The lure, the lie and the lessons of nostalgia

“Proust had a bad memory…The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.”

Samuel Beckett, ‘Proust

To begin with, the first part of the quote above must look like exceptional contrariness on Beckett’s part. Proust’s most famous work is, after all, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the prime subject of which, explored at great length and from every conceivable angle, is the working of the passage of time on memory. Surely Proust, of all of us, had a good memory?

But no. What Beckett means is that if Proust had a good memory, he would never have forgotten his past in the first place; it would always have been with him. In this case, his memories would have been subject to the mind’s processes – re-remembering, mis-remembering – which render memories unreliable because they irreversibly distort the original mental “image”.

It is only because Proust’s memory was so poor that the taste of the famous madeleine (dipped in tea) brought everything rushing back to him, fresh and undisturbed. He’d forgotten everything about his early life in Combray. So, untouched and unsullied, it comes flooding back with an intensity and vividness not available to the person who has periodically revisited those memories in the interim. These recollections – the result of involuntary memory – are not “sepia-toned”; on the contrary, for the brief period that they can be grasped (before the conscious mind seeks to falsify them by expanding the captured moment, or by attaching other, non-contiguous memories), their immediacy renders them as vivid as the present moment.

Nostalgia is big business. Ebay could barely exist without it. As I write, Blade Runner 2049 is in the cinemas (and explores the role of memories in the creation of the self), and Episode VIII of Star Wars is not far off release: two movies whose existence owe much to nostalgia on the part of the post-baby-boomer generation that makes up the bulk of their fanbase; a generation to which I, born in the mid-70s, belong.

Nostalgia has been big business for years, of course. Using Star Wars as an example again: after Return of the Jedi, with the saga finished, interest in that particular universe dried up over the next few years. By their own admission, Lucasfilm never wanted to experience anything like the period from 1986-1992 ever again. But in the early 90s1 fans slowly rediscovered the trilogy, and haven’t let it go since. Of course they hadn’t “forgotten” Luke Skywalker in the same way Proust had forgotten Combray, but the crucial thing in both cases is that the continuum was broken. If something ceases to be a continual presence in your life, when it is later summoned to mind it will trigger associations up to – but not beyond – the point that you and it parted company.

To switch to music; when we shared a student flat in Dundee, my friend Dave and I were into the electronica that was coming out (including Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series) at the time. There are tracks from the early 90s which I have listened to ever since but Dave hasn’t, and vice-versa. As a result, tracks that have formed part of my soundtrack for two decades immediately take Dave back to evenings in a damp-smelling maisonette because he hasn’t heard them in the interim, while they maybe take me back to the bus journey home from work a few weeks ago, because that was only the most recent time I listened to them; or they don’t spark any association at all because they’re a background part of my life.

“”Something to do with eBay”, Johnny reckons
He’s bidding on it now, for a Subbuteo catalogue ’81-’82
He’ll win it, put it in a drawer, and forget he ever bought it.”

Saint Etienne, “Teenage Winter

The key thing about the items in the photo above is not that they date from the 1980s. They don’t necessarily come from contiguous parts of my childhood: I may have devoured Look-In intensely in 1981 but a few years later it would have been a distant memory because I was reading Asterix, and then a few years later Zzap!64. Each stage of childhood is lived intensely; but when it passes, it’s dead. For a child, a decade feels like a geological era and at 14 you are no longer the person you were at 7, or even 11.

What links these items is that they are all things which I had – or which I remember, or my friends had – at the time but were thrown out (or lost) and which I purchased much, much later, usually via ebay. Although during this time (and to this day, though my son has custody of them now) I had, for instance, a Star Wars annual and other books and magazines from my childhood, the things pictured above had long since ceased not only to be present in my life, but even to exist in my voluntary memory. As a normal and healthy part of growing up I had forgotten the existence of these things, and from day to day my memory wouldn’t even stray down pathways that would lead me to recall them. This is what the Star Wars generation had forgotten: the memorabilia and paraphernalia that – while the films remained – had long been thrown out, passed down to younger siblings or given to charity shops

There are studies which show that nostalgia can trigger positive feelings in the brain and certainly the pleasurable shock of recognition when confronted with something long-forgotten is a thing you can crave. The photo at the top is proof of that.

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But what is it we’re looking for when we’re nostalgia-hunting? The idea that things were better in the past, that there was some golden age that we can hark back to, is a reactionary one that I do not subscribe to. But for the vast majority of adults, childhood was a time largely free of responsibility, when life had an intensity that is experienced much less frequently when you’re older. And nostalgia needn’t mean looking as far back as that; as I said above, the continuity of presence is the key, and once that is broken you can be nostalgic for things that happened (relatively) much more recently.

