On Nostalgia

Art is stupidly powerful, if sometimes, in a rather roundabout way.

About a month or so ago author and blogger Maris Kreizman published an op-ed in the New York Times on nostalgia in the wake of Netflix’s announcement of it’s “Full House” reboot.

A rabid “Full House” fan in her youth, Kreizman used the news to comment on the out-of-control nostalgia (my words) of our generation, attributing this to, at least in part, how technology has changed the way we interact with the art (or… not art) we love.

It’s something I had been grappling with for a while in light of a recent evening spent rather angrily debating the validity/provenance (or lack thereof) of JJ Abrams upcoming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The thought of a Star Wars film directed by anyone other than the series’ creator was anathema in my conception, the pathetic excuses for story-telling and acting of which the more recent series consisted, apparently notwithstanding. In the conversation’s aftermath I realized, I will admit, for the first time, that nostalgia, or at least my brand of nostalgia, does not allow for change. Being honest with myself is not my strong-suit. Truth hurts. Yada yada yada.

In an effort to attempt a semblance of honesty with myself I’ve since attempted to figure out why the hell art is such a strong trigger for the feeling, and its (art’s) various embodiments so often the objects or thoughts on which we project this nostalgia. Really, I just wanted to figure out why the hell I love Star Wars so much.

I started doing a bit of amateur psychology research.

The word, like most in our language, comes from the Greek nostos, which means a longing to return home, and algos, the pain which accompanies a desire to return home.

Although it’s not a part of the definition, bittersweet still seems an appropriate adjective to describe the feeling, although in the Greek characterization, and indeed, our own, nostalgia was indeed an illness accompanied by psychological and occasionally (at least reportedly) physical pain in medical parlance up until about 50 years ago.

I found it a bit surprising that until the psychological researchers in the late 20th century started asking adult nostalgia “sufferers” which words they associated with their illness, nostalgia had been considered at various times a medical disease, a psychiatric disorder, and a “repressive compulsive disorder” (still unclear on what exactly that is) until it was finally “downgraded to a variant of depression” in the 1950’s.

Much of our 21st century understanding of nostalgia is based on the research of four scholars, Constantine Sedikides, Tim Wildschut, Jamie Arndt and Clay Routledge who, in the early 2000’s began proposing the contemporary definition of nostalgia, due to its ubiquity, and its adult sufferers association of the illness with words such as “warm, childhood and old times,” would be better characterized as a “sentimental longing for one’s past” than a physically painful disease.

Sedikides et al. published research in 2013 that attributed nostalgia to loneliness or a bad mood and proposed it is an antidote to nihilism in its ability to remind those who have feelings related to it triggered by negative emotional events of the positive emotional events that preceded them, a mental function seemingly necessary to avoid falling into the deepest pits of depression.

I found the recentness of this research astounding and it’s prompted a side project interested in language and how exactly we, as it’s wielders, work to change its meaning over time. Nostalgia, is, after all, just a word. But that’s something for another day.

In my fascinating but admittedly inexhaustive research, I found little science to help me understand what I had set out to understand, why, it seems, art (and I use this term liberally to mean any type of art, high or low, visual or aural), is one of nostalgia’s most reliable triggers.

It started to dawn on me that I had it backwards.

Nostalgia, it seems, is general, evokes in our minds, a time. Typically, a time we associate with positive emotions. It’s probably a good assumption that until recently nostalgia was also associated with time which provoked negative emotions, but I will, of course, be using the 21st century meaning of the term, the familiar meaning, from here on out.

The television shows, music, film and paintings that trigger nostalgia, are just that, elements of time in our memory, it’s just that art in the 21st century, as Kreizman realized with her mixed feelings concerning “Full House,” is ever-present.

It all started to make sense to me, why we’re all so grossly nostalgic these days. When the elements and memories associated with your childhood, young adulthood, you name it, surround us in the form of the omniscient, omnipresent brain of the Internet, we’re always just one-click away from a nostalgia trip.

Facebook, Twitter and the other responsive social applications we utilize know us, occasionally, better than we know ourselves, delivering tributes to Wes Craven and essays on Thomas Pynchon from the far corners of the Internet on a daily basis, ensuring every couple of months I’m reminded that I’m overdue to geek out about how much I love Kevin Spacey, inevitably calling to mind the season in which I watched “House of Cards” or that one time I stayed up way past my elementary school bedtime watching “The Usual Suspects” with my dad.

But our inner fanboys and fangirls are conflicted. Instead of recognizing our nostalgia-tinted adoration for “Star Wars” or “Full House” for what it is, we rationalize our feelings with long-winded arguments in defense of their kitschiness, trashiness, pulpiness, etc.

It’s happening constantly in the tired debate between poptimism and rockism. It’s happening at MoMA when even Robert Zemeckis gets a retrospective and I’m just waiting for the Times’ “Letter of Recommendation” column to delve into some out-there defense of the Big Mac, Pavement’s songwriting or “Total Recall” (sorry Arnold fans).

I hold academics and cultural critics (both professional and amateur) at least partially responsible, job security, it seems, dictates they search endlessly for new ideas, historical events and yes, art, to recycle with a brand new, 21st century spin, providing the impetus for the Internet’s hordes to continuously reopen debates which should long ago have been closed and prompting those Facebook and Twitter posts to which we are constantly exposed.

And so it is with me. I won’t even list all of the bad films and bad music (or at least not good film and music) I’ve attempted, through finely crafted argument, to elevate to fine art in my lifetime.

But here’s the thing. As a die-hard “Star Wars” fan even I have to admit while the films are undeniably important in the history of film, stand as highly effective representations of a point in time and are a central point in 1970’s popular culture (in addition standing the test of time surprisingly well), George Lucas was never a particularly good director. The acting in the films falls well below even a low threshold of evaluation and it’s more melodrama than serious science-fiction.

We could mount similar analyses of other zeitgesty films and musicians, Pavement serving as an excellent example; serving as the exemplar of slacker rock is one thing, but does that really qualify writers to expend equal amounts of time discussing Fear and the Rolling Stones? (Note to the Internet trolls, I know there is less written on Fear than the Rolling Stones. This is meant as an extreme illustration in an effort to make a point).

It’s hard right? Art is irrevocably associated with time in our brains, with the time in which we saw, read or were in other ways exposed to it. Chances are if the times were good, the art too will be “good.” Get it?

The flat-lining, equalizing culture in which we live has done a lot to allow us to reconsider previously undervalued and even underrepresented authors and auteurs and I think that’s great and occasionally entirely valid. But all of us mourn the endless superhero films Hollywood trots out for our viewing pleasure (or not), without recalling that in the past couple of decades we’ve used a comparable number of words to discuss John Carpenter (and I LOVE John Carpenter) as we have Jean-Luc Godard. What did we think was going to happen?

None of this should be construed in a way that marginalizes the validity of any movie, film, book or otherwise mentioned. Scream is great, one of my favorites. Just think of it as a prompt. Do you love Scream or Star Wars or Full House because they’re good? Or do you love them because of where your brain takes you when you think of them? Something to think about.

%d bloggers like this: