Nostalgia Themes in Literature and Prose
In the play Waiting for Godot, the two characters Vladimir and Estragon wait for an unknown person named Godot who never arrives. When the two hobos thought about taking their lives, they waited to hear what Godot thinks. While Godot never shows up, the two men also forget about what happened in the previous day. Forgetting enables their life as the hope of eventually meeting Godot dissolves their fear and paranoia, preventing them from drowning to nihilism. Amnesia is Vladimir and Estragon’s way of eliminating uncertainties in their lives and attaining stability in their fantasies. Nostalgia, the antithesis of amnesia, carries with it the separation from the past and the desire of not letting it go. It is an alternative way from amnesia to cope with our present. Nostalgia can be in two dimensions—one for space and the other for a time. Nostalgia is such a prevalent emotion that it is experienced virtually by everyone (Boym, 2001). We could be thinking about the past whenever a place or an object evokes our memories. As the scenes of the past in our mind segue into the present, what role, then, does nostalgia play in our lives? How are we to thrive when we are imbued with nostalgia?
Andre Aciman, a French-speaking Jew expelled from Alexandria at an early age with his family during the later stage of the Egyptian Suez Crisis, now lives in New York. He has a nostalgia about space and writes that he sees himself as an exile from Alexandria and every European city he had lived in. In his essay “Shadow Cities,” Aciman tells us that he builds for himself a home when he contemplates in Strauss Park somewhere in the upper west side of New York. As an exile from Alexandria, a person who is forced to be unwillfully displaced, Aciman is constantly looking for his “homeland” abroad. His notion of an exile is “not just someone who has lost his home,” but “someone who can’t find another.” Therefore, he writes that exiles tried to “reinvent the concept with what they’ve got.” When he was in Strauss Park, he could tie to his childhood memories and imaginations of Europe with everything happening in the park. The park became the place for him to “retrospect” and “finds himself”: he was in one place that had “at least four addresses,” mind drifting in four directions—his nostalgic escapes to his imagined past worlds. He increasingly drifts into the imagined reality of a painted city called New York from the rose-tinted glasses through which he sees the shadow cities for his nostalgia. As a consequence, he was very much disappointed when Strauss Park was dismantled. He writes as if part of himself was “lost.”
In addition to nostalgia for lost spaces, Aciman indulged himself in the lost times. He pictures himself somewhere in the 50s in New York, visualizing Kurt Appelbaum, Mrs. Danziger, and the Busch Quartet in Strauss Park and thus projecting them onto the park as well. The present New York is such an unsettling place that it leads to Aciman’s nostalgic journeys to a better past world. He likes returning to the park as a “ritual” of “remembering the shadow cities hidden there.” He admits that he loves “not so much the beauty of the past as the beauty of remembering.” Remembering his past is a way of “grafting himself to New York.” And he is able to see New York as the “ersatz’ of all the things he can remember and cannot have much less love, the “parallels” of home. Through creative and reflective use of nostalgia, Aciman is able to remember and write against the forgetting, retaining his link to his past.
Apart from assisting in keeping in touch with one’s history and better transforming to the present, can nostalgia help people’s identity formation? Aciman claims that what he fears the most was that his feet are “never quite solidly on the ground,” that he has “lost everything,” including his roots. He is envious of others who have “rootedness,” something continuous that he also wishes to bring along with him. Pip, the protagonist of Great Expectations, was raised up by his sister and her husband Joe, a blacksmith. When Pip was patronized with a great fortune, his social status changed. He felt ashamed of Joe’s manner upon his visit, something he never felt before. Through later obstacles that he encountered, Pip realized to evolve to be mature is not through a change of wealth or status, but through authentic self-reliance. And this transformation could not have been done if it weren’t for Joe’s love—one of the most important parts that he retained from his past. Although nostalgia has a notorious tendency to simplify and romanticize the past, sociologist Fred Davis argued that the act of remembering the pleasantries of past events helps to deal with current discontinuity and displacement. According to him, “nostalgia thrives on transition, on the subjective discontinuities that engender our yearning for continuity” (1979, 49). As an important part of identity formation, nostalgia connects our present to our past (and future) self and thereby establishes a feeling of continuity. By imagining positive aspects and events of the past, Acimans’s present self can find strength and meaning in his present life, and “putting together pieces of past lives through nostalgia” (Sedikides et al. 2004, 206) can contribute to creating a sense of a unified, universal claim.
