacred stories, artists could discover the stories for themselves by interpreting nature. Landscapes, which used to be backgrounds to biblical scenes, became foregrounds with the human figure often lost in their folds.
“Shaftesbury is telling us to stop using things, stop explaining them and exploiting them but look at them instead. Then we would understand what they mean. The message of the flower is the flower. Zen Buddhists have said similar things. Only by leaving all our interests and business to the side do we encounter the real truth of the flower” (Idem).
In Kant’s view, a disinterested attitude underlies our experience of beauty. In Schopenhauer’s terminology, this is ‘the world as representation’ instead of will. “Enjoyment of this spectacle constitutes aesthetic pleasure” – Essays and Aphorisms, Arthur Schopenhauer. Roger Scruton uses a similar dichotomy in his book ‘Culture Counts’ – that of leisure versus work. According to him (and Schiller), we are at rest when we experience aesthetic emotions.
“Fulfillment does not come through purpose […] but only when purpose is set aside. And for Schiller, the paradigm of fulfillment is the aesthetic experience […] – the disinterested contemplation of appearances, the self-conscious alertness to the presented meaning of things. […] Schiller believed that we can understand aesthetic judgment if we refer it back to the world of play – a world in which nothing really has a purpose, and where every action is engaged in for its own sake, as something intrinsically delightful. […] And just as a child learns through play, so do we learn through the aesthetic experience, by exercising our feelings in imaginary realms, enlarging our vision of humanity, and coming to see the world as imbued with intrinsic values, meaningful in itself and without reference to our self-centered interests” – “Culture Counts” 2. Leisure, Cult and Culture – Roger Scruton
‘Stony Forest’, by Marcus Larson. Photographed by Erik Cornelius
Art is the final bastion of the sublime and transcendental awe of our late metaphysical systems. It speaks through images and archetypes, pointing to truths of a different nature. In order to seek creativity, one must – at least in practice – entertain the idea that beauty and the sublime are not of this world; that their experience connects us with the ultimate mystery of being; that through them we are brought into the presence of the sacred.
“We all know what it is like, even in the everyday world, suddenly to be transported by the things we see from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. A flash of sunlight, a remembered melody, the face of someone loved – these dawn on us in the most distracted moments and suddenly life is worthwhile. These are timeless moments in which we feel the presence of another and higher world” – Idem.
It seems to me that genuine art is intrinsically linked to the experience of nostalgia. These sacred moments in which we have glimpsed the sublime character of the world will no doubt be treasured as precious memories. Their uniqueness will make us long for their rhythms and we will aim to encounter them again in one form or another. The only way one can banish nostalgia of any kind is by deriving pleasure exclusively from the expectation of a Utopian scenario that will supposedly materialise in the future; one is forbidden to mourn the lost or latent potential of past experiences; mourning and melancholia are regarded as acts of treachery by the ideologues of progress. In their view, one should only celebrate forgetfulness and the approach of what is to come – to which there is no analogy, no past feeling, only the tenets of their ideology. Those who exhibit this attitude are not at all concerned with aesthetic experiences. Just like the fundamentalist restorative nostalgics, they have no interest in art and the intrinsic meaning of the world.
4. COLLECTIVE MEMORY. HERITAGE
The contemplative path of reflective nostalgia and redemption through art might appear to be highly individualistic. However, as deeply social beings, none of the above can happen in a vacuum. The emotional topography of memory tends to conflate personal and historical events, creating a virtual network of signifiers. The psychologists Lev Vygotsky and Mikhail Bakhtin coined the notion of shared social frameworks of memory. Vygotsky suggested that what characterises us all is not a naturalised individual memory similar to perception, but rather a memory of cultural signs that encourages the generation of meaning without the influence of external stimuli. Remembering is thus interlinked with thinking (Idem).
The British psychologist D. W. Winnicott suggested the notion of a ‘potential space’ between individuals and their environment, that is first formed in early childhood. Initially this space contains the play between the child and the mother.
