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.


C. S. Lewis was fond of saying that the only people opposed to escapes were jailers. In his classic essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien made the same point at greater length:

“Why should a man be scorned if, when finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or, if when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing … the Escape of the Prisoner with the flight of the Deserter.”

Why indeed?

Lewis and Tolkien, both best remembered for their works of fantasy, were each responding to the charge of writing escapist literature. But, what counts as escapism is a matter of perspective. From what is the escape? Lewis and Tolkien constructed their fantasy to offer an escape into the deepest reality. Is it possible that the structures and pace of our world chain us up in a kind of Platonic cave of ignorance, detached from what is true, good, and beautiful? If so, then escape is the very thing we should be hell-bent on achieving.

In “The Weight of Glory” Lewis evocatively describes the alluring and haunting appeal of beauty, but he is quick to remind us that beauty is not found in the moments, experiences, and objects that captivate us and fill us with wonder.

“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.”

The odd thing about beauty is that it is so often mixed with longing. Instead of leaving us satisfied, profound experiences of beauty can instead create a deep ache in our hearts. These encounters with beauty that momentarily overwhelm us are glimpses of life beyond the walls of the prison. But they are just that, glimpses. In Lewis’ view, and that of many others before him, beauty itself flows from God’s being through the created order. What we perceive then is a profound signal of God’s being beyond the created order and our taste of beauty beckons us to the source.

Lewis went on to observe that, “Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.” And thus his efforts to remind us through the beauty of his art, that there is more; that the deep longing we feel for something we have never yet experienced is not a cruel trick played by impersonal cosmic forces, but the “truest index of our real situation.”

So perhaps art, literature, poetry, and films that offer us an escape from the ordinary and mundane are not so much pulling us out of the world, but rather helping us to see the world and our place in it more truly, more fully.