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Coronavirus Has Taken Our Nostalgia Addiction to New Extremes

A new book by Canadian writer David Berry takes a critical lens to our fondness for the cozy past, explaining the risks of a backward gaze

Edmonton writer David Berry’s book debut On Nostalgia has arrived in the midst of one of the first simultaneous instances of globally-felt nostalgia — the aching, frustrating longing for The Before Times, an age of exposed faces, lax hygiene practices and hugs.

Given the ubiquity of this experience, Berry worried that his book — which traces the concept from its 17th century medical origins through to its modern iterations in culture, politics, consumerism and our sense of self — would fall on a world of readers saying, “Ya, no shit buddy, we’ve been living it for the past however long.” But perhaps that fact alone makes it the perfect time to learn about the driving forces behind one of the most pervasive human feelings.

“I think what’s happening is people are starting to understand certain things about nostalgia that they’d previously never bothered to think about, because now we have nothing but time to think about everything,” he tells me. “More than anything, maybe this reveals that nostalgia is never really about what it is you’re yearning for.”

This is On Nostalgia’s central conceit. Berry argues that nostalgia actually has very little to do with the past at all, and that what little we remember from the past is pumped through a rose-colored processor that imbues our lived experience with meaning. Nostalgia then is a phenomenon that’s completely governed by the desire to cultivate, define and differentiate a self.

Berry is familiar with the feeling. As a culture critic, he’d regularly encounter the charge of “nostalgia” as a pejorative levied against what was perceived as lazy work. But the word also felt dismissive of a powerful universal feeling with social, cultural and political applications. After agreeing to take on the book, Berry found himself in perfect conditions to examine this phenomenon — splitting time between his old and new homes, halfway across the continent from one another. As any Weakerthans fan will tell you, moving is Real Nostalgia Hours. “It contributed to this hugely weird headspace of being confronted at every turn with ‘Is this nostalgia? Do I actually miss this, or am I just walking the same streets and I can’t help but feel flooded with all of the things that I used to do here, that I used to like here?’”

Though it’s usually refracted through a lens of 1950s diner aesthetics or decade-themed parties, nostalgia has basically been around since we’ve been able to refer back to the past. Berry cites Yale professor Eckart Frahm’s estimations that nostalgic writings began to appear 200 years after ancient Mesopotamian civilizations developed communications — “just long enough time for sufficiently old records to accumulate that people might start feeling like their own time was missing something,” Berry writes.

The book’s opening chapter covers the weird coincidence of the first named mentions of nostalgia cropping up around the same time that the Romantics begin centering individual actualization as our highest purpose in life. The specific word, developed by a Swiss doctor in 1688, is a portmanteau of sorts joining two Greek words: nostos, meaning home or homecoming, and algos, meaning pain. Nostalgia was detected in soldiers and travelers abroad who ached for their home, and beyond a return to their motherland, few treatments were devised. (The Russians, though, decided to deal with nostalgia by burying alive those who displayed symptoms.)

In its current pop-culture deployments, nostalgia is incredibly profitable and powerful. Stranger Things, with its manicured synth-laden title card and tidied quirks, is a widely accepted version of a sort of grunting caveman-level nostalgic lineage: 1980s? Good. An endless (?) queue of Star Wars content at least has its roots in a legitimately massive cultural moment, while La La Land was widely-lauded as a pandering, if somewhat enjoyable, waltz through L.A.. Nostalgia can almost feel unclassifiable given its nearly endless applications. That said, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his struggle to rule whether or not something was pornographic, we know it when we see it.

But nostalgia, with all of its dewy-eyed reveling and immobilizing melancholy, is a strange feature in the age of hustling, technocracy and constant progress. In theory, it seems like a wrench in the gears of modernity. That, however, underestimates how adept capitalism is at exploiting our insecurities and monetizing even the most benign of feelings. Nostalgia is a perfect bedfellow for consumerism — a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Research concluded that people were more likely to spend money when feeling nostalgic. In other words, the desire for the past overrode the desire for money.

“It’s the whole thing about, ‘Convince the person they have an itch and then scratch it for them,’” says Berry. “As it turns out, us not knowing who we are or having a super good sense of our place in the world is this persistent itch they don’t need to create. So they can just slide in things that scratch it.”

