New York, 9/16/2019 (Note the proper way to write the date!)
Dear Friends Across The Pond,
Research shows that smell, touch and taste are strong evokers of nostalgia. Marcel Proust’s cookie broke into crumbs in 1913 and it caused him to write seven ridiculously long and unreadable volumes called Remembrance Of Things Past – a fictional work that vaguely and nostalgically resembled his own life growing up as a child in France.
For me, it’s a scented bar of soap. When I smell Irish Spring brand bath soap, the summer of 1984 comes shooting to my head like a Roman candle exploding in the inky night.
I was a 16-year-old counselor-in-training at Camp Minnetonka in southern Maine. The young campers were off on some excursion and I was left behind to watch camp with a few other senior counselors. We played a game of pickup rugby in the mud and got really dirty. I had mud in my eyes and could barely see. One of the older counselors led me to my bunk to wash up. She undressed me and pushed me playfully into the shower. Then she undressed herself and climbed in with me. In those tight corners of that box-shower she scrubbed me clean. All the while, the smell of Irish Spring perfumed the hot air.
The definition of nostalgia is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. Current use of the word typically associates it with happy personal associations. But the origin of the word nostalgia comes from a Greek compound consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning homecoming, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning pain or ache. It has its genesis in the Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem detailing Odysseus’ painful remembrance of his home and his longing for his wife and child and ever-faithful dog.
Nostalgia, by its original definition, is a painful memory, associated with loss.
My memory of Irish Spring is not nostalgic by this understanding. When I think of that event, I smile. No pain. No ache. No loss.
What passes today as nostalgia, however, is a new beast, bred in the virtual realities which are still evolving in this new millennium. I call it nostalgic fiction. And that has led to something even worse … fictional nostalgia.
Nostalgic fiction is a fabricated loss from an event that never happened. Quentin Tarantino is the reining master of this art form. Take for example his nostalgically fictional retellings of the Manson murders or the defeat of Germany in the second world war. Do we feel loss that Sharon Tate is not killed at the end of Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood? We shouldn’t … life has been spared. And yet, there’s an unexplainable angst inside me that a piece of history has been stolen. Changed. Erased.
And what is this feeling I get watching Inglourious Basterds? I am pleased (thrilled actually) that Hitler and his cronies die a flaming, horrible death at the hands of several independently-acting Jewish vigilantes. How redeeming vengeance feels, even as a spectator! And yet, when my suspension of disbelief comes to an end, there’s the reminder that Hitler was not killed by vengeful Jews. And then there’s the memory of all the horrid loss of life. And ultimately, the pain of being duped by Tarantino and his movie for two hours and 33 minutes.
All of this pales in comparison to fictional nostalgia. Fictional nostalgia is when we create and convince ourselves of our own mis-memory of loss – a loss that never occurred and a memory of a place or event we were never at.
I recently said to a friend: “Oh, life must have been so easy 300 years ago! They had none of the stresses we have today.” In the moment, I believed in my retelling of the past. And just as suddenly, I felt regret and the loss of a simpler life. A brief depression set in and a sadness that I had missed out … that I was born too late.
But I did not live 300 years ago! I have no memory of an easier life with less stress in the 1700s! When I later stopped to process my ‘loss’, I saw the idiocy of my logic. I can’t even imagine living without cold and hot running water, air conditioning, electricity and all the wonderful conveniences it brings – and on which I am completely dependent.
The stress must have been overwhelming in 1719 just to feed your family each day. And the state of medicine was so poor that giving birth to new a new life could be a death sentence for the new mother. A mere scratch from a needle could bring deadly infection. I am kidding myself that life was easier 300 years ago. And I’d depressed myself by believing in the false history I’d created. Fictional nostalgia.
“Memory is like a train”, sang Tom Waits. “You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away.”
It’s hard to see the details of the train the further away it gets … or the further back in time it goes. It’s a lot easier, however, if we were never even at the station and we just imagine the train and imagine ourselves there. I think we do a lot more of this fictional nostalgia these days.
And I think back to Marcel Proust’s cookie. Remembrance Of Things Past parallels Proust’s life so much that I wonder if it was nostalgic fiction or fictional nostalgia.
And now I’m second guessing even myself. Did that really happen? To me? When did I learn to play rugby? And was there ever really a place called Camp Minnetonka in southern Maine?