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A Social Disease

Every so often one encounters a piece of knowledge that forces a personal paradigm shift. An individual’s identity gets brought into question by newly uncovered knowledge. Accepting the information will change the individual forever. One must then choose to be changed or to refuse the new knowledge out of fear. What the individual fears, is the unknown shape that transformation will invariably bring.

This was the precise crossroad I found myself at when I first read Susan Stewart’s On Longing. I was a twenty-four-year-old freshman in college who’d been assigned the book for class. Barely twenty pages into the book Stewart declared nostalgia a “social disease.” I was offended. I love nostalgia. It was one of the only ways I knew how to willfully make meaning in my life.

I knew exactly what songs, roads, times of day, even which season, to properly align together for the perfect tear soaked drive. The alignment rushed me into past experiences long gone, times full of joy and wonder. When lonesome, directionless, or anxious, it was the waves of nostalgia crashing over me that made me whole again—that made me feel as though all of my past decisions, which brought me to such a sorry state, were actually worthwhile. The past was good; the future may be too. I thought nostalgia was a relief. Yet it’s a disease, something to be resisted?

I found it hard to think about nostalgia as negative when some of the greatest works of art come from a nostalgic gaze. Marcel Proust, one of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century, sought out nostalgia for inspiration. Proust often felt empty and that his life lacked any sense of true meaning. For him, certain experiences were brought back with an intense vividness, that he called “time regained.” Objects, like his famed madeleine soaked in tea, had the power to involuntarily launch him into the past. The sensation of being transported felt so powerful, so meaningful, to Proust that he began writing down those old experiences in an attempt to sustain that feeling as long as possible. Those writings became his life’s work, the seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time.

Works by artists such as Proust are imbued with a hazy aurora of longing because nostalgia is their source of inspiration. Admirers of Proust are quick to gush over his flowery, long-winded prose, but they also need to be noted for their affinity to his longing. Readers relate to the feeling of wanting to go back to eras lost forever to time. Though Proust isn’t the only artist who creates from a space of longing, many artists before and after him have done so. Nostalgia as a continual source of inspiration perpetuates a culture of longing, which is why I believe Susan Stewart calls nostalgia a “social disease.”

So it is perpetuated, but what makes it a disease? Stewart lays out nostalgia as a denial of the present for an idyllic past. Instead of living life in the only moments we’ll ever truly get, we let ourselves drown in the warmth of better days. The heart of the problem with nostalgia is memory itself. It is incredibly unreliable. Distant memories are often recalled in a brighter hue than they were lived. They are snapshots of experiences isolated from what came before and after. Yet memories serve as the entire foundation for our identities.

If I’m driving my car at night with the windows down, paired with the right song, and if I momentarily close my eyes, when I open them I can find myself at the wheel of my first car. I am transported back to a teenage version of myself. I am without troubles. I am youthful. I am free. Though I’m not reliving the moment, only remembering it. I’m half in the present and half in the past. Two solitary tears slip down my cheeks in mourning of the past I cannot relive. All I can say to myself is, “I miss… I miss… It?” I can’t even articulate what it even is. It is a placeholder word for the empty space that I long for. The emotional release is relieving. Longing empties me out.

Yet what I fail to do when reenacting my past self is to reenact all of my former self—complete with anguish, stress, substance abuse, and self-loathing. I savor only the snapshot, that one instant while driving that felt meaningful and I allow that moment to represent an entire era of my life. The past is usually just as troubled and just as full of frustrations as the present we try to escape from.

I realized I’d been building sandcastles out of my own experiences—tall and beautiful structures, yet susceptible to even the slightest breeze. To sculpt and build the sand must be wet. My castles were drying out in the sun. I forgot that it’s just sand. And with mounds of it in my palms and at my feet, I was scared that that’s all I had—snapshots of sand dunes.

 

In a memory, the action, the doing of an experience, gets eclipsed by the feeling of what the action invoked. When recalling a memory not out of longing, one is usually trying to recollect why something happened the way it did, or where something could have been misplaced, etc. But when recalling a memory to relish in the joy of it, the feeling of pleasure overtakes the actual remembered experience. An image of the memory becomes paused, is held on to up close; this pausing is the holding up of a photograph. When focusing on the feeling associated with the memory, the nostalgic lets themselves lose track of the memory as a whole, savoring in and saving only the pleasurable imagery. The subject is the experience of a memory and the object is the feeling the memory is associated with. Nostalgia turns the feeling into the subject of the memory because the feeling is why it is being recalled.

