Nostalgia and identity: a journey through remembering

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As I presume is widely the case, my Facebook newsfeed has recently been alive with photos of the latest crop of sixth formers leaving my old school. Seeing the familiar faces of teachers and friends led me back to my leavers’ video- and almost teary with a powerful sense of nostalgia. The sudden rush of emotion left me pondering the nature of that most peculiar of emotions; a wistful yearning for days gone past and moments irrecoverable that seems to be both intensely human and inexplicably alien.

There are a few obvious explanations for why one may experience (suffer, perhaps) nostalgia. There is a real sense of missing people who formed the fabric of your life; it seems impossible to keep in touch with more than a handful of your closest friends once you make the jump to university. Inevitably, there is a tinge (or a large streak) of regret: opportunities missed, mistakes made, relationships that never quite held together. Certainly, there is a palpable sense that decisions made differently would have radically changed the flow of your life. It is impossible not to reflect on these, and consciously create different presents and futures for yourself.

But I somehow feel it is deeper than this. Even separating out the individuals, the castles in the air and- perhaps- the discontent, there is a genuine underlying desire to reclaim one’s own past. The wish to step back is not so much to reshape as merely to relive. This appears to be particularly perverse: one can acknowledge an equal or greater present happiness and yet still possess an unlimited desire to reach back.

While thinking about this- and desperately trying to scrabble together a philosophy essay on the concept of personal identity- I felt a nudge towards a possible answer. The bowels of a college computer room are not profound environs, but doubtlessly conducive for an essay crisis of new depths. Without wishing to shade into pretension, a philosophical position exists arguing that only a fraction of your identity exists at each moment of your existence: your complete identity is found only in the entire span of life. I’m not sure how compelling this position is- I certainly find it at least romantically attractive. Regardless, it provides an interesting perspective on the reason for nostalgia. We wish to reach back not just to relive a moment but to broaden our very identity- to gain a more holistic sense of self. Having a true knowledge of oneself requires a kind of timeless position, embracing all moments of life simultaneously.

I think there is something in this. It chimes well with the emotional make up of nostalgia- not so much a sadness, but rather a kind of melancholy bound up with a fondness. One could consider it a deep and unparalleled affection for one’s own journey through life, an attempt to hold onto one’s own cohesive self. Neither a pleasant nor a particularly unpleasant emotion, nostalgia is nonetheless arresting and certain retains a magnetic attraction.

I think, in some ways, this is why The Great Gatsby has retained such overwhelming popular appeal. It is most fundamentally a novel of nostalgia: a vivid painting of one man’s heroic attempt to rebuild his youth. One line has always particularly resonated for me: “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can.” Gatsby’s attempt to recreate his own story in the brilliant technicolour of the present is moving, certainly- but also admirable; something we can all imagine doing (and, perhaps, secretly hope we will). But it is elsewhere in the novel that Fitzgerald’s real message is revealed: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…

There appears to be a ceaseless forward movement in contemporary society. We are encouraged to shed our past, become mobile, ballastless of memory or sentiment. As Fitzgerald states, however, it is not clear that any of us can escape its powerful reach. The past can return in powerful rush at the melody of a half remembered song, a scent of familiar perfume, a peal of laughter. Viewing nostalgia not as a return to the past, but rather as a wish to embrace our holistic self does not help with this, perhaps- but it may just make us slightly more comfortable with it.

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