Dangerous Nostalgia


Image Description: Cracked rose-tinted glasses

“Rose-colored glasses are never made in bifocals. Nobody wants to read the small print in dreams.” — Ruth Crowley (writing under her pen name: Ann Landers)

To think a thought of longing,
For days to dream upon,
To hope for times gone once before,
Yet know these times are gone.

Nostalgia is power. The power of the past to affect the present ripples through popular culture: fashion, trends, ideas, politics. Social life is driven in cycles of dreams, the ‘glory days’ the ‘back in fashions’, the ‘in my day’. There is something joyful in dreaming about things as they were, longing to live in a different era, to experience a different time – but how can you be nostalgic for a past that isn’t even yours?

…how can you be nostalgic for a past that isn’t even yours?

There is no memory in longing to experience the 1920s New York buzz or to attend a 1980s high school. Why are we nostalgic for things that we’ve never done? Is it even nostalgia? Might this be wistful longing, tinged with the general warmth to which history bestows upon the good times? We desire these things not because they were good, but because we’ve been told they were good. Entire swathes of the population are nostalgic for a time they never lived in, informed of its greatness through the mouths of the vocal storytellers. What’s an individual experience in all of that then? It’s simply not accounted for. It’s like finding someone else’s photo album in a charity shop – you don’t know why they were smiling in the photo, but you think they look happy in it, so you believe they probably were.

Dreams are dreams, and actions are actions, but what happens when misconstrued dreams influence present-day actions? Was it really all that great back then, or was it simply great for the few people who told the loudest stories about it? Nostalgia is dangerous when it isn’t truthful. Your fond memories are exactly that: yours alone, and any single good time is a bad time for someone else. My point in this article is not to make you think of anything specific, and I will give no examples here, for I would be doing exactly that which I write against: I would be telling you what to think. Instead, this is about awareness of the perspectives, and memories, of other people.

Jon Tyson via Unsplash

To use a University analogy: for every party that went down as ‘epic’ in the social hive-mind of your College, there will be a person who left early, a person who got hurt, a person who felt uncomfortable, a person who didn’t feel popular enough to go. History is written much the same, and what we treasure as our ‘best moments’ are not the treasures of all people.

…what we treasure as our ‘best moments’ are not the treasures of all people.

There’s no use in getting upset when good things don’t happen the same way twice. Every good thing is proceeded by failings and sufferings, and each of those has been learnt from. To ask for only the best of times without expecting the worst of times to come around too will lead to a double shock. It’s also no use getting hung up on trying to recreate old experiences or trying to replicate things you read about because you’ll miss all the wonderful new experiences coming your way. “Live in the now” — some Instagram influencer, probably.

“Live in the now” — some Instagram influencer, probably.

That’s not to say nothing is worth remembering, but it should be a reminder that memory is actually incredibly personal. There’s no such thing as a collective ‘we’ when it comes to talking about the past. The past is complex, its broad, contested and driven by a desire to remember everything happily. I always find it funny if someone says they dream of living in the past because it’s admitting that the past is a fantasy. A dream itself is but a shadow, says Hamlet, and dangerous nostalgia is walking with our shadows cast in front of us.