For much of the modern era, the past appeared to be a conquered province, something to approach in a spirit of either guarded suspicion or gleeful exploitation. “The past is another country,” L.P. Hartley famously announced in the middle of the last century. “People do things differently there.” And with characteristic bright American prgmatism, Van Wyck Brooks had announced, early on the 20th century, that the search was onfor “a usable past”—a project that took little heed of the morbid consideration that in the end it is always the past that does the using, and we who are its raw materials. As the warring ideologies of the Cold War sought hectically to mint de facto copyrights on the future, the very notion of a nonutilitarian history took on a distinctly subversive cast: Few recall that Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s airily referenced novel 1984, ran afoul of Big Brother’s suffocating rule by indulging a weakness not merely for love, but antiquarianism, as well: Emboldened by the giddy—and tragically mistaken—notion that he was in the midst of a resistance movement, Smith proposed the most revolutionary of toasts in Greater Oceania: “To the past.”
However, with the collapse of the modern world’s once-towering ideological certainties, the past—if not history proper—seems an altogether tamer, less alienating proposition. Our sense of the past, like our sense of the present, is now a thing of info-fragmentation and just-in-time customization. The once-grand narratives of history—the balance of global power, the struggles against colonialism or totalitarianism, the ongoing mobilization of trade, innovation, and market consolidation—have been miniaturized. The past is being repurposed to serve our own insatiable reveries for affirmation, selectively recast with actors brandishing agreeably broad, virtuous motives (or equally one-dimensional villainy and perfidy) and furnished with familiar cultural symbols bespeaking a warm, tribal authenticity.
In particular, nostalgia, the most harmless (and also the least reputable) brand of modern-era appraisals of the past, seems to be in for culturewide rehabilitation. Over much of the past century, nostalgia was strictly the quarry of wistful preservationists and cynical niche marketers. Its signature form of periodization—the pat division of national experience into handy 10-year blocks, each with a shift in the national mood (the gay ‘90s, the roaring ‘20s, the turbulent ‘60s, etc.), each pointedly stripped of political content—was indeed largely the handiwork of the publishing industry. Most prominently, the forward march of decades was the MO of self-styled contemporary historian Henry Luce (the man who, for good measure, christened the whole 20th century as America’s own) and his enormously influential gee-whiz weekly photo journal Life, which made the careless, lockstep decade-scheme of periodization its stock-in-trade and passed this schema on to generations of newscasters.
Yet nostalgia now seems the preferred mode of reckoning with a strangely depoliticized past. Entire cable channels, creaking bookstore shelves of memoirs, the sprawling subculture of genealogy, and the many outposts of the heritage industry all bear eloquent witness to its power. Nor does our putative youth culture—once our most reliably tradition-hostile venue of expression—afford any refuge from the sclerotic hand of the past: The present lords of the Billboard charts are Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, and the Beatles, while this year’s Grammy darlings are Steely Dan (claiming their tiara from the balding pate of last year’s youth sensation Carlos Santana).
Indeed, it hardly seems to matter whether the nostalgia one courts has anything to do with one’s own lived experience: You can just as easily feel nostalgic for someone else’s life. The burgeoning industry of Greatest Generation remembrance is notoriously not the handiwork of the actual veterans of World War II, many of whom have had their turn at sizing up their own historical importance and now often prefer to observe their own old-fashioned notions of reticence when it comes to recounting the horrors of total warfare. Instead, in a curious reverse-Oedipal move, it is typically the sons of this aging warrior caste who have seized on their elders’ life stories as an elaborate course of self-mythologization by parental proxy—as though heroism rubbed off on successive generations by sheer force of collective incantation.
This frantic proliferation of repurposed pasts cries out for some fresh interpretation of the nostalgist’s impulse. Svetlana Boym, an émigré literature professor from the former Soviet Union, casts some useful light on it in her just-published study, The Future of Nostalgia, in which she presents various sympathetic readings of postmodern nostalgia, a weightless, free-form appropriation of numerous pasts, tied together principally by the aesthetic and/or political preferences of its acutely self-aware interpreters.
Boym devotes the opening chapters of her book to formal efforts to define nostalgia, together with some half-hearted stabs at taxonomy (“restorative” nostalgia is bad and nationalist in overtones, for example; whereas “reflective nostalgia” is good and self-critical). But the bulk of her book gets taken up with a curious litcrit travelogue. Under the rubric of investigating the “re-invented traditions” of major cities, she conducts a long shaggy-dog tour of urban centers in the former Eastern bloc. Boym ventures into Berlin, the newly restored capital of the newly reunited Germany, to examine bouts of what’s known as “Ostolgia,” residual popular longing for the symbols of the unlamented DDR regime—from the Palace of the Republic, where the East German parliament sat, to ampelmann, the suddenly trendy symbol of the late state-owned utility. She also pauses to celebrate the fledgling tradition of the Berlin Love Parade, a weekend gathering of alternative German souls, steeped in rave and techno subcultures and rather daffy hippie platitudes, e.g., “Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen” (Peace, Happiness, Pancakes). Boym argues these salutary outbreaks of “reflective” nostalgia, or (as she’s fond of calling it) an “off-modern” posture toward the past, can render the once oppressive sites and monuments of state power more congenial to historical agency and the tentative, playful rebirth of the citizen-subject.
