Nostalgia is the balm of fear.
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
—Peter De Vries
As he lay dying of cancer in a Boston hospital, John Updike composed a sonnet sequence, “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth 12/13/08,” that ranks with his best work in verse and even prose. Clear-sighted, sober, but witty, unlike many deathbed works, the poems acknowledge feelings of wonder and gratitude. The poet looks at his surround—the equipment, the noise, and the doctors and nurses—and he also takes a backward glance at his early years as a schoolboy in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He thanks his classmates, childhood friends, a mere hundred, because they showed him, in miniature, all the human types he would make use of later on: “beauty, / bully, hanger-on, natural, / twin, and fatso.”
And he continues, more self-consciously, to consider the possibility that “we meet our heaven at the start and not / the end of life.” He knew the town; the town knew him, and it stayed with him forever, especially after he left it: “I had to move/ to beautiful New England—its triple/ deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets—/ to learn how drear and deadly life can be.” Shillington gave Updike all he needed as an artist, nurturing him as a young man. And like Joyce, who fled Dublin but never truly escaped it, Updike had to get away to realize what he had been given.
These sonnets are a product of what I can only call intelligent, rational nostalgia. (Nostalgia can be rational?) And they provoke a set of questions both literary and personal. Why do some people look back and others refuse to? What are the pleasures of “nostalgia”? The word itself has its etymology in the Greek nostos (homecoming) + algia (pain), but the condition is more multifaceted, combined of equal parts of homesickness, self-indulgence, sentimentality, and an alertness to the genuine, confected, or nonexistent pleasures of other times, other ages, and other places. In Updike, and many others of us, the pleasure of remembering predominates, not the pain.
The word, if not the condition, is modern, coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer as a translation of the German Heimweh (homesickness) to describe the depression he witnessed among Swiss mercenaries longing to get home following service abroad. That its coinage coincides with the beginnings of the ages of Enlightenment and then Romanticism suggests that words both come out of their historical circumstances and affect subsequent conditions. They respond to cultural stimuli and then create new feelings, or new articulations of older ones. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym distinguishes between two nostalgias, a “restorative” version, a longing for return to the favored place, and a “reflective” one, which is all about irreparable loss. But in America today, the original pain of nostalgia is often replaced by the diluted pipe-dream pleasures of self-indulgent trips down Memory Lane.
I used to think I was the kind of person who relished, if not reveled in, nostalgia. I didn’t necessarily long for the good old days, but I enjoyed thinking about them. Looking back gave pleasure. People who become historians must have a similar temperament. Now, I am not so sure about what direction I want to look in. And I have begun to think about nostalgia itself, what it means, what it promises, and what it denies.
My first epigraph, from the essayist and short-story writer David McGlynn, gives one explanation of nostalgia through a grammatical sleight-of-hand. Everything depends on whether we construe “balm of fear” as what a linguist would call a subjective or an objective genitive: either nostalgia is the medication that dissolves anxieties, the salve that rubs clean our wounds, or it is what fear itself has doled out to trick us into a momentary release from fear itself, a condition all the more toxic once it triumphs and overwhelms us. Either nostalgia placates or it deceives. My second epigraph, from the comic novelist Peter De Vries, with his tongue only partly in cheek, reminds us that styles of remembering and forgetting always change, and that the good old days were never what we thought, that every presumed Golden Age yearns for the one before it. Think of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, with befuddled, myopic, “aw shucks” Owen Wilson borne back against the currents of time, learning as only a naïve American can that all paradises are lost, or that they never existed.
The prototypical homesick person was Homer’s Odysseus, cast up on Kalypso’s Ogygia and yearning for Ithaka. When we meet him, in Book 5 of the Odyssey, he is gazing out at the sea, crying for wife and home, for a person and a place. Ruth, in the Old Testament, is also a mythical exile, but as a literary figure she is most touchingly rendered by Keats in the “Ode to a Nightingale”: “through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” There is no Biblical authority for this portrayal. Keats, born after the invention of the word, makes “nostalgia” an appropriate condition for his sad gleaner. The original Ruth would not have known the meaning of the word, even in her desire for the land of her Moabite tribesmen. Exile and displacement are eternal; nostalgia is a modern phenomenon, not a Biblical one. Keats’s Ruth has a Romantic disease.
Other nostalgias direct us not to places, or even to people except secondarily, but to a time, to the past. We long for our youth, which Robert Schumann depicted musically in Kinderszenen, his piano suite originally called Leichte Stücke, “Easy Pieces.” Schumann changed his mind, and his title, when he realized that neither the pieces themselves nor the period to which they referred were as easy as we sometimes pretend.
