Nostalgia as Active Memory and Index of Our Desires

Below is an excerpt of an email exchange between myself and Mark Garcia, my very thoughtful friend who generously reads what I write on here. The exchange was occasioned by my earlier thoughts on nostalgia in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It was, I thought, worth posting here for a (slightly) wider audience. My thanks to Mark for pushing these reflections further along.

Collaboration in action, although you’ll see the real insights are not mine:

MG:  … is romanticized nostalgia for the ahistorical past itself a signal of transcendence, pace Berger, but not only of a heavenly and ‘other’ present or purely vertical, up-there, or beyond reality, but a reach for a certain kind of heavenly future?

MS: Yes, and few have captured that better than C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory in which he remarks that we take our revenge on what amounts to a longing for transcendence by, among other things, labeling it nostalgia and being done with it.

MG: Nostalgia as revenge is fascinating. Is it possibly, then, a form of memory in action, the action being the pursuit of some perceived form of justice? Is nostalgia at heart a longing for a certain form of “putting things right” and thus, in that way, a longing for an order of perfect justice and goodness?

MS: Yes, absolutely, memory in action. Memory, insofar as it is a search and not spontaneous, is in an index of desire. Nostalgia in this sense names the desire not only for justice, but also peace, joy, belonging, settledness, wholeness — shalom, shall we say?

MG: So whatever adjustments, reconfigurations, and manipulations of history nostalgia introduces are themselves the index to the desire nostalgia acts upon, e.g., nostalgic reconfigurations of one’s painful past reflects a desire for justice, reconfigurations of a lonely past along more satisfying lines reflects the desire for belonging, etc. This could take positive or negative forms, too: a positive or upward reconfiguration of a painful history might make things seem better than they were in order to aid present coping with it, whereas a negative or downward reconfiguration of that same past might make things seem worse than they were in order to aid present justifications of felt bitterness, injustice, or whatever. How varied are our grasping at shalom! As varied as we are, inside and out.

MS: Just so.

I also find it worthwhile to quote at some length from the essay by Lewis I referenced in the exchange. It is one of the most enchanting passages in the whole of Lewis’ oeuvre:

In speaking of this desire for our own far- off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

He later adds:

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.

4 thoughts on “Nostalgia as Active Memory and Index of Our Desires

  1. Mike, Thanks so much for sharing the original post (“Midnight in Paris”) and then further supplementing it with this one. Nostalgia as revenge is, indeed, intriguing. And Lewis’ insights are invaluable for me. I absolutely love “The Weight of Glory.” He hits the mark directly in commenting that “if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.” Thanks again for posting.

  2. Nostalgia as revenge–yes and as restorative as it was for Belloc and Chesteroton, as well as as a foretaste of future joy. I’m thinking about “cultural retrieval” as a form of collective social remembering–as a verb, cultural re-uptake. Interesting to find this here.


    1. That kind of cultural remembering — ressourcement as it were — is critical, it seems to me, to a well-ordered relationship with time, not to mention the health of a society.

      The sense I get from Lewis is that the “revenge” is in the act of labeling desire “nostalgia” and thereby dismissing it. Perhaps a first step toward active social remembering will be disambiguating the uses of “nostalgia.”

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