Berry refers to part of this process as a “colonizing” of the past, a retooling by which that which is dead can be stitched together and reanimated for profit. “This is their way of turning the past into a resource that can be mined for whatever purpose,” he tells me. “Usually that purpose is giving you some sense of self that they can use to their own ends.”

One of nostalgia’s most critical characteristics, and the one that Berry says provides its “emotional heft,” is its impossibility. No matter how much we wish and yearn and strain, we will never, ever recreate the conditions for which we long. “Most of our other desires can be fulfilled in some way, right?” he explains. “But trying to sate that desire only seems to make it more acute, make you more aware of how impossible it is.”

Berry thinks this feeling runs deeper than nostalgia: “I do think it comes back to this inescapable fact of life — that it’s gone, and it’s gone when we’re not even looking. Most things are finished well before we’ve ever realized they’re finished. That fact is impossible to deal with in any meaningful way. You can hopefully come to some sort of acceptance, but that’s only because you have zero other options of what to do about it. How do you deal with the fact that you know all of this is fleeting? Maybe in the last few months we’ve had to walk around thinking about that in a very present way that we don’t normally, which is probably part of why this sucks so much. Normally, we’re pretty happy to skate over that question, or at least let it hum in the background. Nostalgia is one of those ways that it comes to the forefront in unexpected but powerful ways.”

This bumps up against terror management theory, the belief that every single thing we do is motivated subconsciously by a fear of death. But it’s equally animated by an entrenched individualism that demands meaning and value. That’s how nostalgia becomes an important tool in a fascist’s arsenal: It appeals to a need for belonging and purpose. “The one thing I think people truly can’t live without is some sense of meaning or an idea of what they are,” says Berry.

Berry contrasts historical and contemporary fascism, but says that nostalgia is critical to both. “The parallels between political history in general and how nostalgia works as a process, it’s almost like a one-to-one match — find the highlights, throw away all the other stuff, and you create this perfect ball of light that’s gonna naturally lend itself to that form of fascism where it’s about dominating other people, or only caring about what you want,” he explains.

Modern fascism and far-right movements alike are predicated on the toxic possibility of nostalgia. The current brand of American fascism is unabashedly, nauseatingly nostalgic. Make America Great Again is useful precisely because of its blinkered, deluded impossibility and appeals to identity, like a moldy carrot dangling on a stick perpetually out of reach. “Nostalgia’s force doesn’t actually come from whatever came before,” reminds Berry. “It comes from where you are now. In this case, they’ve invented this fantasy that they can go back to. It’s the weight of this fake nostalgic history that makes their use of force and dominance more legitimate.”

Even pre-pandemic, this held true. Berry explains that critics have long posited nostalgia as a response to alienation. But now as we fumble through a set of conditions that further confuse, alienate, marginalize and punish our most vulnerable communities, the stage is primed for rhetoric that bucks reality and gorges on nostalgia. It would be hard to argue that a nostalgic individualism isn’t spearheading America’s somehow both murderous and suicidal ambivalence to the pandemic. Completely upend a sociopolitical, cultural and economic order predicated on antiquated, revisionist history that prizes individual rights over the collective, and the response won’t be a considered, caring plan.

“Ideally, these people would be sitting down and taking a long hard look in the mirror or reading fucking Plato or something,” Berry says. “But that’s not people. They’re gonna grasp at the most apparent thing, and in an alienating time, there are people standing up there giving them a super easy answer that has a false historical weight. Of course they’re gonna take that.”

Nostalgia isn’t inherently harmful, though. Berry says it’s hardly different from our memory processes, and that both present useful, if weird, contradictions to live with — nothing that we remember is really as we remember it. On Nostalgia makes this argument convincingly when Berry references flashbulb memories, a tendency to “vividly remember major events while also somehow getting virtually all of the details wrong.” Berry gives the example of people’s recollections of 9/11, which were revisited and recorded over years for a study. They began to change dramatically as the years went on, but participants were so convinced of their current memories that they’d accuse the researchers of forging previous accounts.

And so, it’s fitting that the front cover art by Raymond Biesinger features a stylized Polaroid camera. Berry calls it a perfect analog for memory. “We get this snapshot, and then it slowly develops and it hardens, but then we can misplace it,” he says.

It’s frightening to sit with the fact of our memory’s fallibility when so much of our identity is culled from our past. But Berry concludes that even though this can make us seem untethered, it’s also comforting, because “however broken and absurd our way of getting through the world is, it’s worked up until now.”