Scenes of childhood and adolescence do invariably involve other people—especially as the past recedes. We think of those we shared our time with, especially as life itself becomes, chillingly, shorter with each passing day. We know what that end will be; we just don’t know when we will reach it, or it us. The past holds out, if not promise, at least the luxury of solace, but only if that past was a happy one.
You can go home again, at least to a place—whether Ithaka or a childhood manse—but you cannot go back in time, except in memory, or accidental encounters with old friends, or those occasional moments of high-spirited jollity, planned but not imposed. I am thinking of class reunions. What impels people to go to them—high school, college—those famous “gaudies” celebrated by Dorothy Sayers and other clubbable Brits, or the more democratic, back-patting, old-boy old-girl networking of an American version? I count myself among the guilty. Or the lucky. At the 10th, old sores may still ooze, old animosities still simmer, and old flames burn. At the 25th, one has, ideally, reached maturity with a judicious combination of contentment and compromise. One vivacious younger friend told me that she compelled her husband—tall, dark, handsome, and very successful—to come with her to her 25th high school reunion because, as she put it, “I had old scores to settle. I wanted to show them that I wasn’t just a brain.” This woman is a distinguished academic, with impeccable feminist credentials. At least in theory if not entirely in practice. The trophy husband complied, not happily.
At the 50th, no one cares or asks, “What are you?” They don’t even give your partner the once-over. They ask instead, “How are you?” Voltaire wisely remarked that after 80, all contemporaries are friends. They know where they are going, and they are going there both alone and together.
I was looking forward to my 50th high school reunion, but now I can’t quite figure out why. Like Updike, I had always thought long and hard about classmates from early childhood and adolescence. I remembered most of them fondly, even the ones who may have been irksome at the time when I was a know-it-all baby Beatnik, a pesky intellectual who resisted football games, pep rallies, anything that smacked of mindless conformity. These kids gave me a good part of my education. I did not know this at the time. Looking back can be instructive.
My friend Paula Marantz Cohen, 10 years my junior, had a similar feeling about her 40th reunion in central New Jersey: “I got into the spirit myself, which I would never have done in high school, where not getting into the spirit of anything had been one of the salient aspects of my profile.” Her big event turned out to be more successful than mine. Does this say something about her, or about it? Both? It’s hard to know. In any case, my reunion, like hers, had been impeccably organized by a bunch of stalwart classmates with energy, goodwill, and hope. There we were in suburban Philadelphia, 120 of the original 468 of us, plus an appropriate number of willing spouses and partners, those disposed to spend an evening with scores of people they had never met and would never see again. (Wiser or less tolerant partners stayed home: “Not tonight dear; please go alone,” I can hear them pleading or asserting.) Fifteen percent of us had already died; another 10 percent were unreachable for more mundane reasons. A bit fewer than 30 percent made it to the country club. Some of the enthusiastic organizers assured me that this is a good turnout for big public high schools.
Who were we? We, the class of 1962, had as our common bond both age and a shared history. Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, the first postwar babies, we were the children of “the greatest generation,” the men and women who came of age during the Depression and settled down in the Eisenhower years, once thought of as an era of complacent conformity but now undergoing an upward revaluation—as is Eisenhower himself—as a time when America could boast both a solid middle class and a steady, growing economy. We came of age with television, the civil rights movement, early Elvis, and the incandescence of Kennedy’s Camelot, before the date that changed everything—November 22, 1963—and before Vietnam, hippies, and drugs.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth, looking back to a comparable period, before the idealism of the French Revolution turned bloody, “but to be young was very Heaven.” We—middle-class, almost exclusively white, largely Jewish—could say the same thing. Even more than most young people, we had optimism on our side, in the water we drank or the air we breathed. This same optimism must have accounted for the disproportionate percentage of Jewish classmates who helped to plan, and who attended, the reunion. We were the inheritors of the label am ha-sefer, “the people of the book,” and in most cases we were only one to three generations removed from immigrant status. Our ancestors had made the trip from shtetl to suburb with amazing speed. Education—what it promised, what it meant, and what it delivered—was of the greatest importance to us, the secularized descendants of Old World forebears, most of whom were more religious than we. It is no mere false nostalgia to say that, regardless of normal hormonal challenges and exertions, our coming of age was easy compared with what today’s high school students undergo. No metal detectors in the school doorways; no cyber-bullying, and not too much of the old-fashioned physical kind either. The biggest misdemeanors: cutting class and smoking cigarettes in the bathrooms.