The things in the photo above date from roughly 1981-1986. A little after that, my main interest was horror fiction, much of which I’m happy to re-read today. But revisiting things from earlier, from pre-adolescence, should not surely be done with the expectation of gaining anything of worth, should it? Most of these items are annuals, comics and magazines, and their very form is significant: they are ephemera, weekly or monthly output designed to be read and discarded. Books are different, or can be (the gamebooks in the photo are a bit of an outlier: not disposable but still unlikely to be of any real worth to someone older than their target market of boys aged 10-14). So these things represent the little background forgotten elements of my childhood. The nouveau-roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, perhaps surprisingly, sums this up perfectly in his autobiography:

“the importance of things…obviously doesn’t lie in their intrinsic significance but in the way they stick in our memory”

The associations are the key. The items above don’t actually offer anything significant other than their existence, and the fact that they remind me of a particular time of my life. Is there anything deeper that my obtaining them seeks to reach? What did I actually gain from buying these things? From watching dodgy VHS transfers to YouTube of 70s and 80s kids’ TV opening titles? “A walk down memory lane” is an inappropriate metaphor. It isn’t a bucolic stroll the nostalgia-junkie seeks, it’s a jolt; a hit.

The initial thrill is just that: initial, a short-lived burst of – what? A moment wherein your own personal Combray opens up; the layout of the bedroom you had when you were eight; the wallpaper, a mood, an atmosphere, whatever was in the charts at the time. You thumb through the magazines for a brief diversion: maybe some of the stories are better-written and better-drawn than you appreciated at the time, maybe some others aren’t, and even the adverts – those least important, most peripheral pieces of cultural jetsam – give you the hit. “I remember that! And that!” And what of it?

Because our oldest memories were created by a child’s perception, which is very different from that which we have as an adult, it lends those mental snapshots an incomplete, hazy quality, into the gaps of which can easily slip a sense of the eerie. It is this disjoint – an adult playback of a childhood recording – that has made hauntology such a successful aesthetic in recent years.

In using nostalgia not solely for its own sake, but by acknowledging and actively promoting the argument that the past is not a golden age lost, but exists instead as a weirder place than we can now “properly” recollect, hauntology is in this respect a progressive mode.

But, my interest in hauntology notwithstanding, I’d be kidding myself if I’d bought a thirty-year old copy of Look-In for anything other than that first rush of familiarity.

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The ten minutes spent leafing through the magazines above were the mental equivalent of the junkie hit: intense but fleeting; maybe leaving a sense of wasted time and money, a slight feeling of shame, and a promise never to do it again. What were you looking for? A time that’s passed, long past. An impression of it, then: for what reason? To do what with it? A retreat, anaesthetic.

Buying such items again is a form of reclamation; an attempt to recapture the time in which they were part of our lives. But all we end up with are the artefacts; the associations we hope to rekindle with them – temporal, ephemeral – are long gone.

Nostalgia can be a sugar-coated trap. Life should be lived facing forward, not back. Brexit is only the most extreme version of what happens if you disengage with the present and wallow in nostalgia (or, worse, nostalgia for a time before you were born2, the reality of which you therefore can’t verify and which has been pre-packaged for you).

However, Proust, in his final volume (Le Temps retrouvé – Time Regained), has the epiphany that all of one’s past still exists, and can be accessed via involuntary memory by finding the relevant triggers. For him, these include an uneven cobblestone, a ringing doorbell and, obviously, the madeleine. But he also realises that this time must first be lost before it can be found, in order for it to contain meaning.

As I’ll examine in a subsequent post, there are things from childhood that grow with you, in which you can constantly find relevance and meaning. Other things don’t, and we may regard them with a sense of bewilderment that we ever invested so much emotional stock in them. A further type of things, also, don’t speak to the person we are now but can still offer a briefly enjoyable visit to the past. They give nothing new, they speak only to us like a crackly recording.

This last category, I think, covers the things photographed above. The things from childhood which still speak to me are those whose presence in my life has never been interrupted: for the very reason, possibly, that they still held meaning for me. There are countless items – and I’ll look at them too in the future – that I have not sought to re-obtain, even though they ostensibly belong to the same category as Look-In and Zzap!64. The items in the photo, then, represent those things in which I have tried, and failed, to find contemporary relevance and which have delivered the (pleasurable, but ultimately sterile) hit of nostalgia for its own sake.

 

 

1Someone (not me) could write a thesis (furthering the work of Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher in this area) on the part played by the events of the late 80s and early 90s (downfall of Communism/”the end of history”, etc.) in creating a cultural environment which could give rise to the burgeoning nostalgia industry; ironic given that from the viewpoint of 2017, the early 90s seem like a lost utopia.

2The “WWII/finest-hour/time-when-the-population-was-entirely-white” mentality that led us into this mess.

sources:

Beckett, Samuel: Proust & Three Dialogues (Calder, 1965)

Proust, Marcel: In Search of Lost Time, (six volumes, Vintage, 1996)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (Calder, 1987)

 

photos: Jamie Gorman

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