February 27, 2012

Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey

Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey

Seen purely as an escape, nostalgia always ends in failure. At best those who use it fail to stop the things they find so depressing; at worst they accelerate them. Seen in this light, nostalgia is merely ineffective utopianism.

But such a facile interpretation is far too limited given the phenomenon’s ubiquity. Each threatened generation in every embattled culture looks backward to a Golden Age. The nostalgic impulse embodies two important truths which give value and meaning to one’s efforts in the here and now.

The first is that, despite the heartache and hardships of the world of shadows in which we live, there is still much that is good and beautiful if we seek it. Often that goodness and beauty can only be found with reference to the past. In seeking out those places that remain unchanged from my youth, I will experience some of the best in food, drink, or music that the present has to offer. Rather than allowing annoyance at current passing follies to overwhelm me, I am allowed a taste of the eternal.

It is this state to which the nostalgic person, consciously or otherwise, aspires. To the degree that his adventuring in a partly apocryphal past allows him to find it, he is given a strength and a joy that no criminal regime, no tasteless art, and no false intellectualism can take away.

What the nostalgic person is often keenly aware of is that, despite its joy and its beauty, this world is fast passing away, at least for the living. It is not only that the dictators and the philistines will be buried; it is that even at its best, our yearnings cannot be satisfied on Earth. The nostalgic person yearns for a perfect world that he is wise enough to know he cannot impose upon his fellows. It is not the Depression’s grinding poverty, the World Wars”€™ bloodshed, or the Black Plague’s horrors for which he yearns, but all that was best”€”purified of its misery”€”of the period that has caught his fancy. He looks to a joy that he knows can never be in the here and now, whether that here and now is today or 1897. And in that he is far more realistic than those who dominate his world.


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