At least those who showed up might agree with my recollections and assessments. People stay away from imposed, collective nostalgia for many reasons, one of which is shame, or at least embarrassment for present failure, and another of which is fear of reopening old wounds. Some old animosities had not healed. And not everyone shared my genial fondness for the whole, imagined group of us. I had hoped that some people who loomed large in my memory, the way Updike’s Shillington schoolmates did in his, would take a personal invitation from me as an occasion to demonstrate fellow feeling. Apparently I did not mean as much to them as they did to me. Or at least they didn’t want to meet and greet me at a big party. They maintained sangfroid invisibility. Did the objects of my affections feel the same about me? I’ll never know.
One friend made it in from London. She has spent most of her life abroad, as a middle school teacher, and she took a characteristically clear-eyed view of the whole event: “The reunion taught me a lot. I learned that the people I disliked in high school I still disliked, and the people I liked were still good. And I finally understood what happened in junior high, where I spent the rest of my life. And I learned that Sarah has not changed. And I missed Annie. And I can’t imagine what life would have been like if we had stuck around the Philly burbs for the last 50 years.”
Most of my classmates had indeed stuck around. No surprise: most people still live within a radius of several zip codes from where they have always lived. Some of my contemporaries are across the Delaware River in southern New Jersey. A large number have moved to Florida. Very few are as far flung as I in Texas and my European chum.
Some people look back with distaste if not disgust, putting the past well behind them, the way some distance themselves from scenes of childhood by decamping for the West Coast or even farther ports. And many people simply prefer not to look back. They are moving on to the next thing, whatever that may be. They don’t have to look back. They have something to look forward to, other than the obvious. Perhaps the most daring of us, however happy our adolescence may have been, do not require the balm provided by nostalgia.
Gathered among us were achievers, retirees, grandparents, the married, widowed, divorced, the always single. We were doctors, lawyers, educators, businesspeople, scientists, bankers, engineers, health spa owners, air-conditioning repairmen, policemen, and factory workers—an abundance of middle-class American success. Physical health, financial security, and ample preservation prevailed among the attendees, with some exceptions: a cheerleader turned roly-poly, a star athlete confined to a wheelchair, another former Adonis walking with a cane in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. Are they the same, or not the same, as they once were? How do you feel when you confront life’s depredations made visible? In the eye of the beholder, pity competes with schadenfreude.
At the end of À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust’s narrator, Marcel, attends a soirée at the home of the formidable Princesse de Guermantes, where he finds the relics of his past, the characters of the whole novel, the beauties now wizened, the strong weakened, the upright bent, the raven-haired gone white or bald. Of a woman he remembers as a young girl he observes:
This nose, this new nose of hers, opened up horizons of possibilities one would have never dared hope for. Kindness and tender affection, formerly out of the question, became possible with those cheeks. One could make clear to a person with that chin things one would never have thought attempting with the possessor of the previous one.
(I’m using the old Frederick A. Blossom translation.) Marcel is not referring to plastic surgery here. Today he might very well be confronted with it. Time takes away, but it also sustains. What Marcel thought lost he has refound. And Proust’s tone—a little arch, a little wistful, a little hyperbolic—suggests different registers of feeling when one confronts the past.
The question is, What does it mean to recognize someone? Marcel notices what he calls “the geology of a face,” with its erosions, deposits, and layers—a series of selves like the pentimenti of a painting. Some people, instantly recognizable, “as though in harmonious agreement with the season, adopted gray hair as their personal adornment for the autumn.” The Duc de Guermantes shows his age—83!—relatively little until he tries to stand up and totters “on trembling limbs.” And Marcel contemplates stasis and change, those two staples of every human life—how we remain the same under or over, beyond, or in spite of, evidence of difference. He realizes that one starts out with the idea “that people have remained the same and one finds them old. But once one starts out with the idea that they are old, one finds them much as they used to be, not looking so badly after all.” In other words: change your focus, readjust the mental image, and the former person—the old friend—reappears now, when old, the same as when you knew him. Marcel says of one such rediscovery, “For me, who had known him at the threshold of life, he was still my young companion, a youth whose age I calculated from the age which I consciously assigned to myself under the impression that I had not grown any older since that time.”