Moreover, as a multicultural nationless person, Aciman’s nostalgia and his search for his roots is also crucial for the formation of nationhood. As Fred Davis points out, “Nostalgia is an existential exercise in the search for identity and meaning, a weapon in internal confrontations with existential dilemmas, and a mechanism for reconnecting with important others” (Sedikides et al. 2004, 202–203). The establishing of coherence, as Hutcheon (1998), Boym (2001), and Ritivoi (2002) indicate, is particularly immediate to emigrants who are forced to leave their homes. Escapes to the past—via mental constructions of home in a time when it resembled security—can take a major supporting force in the adjustment to changes. Aciman recalls when his favorite statue in Strauss park, the Greek nymph, disappeared, he felt gloomy and lost. Because Mnemosyne is avoiding “looking at what was around her.” This is a resemblance to himself, who has been avoiding looking at the “real New York.” Hence, nostalgia can be a way to escape the insecurities of the present and to take relief in the positive memories of the past. In that way, even a restorative nostalgia can be crucial in maintaining a stable identity and surviving difficult times.
Be it Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, or Egypt, Aciman can never be in one place at a time. This is also his hope of inventing his identity on his own, combining all his experiences in different places to a virtual place in his mind and projecting that on to a real place—Strauss Park, a place he could call home. Admittedly, the border between psychological help and escapism is thin and mental visits to the past can also enforce alienation from and denial of the present. Research has shown that “dysphoric,” dissatisfaction with life would sometimes stir visions and “upbeat and imaginative thoughts,” which would be helpful for a person to find himself and get more connected to the outside world. As long as Aciman realizes that what he falsified New York to be more “habitable” is a “figment”, he is able to “draw a line” from extravagant fantasies. In a nutshell, in negotiating present and past self, nostalgia not only assists in keeping in touch with one’s history, culture, and tradition but also can be a decisive ingredient in giving meaning to the present identity and in dealing with the changes.
Aciman reflects that exiles “may be mobile, scattered, nomadic, dislodged, but in their jittery state of transience they are thoroughly stationary.” He seems to be a wallow in nostalgia, melancholy about his loss but unwilling to get out of his status quo. In constructing his new identity, he chose nostalgia over amnesia. Though painful, he refused to stop pursuing the unattainable. Another writer, Rebecca Solnit, writes in the same “wallower” state as Aciman. The most persistent theme throughout Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost is the color blue. “The Blue of Distance” is a term Solnit uses as a recurring title to link several of her essays and create a thread of color throughout the collection. Through Solnit’s own curiosity, we learn of artists in the 15th century—the first generation of painters concerned with verisimilitude, with the way the world appeared before the eye—who used the color blue in their paintings to connote distance, “the color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away.” Solnit writes that “Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.” She examines the relationship between desire and distance and argues that we deal with our desires with restless resistance.
Solnit’s opinion opens up Aciman’s essay by suggesting that he indulged in his nostalgia for the reason that he does not want to trivialize what he has experienced, that he’d rather drown in the sorrow for the lost past than letting it go. When Solnit ends her essay with “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant” she points out the duality of distance—both destructive and generative. She also offers solutions to prevent the destructive aspect of distance. As Aciman says in one of his interviews, “What protects me from grief is writing about exile.” That poetic dissonance—of richness and loss, wandering, and purpose—enables Aciman to portray life and loss with a riveting complexity. Aciman found in his experiences creative energy that could imbue the helplessness of exile, for himself and his audience, with meaning and beauty.
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