“Cultural experience is to be located there, and it begins with creative living first manifested in play. Culture has the potential of becoming a space for individual play and creativity, and not merely an oppressive homogenizing force; far from limiting individual play, it guarantees it space. Culture is not foreign to human nature but integral to it; after all, culture provides a context where relationships do not always develop by continuity but by contiguity. Perhaps what is most missed during historical cataclysms and exile is not the past and the homeland exactly, but rather this potential space of cultural experience that one has shared with one’s friends and compatriots that is based neither on nation nor religion but on elective affinities. Collective memory will be understood here as the common landmarks of everyday life. They are folds in the fan of memory, not prescriptions for a model tale” – Svetlana Boym, ‘The Future of Nostalgia’, 3. Reflective Nostalgia: Virtual Reality and Collective Memory.
After this detailed description, Svetlana is quick to point out that collective memory should not be confused with national memory even when they share the same triggers. National memory tends to create a single teleological narrative, in which the gaps and incongruities of everyday recollections are mended through a coherent triumphal tale of recovered identity. On the other hand, the scattered frameworks of collective memory will never form a single plot, although they might share a certain syntax, even intonation. The Postmodern reflex to expose worldviews and metanarratives as great dangers to civilisation is fully present in her discourse. This tendency is also present in many critiques of art, which is celebrated only to the extent to which it challenges hierarchies, structures of power and commonly held beliefs. Art should provoke aesthetic interest merely as deconstructive jouissance, without relying on any religious or philosophical notion of beauty or sublime. “Just as those who lose their religion have an urge to mock the faith that they’ve lost, so do artists today feel an urge to treat human life in demeaning ways and to mock the pursuit of beauty” – ‘Why Beauty Matters’, Roger Scruton.
Perceptual Congruity, Elevation, Truthfulness
In his book, ‘Culture Counts’, Roger Scruton argues that there are in fact unifying factors that structure the artistic pursuit and collective memory, and that these factors are not imposed in a top-down fashion by hierarchies of power.
The first factor is aesthetic interest. Anything is art if someone sincerely believes it to be, for art is a functional category. This doesn’t mean we cannot judge the object of art to see if it performs its function (if it doesn’t it is aesthetically empty), or if it performs it poorly, in a crude or vulgar manner. The category of art is not arbitrary because there is such thing as a distinction between good and bad art. Therefore, aesthetic interest is always linked to judgment. Can we find a solid ground for judgment?
“Works of art, like jokes, are objects of perception: it is how they look, how they sound, how they appeal to our sensory perception, that matters. In aesthetic interest we see the world as it really seems. […] We then encounter a unity of experience and thought, a coming together of the sensory and the intellectual for which “imagination” is the everyday name. […] In the moment of beauty we encounter meaning in immediate and sensory form.” – Roger Scruton, ‘Culture Counts’.
The first grounding for judgment is, therefore, perceptual congruity. The object of aesthetic interest is required to conjure up this “coming together of the sensory and the intellectual”.
Scruton then goes on to say that this unity is not enough for a genuine a work of art. There are appearances that might capture our aesthetic interest and even fascinate us, although we ought to avoid them. He offers the Roman games as an example. Slaughtering animals, crucifying prisoners and tormenting innocents for the sake of the spectacle has a gruesome and degrading meaning. On the other hand there are appearances which reward our interest with knowledge, understanding and moral elevation. The Greek tragedy is such an ennobling work of art, in which myths with deep significations are enacted in sophisticated poems and in which the alluded deaths take place out of sight and unrelished by the public. “A high culture aims, or ought to aim, at preserving and enhancing experiences of the second kind, in which human life is raised to a higher level – the level of ethical reflection” – Idem.
‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, by Hieronymus Bosch.