Everyone has versions of these revelations. Several years ago, I made a breakfast date with a friend, unseen for 40 years, when we both found ourselves in the same small New England town one summer weekend. Partners were not invited: it was to be the two of us, old high school cronies. As I waited on the sidewalk, I looked at the women passing by. Could this one be Sue? Unlikely. What about that one? Too tall. Another? Too blond. And so it went, until I was about to approach one less unlikely candidate, when suddenly I turned from my right to my left and my friend hove into view. “Hello, Sue,” I said, grateful for both my astuteness and her relative unchangingness. She looked like herself, even a bit more so.
But the opposite also happens. Someone came up to me at the reunion and said, “Remember me?” He wore no nametag. How could I remember this man, who bore no resemblance to anyone I had ever seen? He had made an egregious faux pas, which common sense could have prevented. Never assume that anyone ever knows who you are. The secret to polite inquiry, of course, is to make the first move and introduce—that is, reintroduce—yourself: “Hi, Willard. I’m David Smith. Remember me?” To which the correct answer is, “David, certainly. You haven’t changed. How are you?” Do not give the other person a chance to embarrass both himself and you. Take the initiative. But do not assume that all is the same, that time has not passed. The addressee picks up the challenge and maintains the fiction that you are still hale fellows, well met, well recognized, and of good cheer. Let your viewer slowly examine the face and the body to attempt an act of archaeological recovery. Yes, there’s something about the mouth, or the jaw, or the cock of the head, the voice, or even the dimple: why, it’s David, of course. Proust was—again—right, when he observed that “the beauty of an object is to be found behind the object—that of an idea, in front of it.”
Some people seem to lose all of their bad qualities, others to heighten them. This is true of both body and, more infrequently, temperament or soul. Some people become nicer. The edge wears off. Some of the class clowns seemed less self-assertive. Humanity often reasserts itself when and where we might least expect it to do so. People become more themselves, but they also transform themselves.
At the age of 21, young Keats knew many truths, scientific, psychological, and emotional. Among them this one, expressed in a long letter to his brother George:
Our bodies every seven years are completely fresh-materiald—seven years ago it was not this hand that clench’d itself against Hammond—We are like the relict garments of a Saint: the same and not the same: for the careful Monks patch it and patch it: till there’s not a thread of the original garment left, and still they show it for St Anthony’s shirt. This is the reason why men who had been bosom friends, on being separated for any number of years, afterwards meet coldly, neither of them knowing why—The fact is they are both altered—Men who live together have a silent moulding and influencing power over each other—They interassimulate. ’T is an uneasy thought that in seven years the same hands cannot greet each other again. All this may be obviated by a willful and dramatic exercise of our Minds towards each other.
But the same hands can, and do, greet each other. When we make that willful and dramatic exercise of the mind, and direct it to others in a rush of bonhomie, we are acknowledging the constancy beneath the appearance of change. Had Keats lived more than his fully packed 25 years, would he have accepted the truth of Yeats’s “Among School Children,” namely, that we change without knowing it? We all look at ourselves every day in the mirror, washing, shaving, putting on makeup, and every morning we always look the same. Then we see a photograph, or are trapped in the unflattering glare of a dressing room’s three-way mirror, and we are stopped in our tracks: “When did I become old?” We are the same, and not the same. We all had pretty plumage once, or, as an astute friend once observed, you spend the first half of your life wishing you looked like someone else, and the second half of your life wishing you looked like you in the first half.
Our reunion party was not aristocratic, not even grand. It was claustrophobic. No one could make an entrance, as at the Guermantes’. Hierarchy did not exist. After all, this was America. Did I achieve anything like an epiphany at the country club on that brisk, calm autumn evening? Did I learn anything? Was I struck dumb? Alas, no: I had no revelations, no confessions, no admissions of former passion, and no apologies for slights or wrongs from the past. The event was as modestly pleasurable, even banal, as it could have been. That I probably won’t see most of these people ever again—despite the lame jokes about our 75th reunion—neither saddened me nor made the shared pleasantries any sharper. Had I missed the event to begin with, I would have lost out on nothing except cordiality and some fine dancing to the music we grew up with: swing, cha-cha, a little Chubby Checker twisting for the really risqué. Anticipation of the event led to a subsequent letdown.
I had so planned on an outpouring of fine feeling that I had set myself up for disappointment. Instead of the longed-for inundation came a modest wash of sentiments, and the exquisite frustration of conversations nipped in the bud, which is always preferable to ones that go on too long. Thank goodness for the easy out—“I think I’ll have another drink,” or “Oh, look, there’s Dianne”—to keep alive what Wallace Stevens called the pleasures of merely circulating.
