Memory Lane

26 11 2007

The human mind, when not otherwise occupied, turns to play. In normal operation, it requires an object upon which to concentrate, a need usually fulfilled by conversation, walking, reading or jumping over flaming buses. When not satisfied, however, it does not hesitate to jump without warning into less controlled territory. Here it finds a sufficient playground in the valleys of memory, doubt and possibility.

And Thanksgiving, with its diluvian, sepia-tinged carbohydrates, seems the holiday best suited for introspection. It moves at the speed of bureaucracy and involves a lot of sitting or reclining with one’s hands resting upon one’s inflated stomach. Not a whole lot of inspiration for the cerebellum. 

With its setting — often our childhood homes — it’s also the holiday best suited for nostalgia. Much more personal and raw (is that the right word?) than Christmas, it promotes the migration of thoughts back to easier times, when answers were plenty and the future had little to do with reality.

Last weekend, we spoke of old times, telling old stories and conjuring up old ghosts. I loved it. But is nostalgia something useful, or just a sentimental, abbreviated halt? Can we learn something from it, or does it just represent a reluctance to embrace the present and look toward the future? Shortly, can tomorrow benefit from trips to yesterday?

My buddy Justin used to call nostalgia a ‘mental holiday,’ a respite from life that really doesn’t bring you anywhere. No growth, no change, merely an escape. I tend to agree with that assessment, at least in the short-term.

But maybe there is some practical value in nostalgia. That is to say, maybe longing for the past can offer us impetus for growth, or, at the very least, better understanding of ourselves and our self-images. So, how, exactly could this be?

Let’s take a look at the word itself (I guess that’s how you start these things). The term originated in English in the mid-18th century, derived from the Greek ‘nostos’ — referring to a homecoming — and ‘algos’ — referring to pain or distress. Originally, according to the internet, it meant ‘severe homesickness,’ but morphed into the modern ‘wistful yearning for the past’ in the early 1900s. In its original form, it was linked most closely to the German word heimweh, which means, if you break it apart, home-pain. It’s apparently a phrase embedded deep enough German culture to be emblazoned on the walls at its most famous beer hall: (the picture link goes to my old European blog)


“Thirst is worse than homesickness.”

But what do we long for, exactly?

We’re not nostalgic for times gone by. We can always return to cabins, lakes, mountains, roads, beaches and diners. The setting is more or less irrelevant, just a symbol for ourselves at the point we resided in it. No, we’re nostalgic for the way we used to see the future. We’re nostalgic for the way we used to see ourselves, and the way that self-image interacted with its environment. We don’t miss the water as much as we miss the way we felt about the water. We don’t miss the summer between senior year of high school and college because of the time off, we miss it because we knew, absolutely knew, that we were gonna be great, before the doubts intervened over time.

So maybe we should use nostalgia, these old folk tales, as fuel for personal archaeology — glimpses into the way we were before we were re-molded by new environments. If we can accurately pull ourselves back to those distant experiences, we can draw distinctions between the me of then and the me of now. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see what’s remained constant and what’s been lost or gained. In doing so, yesterday can feed tomorrow. Living in the present doesn’t mean disregarding the past.

But the problem with nostalgia is that accuracy’s always compromised. Any memory, really. We look back and we see scenes. Sure, they can be vivid. But context is missing unless we take really, really good notes. Then handwriting’s an issue, I suppose. But we don’t want to look back fondly on standing in line at the DMV or filing toenails. We look back on emotionally charged events, ones that we couldn’t fully comprehend when we were engaged in them, and still struggle to grasp their entirety now. We see the sides that tell the story we want to tell, and our past becomes a series of folk stories.

Maybe that’s ok, though. The emotionally charged events are the densest ones, packed with a myriad of stimuli, bundles that can be unpacked if we really try. If we go deeper, a rich experience will only get richer.

Ultimately, nostalgia proves a shackle if not understood. How many of us came to college and tried to pigeonhole new friends into old models, to force them into archetypes that worked in one past context but didn’t translate so well in the new one? It was when we opened up to new models, ones that we hadn’t experienced before, that life really took off.

Even then, we only longed for the past because we’d begun to doubt the future. And we still do it, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past, like Fitzgerald says. But our tethers to the past need not restrict. They can enliven and enlighten, adding depth to lives that are always pushing forward. By picking apart our own stories, by questioning our anecdotes, we’ll find layers and layers that will help equip us for what comes next.

In all of this, the single-person perspective is the greatest hurdle we’ll face. The perception is always the preserve of the perceiver, and thus, as any journalist or lawyer will tell you, every story has infinite sides. So, hell, join together with friends. Bring beers. Tell the stories. Laugh and all that. Pick up factoids you’d forgotten. But enjoy it — it is, after all, the narrative of our lives.




2 responses

26 11 2007

Before I type anything further, I must comment that this article reminds me of a notion put forth by John Barth during an interview with Blair Mahoney in 2001.

I quote: “Postmodernism is tying your necktie while simultaneously explaining the step-by-step procedure of necktie-tying and chatting about the history of male neckwear – and managing a perfect full windsor anyhow. The postmodernist novel is aware of itself as words on paper, a made-up story; aware too of its predecession, what Umberto Eco calls “the already said” — and yet able to say something new, or differently, and to satisfy our so-human pleasure in hearing a good story.”

The terminology (nostalgia, personal mythology, memory) will vary but I think fundamentally this class of activities is extremely important for identity and personality. But I think my original criticism was on the easiness to slip into regression instead of actively embracing new ideas of the self, others, and the universe in general. Our generation more than any other has had access to the comforting symbols of the past and I fear that it might be or become another postmodern drug for a coddled and stubborn populace. Why should anyone move on if he has no need to?

Like any of this “not-real but definitely true” postmodern fancy, we can find magic or dissociation, enlightenment or irrelevance. The key is to find a balance that suits the particular requirements of ourselves. To use the past to derive strength, to construct and affirm character, and to explore and celebrate our humanity should be our interest. However we must be mindful of the way we do this so as to not miss all the stuff that is presently happening around and among us. Is it a vacation or a self-imposed exile?

Anyway, great post. Now I think I’m going to go try and learn how to tie a full windsor…

27 11 2007

Brilliant as usual, my good man. The world of writing misses you.

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