One longs for the dreamlike essence of nostalgia because of the exploratory nature of dreams. Where the dreamer is dropped in the middle of a locale and must investigate their surroundings and assemble a narrative and plot. When one is longing for the slower rhythms of dreams, they are longing for a sense of exploration, wonder, and pleasure. The exploration is the reproduction of the nostalgic memory, the wonder is its mysteriousness—its inability to be pinned down, and the pleasure is the memory’s details. One can only hold on to so many specifics of entire experiences, and it is the full plot lost in the dream that amplifies the longing. The closest one can get to a past experience is the dreamlike reconstruction with all its limitations and its advantages.

Time is irreversible and nostalgia refuses to surrender to it. The refusal is in looking away from the present and toward the idyllic past. Though the passage of time numbs pain to the point of forgetting, time is also the all-consuming mouth that swallows pain, love, happiness, the banal, and the absurd alike. By savoring in what has gone by, the nostalgic shields themselves from the inevitability of expiration. Time can only move forward. No matter how much a person tries to relive past experiences or tries to recreate those experiences, they fail to confront the fact that there is no physical repetition of the past. There is only the trudging forward and the hope of making new pleasurable experiences in the present. As one ages, time continues to slip away and appear as though it’s moving faster. The nostalgic is lost in this sense of timelessness and aches for their time; they crave it and want it back—they want to take control of time and rid themselves of the feeling of emptiness it leaves in its wake as it sails away. It is the nostalgic’s hope to regain this time, to make life but a dream.

Longing often requires an object, a trigger, to set it in motion. Proust called the experience of being unwittingly launched into the past by an object, “involuntary memory.” Memories of this kind are usually long forgotten but are reborn from the depths of the unconscious by a specific object, a nostalgic trigger, as I prefer to call them. Proust wrote extensively of time regained, but had little to say about the objects that launched his sensuous experiences.

A nostalgic trigger is usually an artifact of a bygone time. A tangible thing experienced by the senses. Examples may include songs, films, televisions shows, commercials, fashion, literature, etc. They are cultural things that are come in contact with, by choice or by accident, which throw a person into a state of deep longing. Longing is the regretful desire to return to a bygone time—the time that the artifact is associated with.

Longing is an experience of timelessness. When the past is perpetually remembered in an overly idyllic fashion, the present is repeatedly negated. The past, having once been the present, was also once negated for even older experiences. It is hard then for any memory to truly be a source of pleasure when an individual in the present is constantly looking backward. If one could truly return to the moment a nostalgia trigger invokes, what’s likely to be discovered is a memory, which is either complete fiction or a self that was actually wishful for another even further bygone time.

Nostalgia loves details, not symbols. The details are nouns: the people, the places, the things, which surround the pleasurable experience. The details are a frame around an intangible feeling of bliss. The feeling is the destination; the details are what pin it down, what locate it. The symbol is the trigger, the artifact. The artifact is completely irrelevant to the experience. All it does is let nostalgia out of its box. The artifact is not what produces emotions or feelings; it’s what is interacted with, what engages. The cyclical spell of nostalgia results in a failure to live in and be contented with the present, which is, tangibly, all there is.

 

I was convinced. Nostalgia is a social disease. I’d let the knowledge in; I’d let it change me. And as I tried to convince myself that nostalgia was to be resisted at all cost, I realized just how often I invoked it. It seemed as though the majority of my desire to listen to music came from a place of longing. I had to change my habits of consumption. Television and movies were often all too nostalgic. I found myself reaching for new films, new music—new media to keep myself from longing.

During this period of anti-longing, I visited the Frye Art Museum in Seattle with my girlfriend Kim. The Frye is a very small museum that is well regarded by many in and outside of the city. We’d never been there before. It was only on our radar because admission is donation based. Yet we also had an earnest desire to discover lesser-known works of art. The feature exhibit at the time was a collection of work by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi and titled “Chronicles of Solitude.” The description for the exhibit described Hammershøi as a symbolist and a master of atmosphere and “psychological interiors.” Neither of us had ever heard of him but was intrigued by the exhibit’s moody description.

