Nostalgia’s Time has Come and Gone
By Jerry Kloby
Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a little younger than most of my friends, or maybe it’s because I heard my dad’s WWII stories too many times when I was growing up, or maybe the reason isn’t psychological at all, but for decades I’ve been resistant to nostalgia. It’s not that I don’t like remembering good times and retelling humorous stories of past adventures but I think it can be harmful to be overly focused on the past. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the past can weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
As a sociologist, I see great value in striving to understand the world objectively. Nostalgia, though, often reveals the innate bias of individuals. We remember much of the past fondly and often incorrectly. Sure, it’s a fully human thing to do — to think back fondly of friends we no longer see and family members who have passed away — but there are also harmful reminiscences.
How many times have we heard people say “when I was a kid…” and then they go on to talk about how they didn’t wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, cars didn’t have seat belts and air bags, and there weren’t warning signs on every product you buy. Someone gave me a big can of mixed nuts a while back and the label warned me that the product contained tree nuts (really!?) and I have a candle in my office with a label on it that says “Warning: keep away from things that catch fire.” Yeah, lots of people survived childhood without being padded in bubble wrap but many people were severely injured or died. And the dead aren’t here to reminisce about their misfortune.
Psychologists have a term for this type of nostalgia. They call it “rosy retrospection.” It’s a pretty serious bias, like the fictional country in “Make America Great Again.”
Here’s something worth remembering: the term “nostalgia” actually came into existence in the 17th Century to describe a crippling brain disorder afflicting Swiss mercenary soldiers and other wanderers far away from home. It was a rough equivalent to severe homesickness.
There is, apparently, a fairly definitive work on nostalgia, and it has a great title, The Future of Nostalgia. The book is by a Russian-born scholar, Svetlana Boym[i], who identified two key types of nostalgia. It a distinction worth noting: restorative nostalgia and reflective nostalgia. Basically, it’s a distinction between a positive from of nostalgia and a negative one. Hal McDonald describes the two types in his 2016 article, “The Two Faces of Nostalgia,” in Psychology Today:
Restorative nostalgia, involving a desire to “rebuild the lost home,” views the past with an eye toward recreating it — a desire to relive those special moments. It is what spurs us to pull out our phone at 1 a. m. and call up an old boyfriend or girlfriend because we just heard “our song” on the radio.
Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, accepts the fact that the past is, in fact, past, and rather than trying to recreate a special past experience, savors the emotions evoked by its recollection. This acknowledgment of the irretrievability of our autobiographical past provides an aesthetic distance that allows us to enjoy a memory in the same way that we enjoy a movie or a good book.
Restorative nostalgia is very much like the original use of the term — a form of homesickness that brings on melancholia.
On the other hand, rosy retrospection might fall into a different category altogether. Consider it a form of cognitive bias. Rosy retrospection refers to the tendency to judge the past more positively than one judges the present. As some analysts have pointed out, political figures often deliberately use this bias to mobilize support for nationalism and authoritarianism.
In other words, rosy retrospection can be a form of social mythmaking that is deeply ideological. In her book The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz dismantles many commonly held beliefs about our American past, especially those having to do with women’s roles and family life. “Coontz identifies the myths — and their sources, functions, and fallacies — that Americans generate around family life, as well as the terrible burden these illusions create.”[ii] Coontz is the Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The Way We Never Were shows that all of the social ills commonly thought to be a result of the breakdown of the family have been a part of American life since colonial times. Idealizing the past diminishes our ability to see that. We have washed the nightmares from our memory.
Much like the way Columbus’s “discovery” of the “new world” was taught, the story of history buries much of the truth. And the history we are taught ends up being little more than a series of rationalizations for the systems of privilege that follows.
Nostalgia that warms our hearts with thoughts of a mythological past can be a dangerous thing. It idealizes the past often while claiming that contemporary problems are rooted in changes in the family, schooling, policing, and other social processes. This type of rosy retrospection lends itself to conservatism because its underlying message is that much of the progress made by women and minorities has really been harmful. The warm feelings of the past can be used to attack present-day social norms that make authority figures more accountable, that have advanced beyond crude patriarchy, and have expanded democracy and made some strides toward social equality.