The third factor that serves as a grounding for aesthetic judgment in Scruton’s view is truthfulness. This goes beyond art to the sphere of culture, which comprises our aspirations and ideals, jokes, works of art, dialogues, works of literature, manners, clothing and patterns of behaviour.
“A culture consists of all those activities and artifacts which are organized by the “common pursuit of true judgment,” as T. S. Eliot once put it. And true judgment involves the search for meaning through he reflective encounter with things made, composed, and written, with such an end in view. Some of those things will be works of art, addressed to the aesthetic interest; others will be discursive works of history or philosophy, addressed to the interest in ideas. Both kinds of work explore the meaning of the world and the life of society. And the purpose of both is to stimulate the judgments through which we understand each other and ourselves” – Idem.
Over time, this pursuit of perceptual congruity, moral elevation and truthfulness leads to artistic and philosophical traditions which serve as the base of our paradigm(s) of culture. And the principle that structures a tradition also separates the wheat from the chaff, establishing the canon of masterpieces, the built heritage, the ‘touchstones’ (Idem) of our spiritual endeavours. The depth and richness of this body of works is sublime; we do not do it justice by reducing it to the product of past hierarchies who aimed to impose their values on the masses. Instead of treating the Western canon as raw material for our deconstruction, we can choose to follow Shaftesbury’s advice to stop using, explaining and exploiting cultural artefacts but look at them instead. Apply Kant’s disinterested attitude and simply perceive them. Only then will we understand what they mean and discover the sublime character of our cultural heritage; “one that has the potential to act by inserting itself into a present sensation from which it borrows the vitality” (Boym, Idem).
5. BEING OFF-MODERN
How should we define this view of art and cultural heritage? We have rejected the blissful forgetfulness of modernity as well as its elitism, its iconoclasm and teleology of progress. We have also rejected restorative nostalgia and its aim to re-create the present in the frozen image of a past age. By doing so, we have redeemed our nostalgic predilections; we have recovered beauty and the sublime by becoming ‘amateurs of time’, finding both satisfation and melancholia in the contemplation of past ages as well as in the elusiveness of the contemporary city life. We have gained new appreciation for the classical Western canon without exhibiting disdain for contemporary popular culture. Is there an appropriate label for this approach? Should we call ourselves postmodern?
In Svetlana Boym’s view, postmodernists rehabilitated nostalgia only to have it reduced to an element of historic style. They never longed to recover a different temporality. At the end the movement was forced to acknowledge its paradoxical failure. “Treated as fashion, post-modernism became demode” – Idem.
“Instead of being antimodern or antipostmodern, it seems more important to [embrace] an alternative understanding of temporality, not as a teleology of progress or transcendence but as a superimposition and coexistence of heterogenous times. Bruno Latour wonders what would happen if we thought of ourselves as having “never been modern” and studied the hybrids of nature and culture, of past and present, that populate the contemporary world. Then we would have to retrace our steps and slow down, “deploy instead of unveiling, add instead of subtracting, fraternize instead of denouncing, sort out instead of debunking”” – Idem.
Kingdom Come Deliverance Screenshot
The main object of off-modern art and lifestyle explores the hybrids of past and present. Fortunately the monomaniacal project of modernity did not entirely erase the richness and depth of our cultures. Mainstream fashions and philosophies who withstood the test of time are not necessarily better or morally superior to the extinct ones and the technological possibilities of our age can allow us to explore the back alleys of history, salvage valuable ideas and unrealised potentials from the past or present perfect and make them relevant once more. Instead of marching in step with the ascending liberationist morality and looking forward to a glorious golden age, off-modern artists and writers follow a zigzag movement, questioning sacred cows, crossing black and white squares like the knight in a chess game (Idem). The eccentric adverb ‘off’ absolves us from the pressure of defining ourselves as either pre- or postmodern; its multiple meanings suggest ‘stepping aside’, ‘off stage’, ‘branching out from’, ‘offbeat’; hopefully not offcast.