Most of the old differences among us had melted away, in favor of an acknowledgment of our commonalities. We had led—everyone does—generic lives. Everyone had work and love—Freud’s two great conditions—to talk about, although successes and failures both took a back seat to more mundane items (“What is the weather like in Florida?” “How is your golf game?” “You have how many grandchildren?”) and, only fleetingly, more prodding or spiritual ones. Deep conversation, analysis, intimacy were in short supply; fellow feeling and high spirits prevailed. These offered disappointments as well as pleasure. But did I really think that old obsessions would be restored, old flames burst out? Did I expect confessions, revelations, and admissions? None was forthcoming. The people I had crushes on 50 years past did not show up. What would I have done had they appeared? I had wanted to have experiences that would have been worth replaying, and reviewing, just as I had wanted to replay and review experiences from a half century before, but I left the party with nothing to chew on, contemplate, or relish.
“Such age, how beautiful!” exclaimed Wordsworth (“To —— in Her Seventieth Year,” 1827). Only a special person would say this. By “special,” I do not mean merely a poet, but a poet of a certain age, one who, like Wordsworth (born in 1770) is approaching—but is not entirely close to—the age of his addressee. This is what the future holds, if luck, genetics, and healthy living keep body and spirit together, and sustain us. Anyone over 50 knows the feeling. We see ourselves in others, and in the old—especially—we find our mirrored selves. Even the gods become ghosts.
As you get older you become more sensitive to the ravages of age and more grateful for the occasional evidence that not everyone deteriorates terribly. Some people improve, or at least change in interesting ways. A while ago I talked to a man I know slightly. He’s six years younger than I, gray-haired, straight-spined, handsomely preserved. When I met him for the first time at a dinner party, I blurted out, “Have you ever been a model?” To which the answer was yes. Now, at 61, the bone structure is still there, the body is intact. Whatever indignities age has visited upon him—arthritis, knee replacement—do not show immediately. Instead, you find the traces of past beauty, the past recaptured or still in evidence, and also a deepening of that beauty. I think of Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey”: “for such loss, I would believe, abundant recompense.” Wordsworth was 28 when he wrote this. What form exactly does that recompense take? Yeats said “bodily decrepitude is wisdom.” He spoke hopefully. Youthful beauty may be ignorant, but its appeal overwhelms. Fantasizing, one wants both the power of physical beauty and the wisdom of maturity. Can the two reside in one person? More important: What can you do to work with the hand nature has dealt you?
My less than overwhelming experience—Proust goes to the country club—came several months ahead of another trip, this one to Mexico to visit friends for a weekend. The place and the company were congenial, the weather perfect, the getaway successful. Maybe because I was born two weeks premature, I have an almost constitutional capacity for earliness. I always get to airports well before I need to, eager for what will follow. I like airports almost as much as I like travel. After all, to arrive somewhere, you must endure the voyage. I have never minded it.
And then I realized: I look forward as much as backward. Something ahead always invites us. Which has greater vividness, the past or the future? I sit in an airport waiting room, eager. I sit on the plane itself in heightened anticipation: something is going to happen! In the airport, no one belongs. We are all pilgrims together. Once in the air, we are literally suspended, going between. And the community of travelers, however temporary, is one of equals. Even first-class passengers don’t reach the goal any faster. Turbulence midair does not spare them. In the waiting room you inhabit a state of betweenness, just as you do in midair. In the waiting room you’re not even traveling, you are just waiting, recovering from where you have been, anticipating where you are heading, whether home or away from it. You are powerfully aware of your status, actual and symbolic, in present time.
My big reunion flew by quickly: four hours of socializing. It was as pleasant as it was brief, if nothing special. It offered little by way of lightning flashes or thunder rolls. And then it came to me: it was like life itself, miniaturized. Edna St. Vincent Millay, who knew about the speed at which, say, a candle burns, knew both the truth of our inevitable disappearance and the opposing urge not to give in:
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
(“Dirge Without Music”)
It all went by, and it continues to go by, so fast. Proust has it right in the last sentence of his novel: Time itself is a place, “extending boundlessly … giant-like, reaching back into the years,” in which we can “touch simultaneously epochs of [our] lives—with countless intervening days between—so widely separated from one another in Time.”
Life eventually becomes for everyone “drear and deadly,” as Updike put it, but for some—most? the lucky few?—it offers gratification as well. Looking back becomes itself a source of such pleasure, even as looking forward, as the end of life approaches, becomes the opposite.