Nostalgia as Disease: Can we take any hope from our sentimentality?

Nostalgia as Disease: Can we take any hope from our sentimentality?

Drawing on Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy of symbols, Billy Allen ponders the nature of homesickness. 

We, as young undergraduates, are not unfamiliar with the notion of ‘homesickness’. Our nascent, youthful selves are more prone to it, we imagine, than our elders who have come, in time, to manage or suppress the human desire to return home. Yet it is equally obvious that totally depriving ourselves of something ‘homely’ can deal us vital damage. It would keep at bay the supposed hazards of sentimentality while arresting us of the warmth, comfort and familiarity that breathe through our lives.

Homesickness, this condition of an absent-sentimentality, was once known by a different name – nostalgia: a pathological diagnosis for the physical ills brought about by being deprived of home. This is not altogether surprising: more than one student, indeed, more than ten, or one hundred, have strongly felt the physical, debilitating effects of depression, or of fear, which can come from homesickness. They are of course serious matters, and ones that are finally and curatively, if belatedly, working themselves into modern society’s consciousness. Nostalgia, however, defined as some sort of medical affliction, has long since passed away.

It maintains its sentimental underpinnings in a different sense: as an emotive yearning for the past that obdurately resists the arrow of time. But what if this new cultural nostalgia is no better than the Victorian malaise the word once defined? Could it not be argued as devious and as vindictive – a tarrying case, as Oscar Wilde once put it, of having “the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”?

Feelings such as homeliness naturally have a bubbly and inviting connotation for us. Casually, we struggle to cast these sentiments into dark and malicious light – but, nonetheless, it has been done. There is a substantial tradition in philosophy and literary criticism to level fierce arguments against the excesses of nostalgia; with the new pre-eminence of postmodernism as a cultural idea, opposition has swelled accordingly.

Jean Baudrillard, who popularised a philosophy of empty symbols and ideas, loathingly called human sentimentality “nothing but the infinitely degraded form of bestiality”. Others have been less extreme but no more complimentary. The psychiatrist Hildegarde in Muriel Spark’s Aiding and Abetting avers, echoing Wilde, “that sentimentality was a luxury she could not afford.” For positivity, we must cast our vision deeper into the past – to times where sentimentality was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “idea that things will last”, an aloof hope amid a post-war murky and Modernist vision of torn-up romanticism.

But our concern is with today. If it is the case that we are now culturally and truly post-modern, having surpassed the merely ‘modern’, why do we so actively engage, more so than ever before, in our sentimentalising? Must we truly heed the warnings of the Western Canon’s literary musings, and proceed to cast away the alleged pettiness of nostalgia and sentimentality? By first addressing the cause of nostalgia’s pervasiveness, we are in the best position to reach a judgement on its effect. The problem can be thought in terms of two distinct ‘worlds’: the world of the present, and the world of the past.

As we go about our daily lives, the world of the present is constantly being shaped; it is always a moving, dynamic process, which although ‘real’ is never fully tangible. Just as scientists can never fully understand the physics of a universe that is constantly expanding outwards, so too can we not fully comprehend this moving world. We can feel lost within it, in a sort of desperate free fall that stretches on forever.

Yet the past is something quite different. The force of history has already worked upon it, having carved up a narrative from the jumble of human events, actions and ideas and assembled them in a rational order. The appeal of the past is therefore one of unambiguity and certainty: because the past is a complete and static unit in time, we can retreat into it and evade the insecurities of the present world. This, therefore, is nostalgia as a form of psychological escape.

Nostalgia, perhaps, has reached a new ascendency in recent times because of new, game-changing philosophical projections into our collective consciousness. The postmodern idea is giving sentimentality a particular importance.

Take a look, for example, at Baudrillard’s philosophy of symbols, and their simulation. What we come to in the post-modern world, he argues, is the inability to find a difference between the real and the unreal, “The real,” being “not what it used to be”. Whereas images and objects were once classically seen as references to a basic and tangible reality, these references have been distorted over time, and are now only self-referential.

A philosophical turning point, in this view, has been reached where every material thing does not conceal any kind of truth or meaning, but merely a vacuum, an emptiness – Baudrillard’s term is the “simulacrum” – a truth that holds nothing. The relevance of this idea is seen in some of the key facets of modern life, such as commercialism, where the value of something ‘real’ like an emotional experience is excised from our exchange of commodities like clothes or property which are superficial ‘signs’ of wealth or privilege.

Postmodernism is modelling what is perceives as a paradigm of ‘postmodernity’, which consists in series of unreal images “and this, and this, and this…” rather than the “either/or” distinction which is only found in the past. Baudrillard and his fellow ‘deconstructivists’ would argue that nostalgia takes on a whole new meaning under their philosophy – the whole human endeavour in the present has become the desperate hunt for the ‘real’, a sentimental search for the tangible amid a sea of broken representations.

Nostalgia as ‘escapism’ does not seem a healthy thing for us. Surely it is better to meet society’s new challenges head on, playing an active role in shaping the future, rather than shirking from the task and retreat into the storyland of the past? There is a danger in moving “Against the Day”, as Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel attests: in our struggle to find the ‘real’, we end up creating a mockery of it, a speculative fantasy. Instead of interrogating the past critically, we sentimentalise it and cherry pick the bits and pieces which offer the greatest insulation against the capricious tide of ‘the present’, passing insult onto the past as we trivialise it for our own ends.

But we can avoid all this. As the work of historians, sociologists and scientists has testified, we can examine the past etiologically, pinpointing the origin of ideas and forces in history to unlock one further mystery of why we have become who we are today. In a way, this historical, unsentimental approach is far more combative; we meet the uncertainties of the unfolding present world systematically, using the tools of science and history.

Our nostalgia may imply simply the recycling of experiences, the constant redistribution of ideas that forever erodes our literary palette: left unchecked, in other words, our foolish sentiments could impair our capacity for ingenuity, uniqueness or good storytelling. Notwithstanding, is there not hope in our sentimentality, a hope that is utterly necessary to us all? Pynchon, in another of his postmodern, fragmentary tales, Gravity’s Rainbow, seems to think so.

Amidst the cruel fascism of Nazi Germany, he depicts the minds of his fallen heroes desperately groping for a better vision of the future, and they use the untampered, verdant landscapes of the ancient past to do it. They use their nostalgic faculties as fuel for their hopefulness, as a means through which they can escape, not deeper into the past, but into a liberating ‘something’ beyond and ahead of their present horrors.

These sentimental men are much like civilians fleeing a warzone, full of a blind spiritedness, but empty, in true postmodern fashion, of reason and assuredness. Emotions are ultimately the mercurial heart of us all: we surrender to them with no guarantee of success. Yet, should we not surrender all the same, should we not have faith in our own primitiveness, when the scales of more rational fortune weigh so heavily against us?

Perhaps we lose our perspective in as far as we entertain notions of disaster, but it may help us to see that our sentimentality has differing needs in different contexts. Ironically enough, if we are to admit that postmodernism has any meaning left for us today, we ought to admit that there is no ‘either/or’ distinction when it comes to our nostalgia. It is neither poison, nor is it hope and solace from life’s present wrongdoings.

Rather, it is one of our tendencies that we must set in proportion with all our other inclinations. We must each have our home, yet not return there too often: we can afford sentimentality, but in smaller doses. As tempting as it may be, we must resist the attempt to lose ourselves within the information age, depending not too much on past, present or future.

If, as students, through our studies, and when out into the London’s myriad toil and expanse – further across this infinitely connected world – we see bad and good – both hope and fear – we shall have laid low the notions of ‘either/or’, knowing in our Shakespearean hearts that there is “nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons