Nostalgia is about loss. Looking backward, whether it is to study the past or to dwell on a period we believe to have been better or simpler, is about imagination and longing. It is also a way in which we learn, not just about ourselves, but about the human race and the civilization we have created throughout the millennia. Any time that has passed is ultimately viewed as a time of greater simplicity and ease because it is over; it cannot be relived. We can re-create historical events and periods but our imagination, our romantic vision of the time and place, colors the past in the act of this re-creation and so not only misleads us but our audience as well. Nostalgia is about dreaming the past anew, making it what it never really was, but rather what we perceive it to have been; in short, what we wish and long for it to have been. We look backward because the past was mapped, charted, and experienced when it was the present; countless works of art and literature and historical documents attest to what we can only fantasize about and not live out for ourselves. The future has no clear map or documents for us to engage with; we must draw the map of the future, lay down its contours and roads by dynamically engaging in the present and defining its lasting legacy to the world, to the archives and annals of history.
Nostalgia isolates and impregnates the past moment and scene taken up for display with our idealistic temperament and perspective of how we believe the world ought to be and have been. Nostalgia and looking backward are exercises in perception, as all acts are. All art is perception, and nostalgia the greatest form of art, the most democratic form of art, because anyone can paint with it.
Looking backward is a method of revision. Once a particularly painful or stressful period in our lives has passed and Time has sutured the wounds of experience and the scars have nearly faded, we look back and nostalgic feelings for that time begin to grow, especially if we are suffering in the present, like flowers out of the ever-fertile soil of our imagination, that wondrous but dangerous landscape from which the most stunning beauty but also the most catastrophic forces of annihilation have been birthed in the world. It is sad but nonetheless true that there has never been and seemingly never will be a time that was simpler and easier, in which humanity had it better. We see so much of the past that way but it is not the truth.
I am nostalgic for many different periods in history, not just American history. This is not just a cause, but also an effect of my being a great lover of learning. For over twenty years literature, art, philosophy, and religion have fed my fascination with and deep longing for the past, and has brought me to a mounting interest in history itself and the politics behind how things have come to stand as they do at this point in time. I long for my college days because they were the first in which my homosexuality was more or less a nonissue for others, and because I was only just beginning to learn about and truly engage with the classic works of art, literature, philosophy, and religion that have in great part made me the individual I am today. I long for those days because they were the beginning of the end of my youth; they were the last years before I had to become fully responsible for myself (a true adult) as well as wholly accountable for my words and actions, because no one else was going to pick up the pieces and clean up after my reckless, foolish choices. As much as I hate to admit it, I no longer live in an ivory tower; the tower crumbled several years after I finished graduate school but I look back with haunting, wounding nostalgia on those years as a student not so much because I was young and free but because the newness of the vast imaginative world of the arts and humanities that I discovered and quickly became enamored of, in whose seas I dove deep and ecstatically submerged myself, is long gone, and with each day that passes is receding further and further into the past like the waves from the shore at low tide.
Nostalgia is an easy but painful way in which we hopelessly search for our youth, a way in which we try to deny we are no longer who we once were, a way to hide from the fact that our bodies signal that as the years go by, as Darren Hayes sings in “The Future Holds a Lion’s Heart,” “You can move through time in one direction / Sad but it’s the truth,” that there is no time machine to take us back to an age and place that hardly had a chance to bloom before it too decayed and passed away, just like the moments wasted when we engage in nostalgia. Looking backward is an escape, a temporary refuge for when our hearts are broken, for when our lives are drowning in stress and sorrow, for when meaning seems obscure if not nonexistent, and our lives without direction, without a clearing onto a new path.
Nostalgia makes blatant the immense shadow of loss that is always at our backs, that never ceases to grow, stretching far out into the distance behind us as Time dances on, always trailing us into the future and eventually devouring it, making it nothing more than a moment lived and transmuted into memory, which is no more than a faultily remembered, often consciously constructed recollection of an experience that we embrace in a fruitless endeavor to hold on to the past, to youth, to dreams that have no weight, no substance anymore, because they were always insubstantial from the beginning. Nostalgia and looking backward are a futile way to hold on to what was never fully there in the first place. All life is transitory; to let someone or something slip through your fingers when it is time for them to go is to live that truth, to live life, and to know the wisdom and beauty of life in its purest form: the eternal divine spirit in the tireless act of creation.