Approximately one month ago, Fr. Jonathan Tobias, who maintains a blog entitled Second Terrace, authored three meditations on the subject of locality, memory, nostalgia, modernity, and the Church. Those posts may be read here, here, and here, and together constitute a gentle interrogation of certain intellectual and spiritual tendencies on what might be referred to as the 'alternative right'. Critical to this interrogation is the distinction between nostalgia and memory, between sentimentality and a rooted, lived tradition - preferably Tradition. In the comments following the third post, I wrote what follows, not in order to engage in a fruitless disputation, but in an attempt to clarify, to excavate, the genesis of nostalgia as a cultural and psychological phenomenon; for nostalgia, that sentimental gaze fixed upon an idealized past, at once warm and wistful, is not a primary phenomenon, but a secondary, symptomatic one - symptomatic of the unhomelikeness experienced in times of relentless, remorseless change.
Brief Notes on Nostalgia
While agreeing with virtually all of the analyses given in the post, I cannot be so quick to dismiss the phenomenon of nostalgia, inasmuch as it is a symptom, and fairly begs to be diagnosed as such. Christopher Lasch, in his The True and Only Heaven - a near-magisterial treatment of these themes, in my estimation - is at pains to distinguish nostalgia and memory, as well as optimism and hope. Obviously, the former terms in these binaries are disordered, but what is important is that the phenomenon of nostalgia is the mirror image of progress, the relentless, churning, ceaselessly-revolutionizing, creatively-destroying Gadarene plunge into a fervently-desired future of BiggerBetterFasterMore, which, so far from increasing human satisfaction, seems to increase discontent with every achievement. Progress is typically portrayed, especially among certain 'conservative' temporizers, who wish to combine the incongruous elements of modernity in economics and material culture with traditionalism in morality, as a merely neutral relieving of man's estate that leaves us 'stuck with virtue' - although they also want to have it the other way, with the wellsprings of modernity, on their constructions, arising from the deepest aquifers of Christianity - but it is obvious that progress is merely a transposition, to the societal level, of the dialectic of the passions. It is driven, not by an impulse or judgment that human desires and aspirations should be conformed to natural limits, either those of our common nature or those of the nature that remains a common inheritance, however much we feign otherwise, but by the impulse to fulfill an ever-increasing wish-list of desires, typically, as is modernity's wont, by means of greater quantities of desire's objects. Progress is the attempt to satiate the infinite appetite of desire, to fill its fathomless abyss, with sheer quantity; as such, it is both born of a certain spiritual restlessness and productive of that restlessness, as each evanescent satisfaction generates a greater longing.
However, because this process itself has been made possible only by the ceaseless revolutionizing of all social forms and arrangements, the reduction of every tradition to a transient style or mode, as all social fixities are made to yield to the reign of quantity and the false infinity of desire, it generates a sense of unhomelikeness. We become restless, not merely because each temporal satisfaction fails to quench desire's flames, but because we sense, however inchoately, that we have become alienated from ourselves, and from a manner of living that better conforms to aspects of human nature other than sheer desire. This gnawing sense of unhomelikeness is the root of nostalgia, the ineliminable doppelganger of progress. It is not too much to suggest that, as our very discontent with the ephemerality of temporal satisfactions is the trace of paradise, that restlessness that only rests in God, so also is this sense of unhomelikeness a trace of a better sort of societal existence, one that more nearly conforms to the lineaments of human nature.
Nostalgia, then, is merely the derailment of this healthy sense of alienation or unhomelikeness, its devolution into false idealizations of past periods of history - or even the creation of entirely abstract, mythical pasts, as in certain forms of literature and political philosophy - shorn of their contingency, complexity, and all-too real ethical failings. But nostalgia, however much it may thus falsify, nonetheless latches on to real failings in the present. There are reasons why, from the seventies until the present, much American nostalgia has gravitated towards the 1950s, and why still older strains of nostalgia have conjured images of small-town life, or of pastoral tranquility. The practical problem of nostalgia, then, as signaled by the idealization, is that it hermetically seals the past from the present, sighing wistfully at something irrevocably lost; for, absent memory, the past cannot function as an example, stimulus, or even a tradition guiding personal and communal reform in the present.
Instead of dismissing nostalgia, then, we should work our ways back from its false idealizations and comforts, to the unhomelikeness that spawned it; from thence we can engage in the anamnetic labours by which memory is unearthed, and revivified in the present.