The course of Boym’s narrative is a good deal like nostalgia itself: selectively invoked, pointedly diverted out of the larger sequence of events, and designed to suit the pre-existing taste preferences of the memorialist. (In addition, much of it is rendered in dense, badly edited academic jargon that often reads as though it were haphazardly translated from seminar lectures in Russian literary theory.) The virtues of these phenomena are simply asserted, not demonstrated—and you can’t help thinking there’s something absurdly trivial about being directed to ponder the fate of Berlin’s Love Festival or (as she does at considerable length here) the fate of St. Petersburg’s ‘70s samizdat hangout, Café Saigon, when the political and economic present of the former Eastern bloc is so alarmingly unsettled. Boym’s pet stylized gestures of ironic remembrance weigh very lightly in the balance against, say, the nostalgic nationalism that has fueled the Serbs’ designs on Kosovo or the charged debate over the pending Holocaust memorial in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz—neither of which is mentioned in The Future of Nostalgia. Throw in the efforts to puzzle through collective guilt and responsibility in settings like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission or The Hague war crimes tribunal, and you begin to feel a positive impatience with the whole enterprise of a randomly politicized personal nostalgia.
Such critical omissions point up the trouble with the selective logic of the nostalgized past in the first place: Far from being a form of “eccentric” postmodern resistance, as Boym maintains, nostalgia works far more frequently as a mode of comfortable capitulation to history’s blank inevitabilities, banishing inquiry into the past to the private, the ephemeral, or the merely entertaining. Boym argues that nostalgia is “an intermediary between individual and collective memory” but, for most public purposes, it simply sends the individual’s memory packing. The reasons for this should be fairly obvious: One’s homeland, like one’s past, simply does not sit still for selective, pointillist portraitures any more than an entire generation of Americans can be deemed simply “great.”
So, a division of labor occurs, whereby the sobering sphere of human nature, Realpolitik, and moral accountability—the raw materials of history—is deemed too fraught, too messy, or simply too remote to produce a serious impact on the jumpy, delicate constitution of the interpreting self. That becomes the work of academics and professionals; the homilies, the volk-ish reassurances, the vision of a safely distant, yet all-encompassing historical consensus, fall to the heritage industry, the History Channel and the idealized Our Towns and Spoon Rivers of the domestic heartland. This is the real psychic economy of nostalgia, and it has flourished in an age many observers deem post-historic—even as the visions of progress and modernity it was crafted to palliate have long gone by the boards.
This is also the logic lurking within what strikes Boym as a central paradox in American life: “The past eagerly cohabits with the present,” she writes. “Americans are supposed to be anti-historical, yet the souvenirization [sic] of the past and [the] obsession with roots and identity here are ubiquitous.” But the past is breathlessly marketed and fetishized here precisely because it’s been transformed into an inert quantity. It’s the nature of living traditions, after all, to be passionately disputed, engaged with, defended, and attacked. (So that, at least until recently, one of America’s most revered traditional institutions was the Supreme Court, which has also been seat of the country’s most divisive theaters of experimental self-definition.)
Yet the private impulse of nostalgia, the longing for one’s Old World ancestry, childhood hearth, or native culture follows the opposite trajectory. Instead of eliciting dissension, it breeds repose: In its very inception, it’s a heavily edited form of simulated memory, a composite picture of the benevolent, unwitting, and (usually) innocent past—and it invites continual re-enactments in the placid mind’s eye that has authored it. Nostalgia casually annexes the public past to these bouts of private longing. It is a history based primarily on recognition: savoring a running gag on a long-canceled sitcom, swapping sports trivia or family lore, or, for that matter, pining incongruously for the familiar symbols of an unmourned state socialist bureaucracy. The nostalgic mood, like irony, is a private entertainment of the powerless.
By contrast, the point of what historian and former Hungarian refugee John Lukacs calls historical consciousness is not painless self-assertion through reminiscence, but rather a pained reckoning with the self’s grander conceits—or as Lukacs puts it, “history as a form of chastened thought.” This view of the past permits a critical evaluation not merely of the course of events and their storied authors but also of a nation’s more sweeping, self-serving myths of consensus, together with the interests of the compositors of such myths. Unlike nostalgic memory, it is subject to continual revision, competing testimony, fresh disclosures and documentation, and public debate. If done well, public-minded history also puts readers and audiences in mind of the contingent frailty of their own passing historical moment and allows them to apprehend how the breakthroughs in public and political life that we tend to take for granted as “historic,” i.e., majestically Whiggish, are anything but inevitable.
Meanwhile, the bricoleurs of the various nostalgias of our age—be they the e-Bay collectors of hipster retrochic, the theme-park docents of the heritage trade, the bards of the Greatest Generations, the communitarian bowling leagues and lost cities of earlier Americas, the exoticizers of personal family traumas or sainted oppressions past—enact the feeble, gestural dissent of Winston Smith without even the conceit of the propaganda state of Big Brother to resist. Indeed, Boym seems little inclined, at this late date, to resist anything. For example, she hails the way that reflective nostalgia’s “utopian dimension” sidesteps the “triumphant indifference of technocratic globalism” and then pauses to allow that, in any event, “globalism is the only way to go.” Likewise, The Future of Nostalgia closes with a sweeping confession of historical resignation, entirely characteristic of nostalgists of all ages: “Survivors of the twentieth century, we are all nostalgic for a time when we were not nostalgic. But there seems to be no way back.” So it always seems from the cozy precincts of a purely subjective past: While we explore the newly weightless freedom to retrofit our memories, other people are making history.