The Shows of Yesteryear

Column: Why are Americans gripped by nostalgia?

Images via Getty
• May 26, 2017 5:00 am


This morning I drove to work listening to the new Beatles Channel on Sirius XM. When I arrived at the office I read articles about the fortieth anniversary of Star Wars, and about its eighth sequel, which premieres in December, and skimmed a review of a movie based on a show about attractive lifeguards that ran from 1989 to 2001. On Twitter people were joking about potential plotlines for a sequel to Top Gun, from 1986. I listened to cuts from the soundtrack of a Netflix original series devoted to evoking the sensibility of my elementary school years. Before starting this column I looked up from the computer and watched on television President Trump, a man whose campaign slogan evoked past greatness, whose visage has been associated with wealth and success for decades, who was himself a part of the 1980s culture that we continually recycle.

Nostalgia is our national mode. We salvage artifacts of the past for entertainment, to calm present anxieties. We discuss the present in terms of the past, and we judge the present by the standards of long ago. One party seeks to recapture the economic conditions of the 1960s; the other would restore the family structure of the 1950s; our films and television cannot escape the Reagan era. Our cultural dialogue is a series of ironic or earnest references to earlier works. Discussions of movies and television and music tend to begin with the question, "Remember when?" Those words summon happy thoughts. So acute has the condition become that the great satirists of our age, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, parodied it last year in an episode of South Park. Residents of the town became addicted to "Member Berries."

Why are Americans gripped by nostalgia? Ross Douthat says it's a symptom of decadence. "Not the decadence of orgies and debauchery, but the decadence of drift, stagnation, and repetition." He quotes Jacques Barzun, who wrote that in periods of decadence "the forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through." Yuval Levin, on the other hand, ascribes our "blinding nostalgia" to the dizzying changes of the early twenty-first century. "In our economy, our culture, our politics, and throughout our society, longstanding norms seem to be breaking down." Writing in the neo-Marxist Jacobin, Samuel Earle points his finger at "global, neoliberal capitalism," which, "by subjecting everything in the world to the logic of the market," generates "enormous change in local communities with little to no regard for social cohesion." Douthat and Barzun suggest that there isn't enough novelty in the world. Levin and Earle, that there is too much.

Perhaps instability in the economic and social spheres moves us to stabilize the cultural and political ones, by clinging to franchises of yore, and by recalling national glories of old. Or perhaps we return to the past because we are expert in it. In his new collection of essays, X, Chuck Klosterman asks, "What if the feeling we like to call ‘nostalgia' is simply the byproduct of accidental repetition?" He has listened to Ozzy Osbourne's Bark at the Moon "more than all the other Ozzy solo albums combined," he says, for the sole reason that "I had only six cassettes" as a teenager. For Klosterman, nostalgia has little to do with memory. He feels nostalgic for Bark at the Moon "because the middle '80s were a time when I might lie on my bed and listen to a random Ozzy song 365 times over the course of 12 months. It's not an emotional experience. It's a mechanical experience." Stranger Things, by this logic, satisfies our nostalgia craving because it's an excuse to share our knowledge of all the Stephen King books we have read, all the Spielberg and Carpenter movies we have watched. "What seems like ‘nostalgia' might be a form of low-grade expertise that amplifies the value of the listening event."

I see what he means. How often did I watch Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as a kid, until I knew basically every line of dialogue, every fanfare and swell in the score, could mimic every sound effect? Do I feel nostalgia for Star Trek: The Next Generation because of what was going on in my life during middle school—not much—or because I have watched each episode of the series too many times to count, with the exception of "Conspiracy," the existence of which I do not recognize? I feel no nostalgia for the rented townhouse where I first listened to Vs., but could describe to you in detail its layout, its fading tan wallpaper and thick brown carpet, because the memory of my surroundings is connected to "the listening event." The fascination with early video games that manifests itself in the popularity of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One—the film adaptation by Spielberg is forthcoming—is less a longing for the innocence of childhood than evidence of all the hours I wasted on Atari and NES.

Klosterman's thesis is a clever explanation for certain forms of nostalgia, but not of others. It might tell me why I return to the first three Indiana Jones movies, but it doesn't explain why Spielberg and George Lucas insist on making more of them. (I don't need Jacobin to tell me the reason is money.) Nor does Klosterman's mechanical basis for nostalgia apply to politics. We experience history only once, and Golden Ages are few and far between, and difficult to reproduce.

"Nostalgia," wrote Robert Nisbet, "breaks the telescopic relation of past and present that is the essence of ritual. It makes of the past a cornucopia of anodynes and fancies to draw from at will. It seizes upon some period, decade, or century and bathes it in solutions of sentimentality. The past, so necessary to replenishment of the present when properly understood, takes the form of memorabilia, golden-oldies such as records, books, and movies which should not be wrenched from their ages."

For Nisbet, nostalgia waxes as the traditional understanding of time wanes. Human beings are temporal creatures. We need ways to understand and to order the past, the present, and the future. Normally we do this through religion, its holidays and lifecycle events. "The greatest barrier to nostalgia," he writes, "in contrast to simple respect for the past, is a social structure in which the forces of stable growth outweigh those of instability and perceived formlessness. Ritual—religious, political, and other—is a strong force against nostalgia." It may be that religion, by keeping us focused on a life to come, and by emphasizing righteous acts in the present, prevents us from becoming lost in memories and trinkets of the past. Then again there are plenty of religious people who are nostalgic about some earlier incarnation of their church or their country or their culture. Do they lack for ritual?

What would be useful is a grand unified theory of nostalgia, a way to tie together Star Trek Into Darkness and MAGA hats, Back to the Future Day and Marine Le Pen. Sorry to say, no such theory exists. Maybe none is possible. Nostalgia in politics, in the marketplace, and in our psychology may be separate phenomena, may operate on different axes. I'm inclined to believe that the flight to the past is a consequence of our anxiety over the future: our fear of mortality, the precarious state of our country, the feeling that no one is entirely in control of his government, his destiny. Grim thoughts to ponder on my way home from work, as Dave Matthews Band plays on the radio, and I prepare for an after-dinner viewing of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It was just on TCM.