Upon entering the first room of the exhibit, we were greeted by some of Hammershøi’s psychological interiors: dark rooms lit by a single candle on a table, shadowy apartments drenched in morning light, and portraits of his wife—always facing away from the viewer. The paintings were stark and bleak—indeed moody stuff. I appreciated their eeriness while Kim, a painter herself, admired the brushwork and the masterful color blending.

The following room was filled with portraits, which I took little interest in. Portraits always bore me. Whenever I find my way into a major museum’s room full of renaissance portraits, I often breeze right through. I recognize their historical significance for human culture and art itself. I just don’t get much out of them on a personal level. It’s difficult for a painting of a random person from the chest up to tell me a story. I’m much more interested in abstract work. I particularly appreciate how colors can be laid out on a canvas in ways I’ve never seen before. Also how a basic form can impress a mood on me, or imbue one on itself. I need a portrait to be eccentric in some way if I’m going to fall down over it. Hammershøi’s weren’t experimental enough for me. But Kim’s specialty is portraits; they were her favorite part of the exhibit.

The final room was mostly Hammershøi’s cityscapes, which were just as eerie as his interiors. Kim especially envied Hammershøi’s hand at realism. All of these paintings had overcast skies. After seeing the cityscapes it made me rethink the interiors. The natural light in them was very white, not golden and sunny. Hammershøi’s entire aesthetic seemed to be overcast. Three of the room’s four walls were taken up by the cityscapes. The fourth wall had five landscapes on it, of which only one I remember. It’s called “Paysage Fortunen” and was the middle piece of the five landscapes. Kim hated it. The two of us have long been aware of our differing aesthetic differences. But we’re able to respect each other’s preferences and find appreciation for work we’d normally discount through each other—she wasn’t hard on me over it.

“Paysage Fortunen” reached out to me more than any other painting in the entire exhibit. It features about a dozen trees in its foreground all on a small mound. The bottom right shows more trees far off in the background, dwarfed in their distance. This is the countryside, not quite the wilderness. This is an open field populated by small patches of woods. The sky is Hammershøi’s typical grey and the ground is soft, as if a fuzzy grassland. The trees tower to the top of the canvas and are silhouetted by fading light from the sun. Though there is no sunset, only a grey sky that lights up these trees with a momentary beam of warm light, the golden hour.

When I came upon “Paysage Fortunen” I was stopped in my tracks. It was as though I’d hit a wall. I wasn’t sure what exactly was resonating with me though. Landscapes, like portraits, rarely do much for me. But this was something else, something special. I assessed the painting’s features and deduced that it had to be the fading light that I found so attractive. Yet why was it so striking to me? I was quick to recognize that the feeling the painting imparted on me was one of longing. I was nostalgic just looking at the painting, a painting I’d never seen before this very moment. I found myself again saying, “I miss… I miss… It?” It, for lack of no other words, for the unknown time I want back.

At first glance, Kim thought the painting was extremely generic. All she saw was simplistic trees and twilight. She thought the painting was as exciting as seeing a sunset photograph from a friend’s vacation pictures. But after bearing witness to the profound effect the painting had on me, Kim started to see it in another light. She admired how any painting, any work of art, could affect a person so deeply. She relished in the emotional state that her craft induced in me.

This experience was new to me. Nostalgia had long been a sensation that developed over an extended period of time. It involved, in Proustian terms, the experience of time being lost and then regained by an involuntary encounter with a nostalgic trigger. Yet this was my very first encounter with this painting, with this painter even. I was nostalgic for an unknown, a blind memory. I was longing for sake of longing. It was nostalgia without a destination.

I had to reconsider my agreement with Susan Stewart. If longing is a sensation that can come even from a place without memory and fill one with meaning, then it is not to be discounted so completely. The Hammershøi painting forced me to realize how deep nostalgia is rooted in humanity. I wanted to know where it came from.

To find its source, where it stemmed from, I had to look back to a more innocent version of myself—a self that was without longing, a child with no past to pine for. I walked up to a mirror and looked myself in eyes and wondered where he was. Where was the child without nostalgia? I examined my brow, the blackheads on my nose, my five o’clock shadow. I superimposed the features of my former face—less hairy, less bony, skin still smooth—over the one I saw in the mirror. How had my face become what it is now? How did all these years go by? And then I found myself peeling away at a gossamer memory. The first time that young boy stared himself in the eye.