A culture drowning in nostalgia
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, December 24, 2001)

At the time of year when mass culture drowns in nostalgia, when TV stations show once more the ancient movies that are ominously described as "much loved" and even atheists find themselves humming along with Christmas carols at the mall, it may be worth mentioning that the word "nostalgia" began life as the name of a disease.

Today it means that fuzzy, pleasant emotional screen through which we re-absorb old movies, TV shows and music. It's the wondrous process by which a not-so-hot movie becomes, after a few decades of ageing, an object of affection. Broadcasters cherish this impulse; in the last four months, dozens of new Canadian TV channels have made old products of Hollywood even more readily available.

Yet the word "nostalgia" first entered human thought as the label for an acute form of homesickness. In the 17th century, a Swiss doctor decided the wretchedness of soldiers serving in foreign countries was grim enough to require its own term. He drew from the Greek for homecoming and pain to invent the word that in English became "nostalgia." The symptoms included insomnia, anxiety, anorexia and palpitations, along with melancholy. That became part of medical knowledge.

In 1770, an officer circumnavigating the globe with James Cook wrote in his journal that most of the crew were suffering badly from "the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia."

It remained a sickness through the 19th century, at times even described as mild insanity. But the 20th century, the most past-minded of historic epochs, the first great century of museum-building, moved it over from the negative column, where it lived alongside melancholia and claustrophobia, and into the positive column, next to affection and excitement.

Still, it remained a private matter, such as in Marcel Proust tasting a sponge cake and finding himself overwhelmed by feelings from the past that he then poured into his novels. Nostalgia's role at the centre of entertainment, as a source of mass reassurance and amusement, didn't develop until the 20th century's second half.

Young people will find this hard to believe, but until 40 some years ago, most of the mass culture we consumed was freshly baked. The commercial possibilities of memory were relatively unexplored. Movies, after being shown in theatres, disappeared (forever, we thought). Radio shows and early TV shows were produced live and broadcast once. A hit song would arrive, fill the air and disappear. In the early TV days, many broadcasters did not even record their programs. It was a present-tense culture. Nostalgia lived on the margins.

Eventually, the mass media found ways to turn this private feeling into a communal experience and then an industrial product. Filmed TV, video cassettes and DVDs, and in music the limitless catalogue of CDs, have created a different time frame for entertainment -- and, to some extent, for consciousness itself. These elements have blurred the old divisions of history, creating an eternal present inside popular culture.

The widespread re-use of work produced in previous generations has now become the most striking characteristic of contemporary mass culture. More than at any other time in history, we can (if we choose -- and many do choose) live large chunks of our imaginative lives in the past. Everyone can achieve, even if only in a sketchy form, a sense of earlier periods that was once limited to scholars. The young can easily acquire a rich (though of course often distorted) sense of how their parents and grandparents talked, dressed and housed themselves. They can embrace as their own such great stars as Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, whose films were made for mid-20th-century tastes.

Unlike previous generations, the young of today can wander at will through the recent history of their civilization. Often, a cultural artifact intended to be only an instant hit has proven valuable for decades, each succeeding generation finding something new in it. The meanings of literature and visual art have always been altered by the pressure of time. Now, appreciation of the performing arts works in the same way.

Most of the 60 or so new digital channels depend on our warm feelings about the past -- and our love of films that are cheap to rent. There's the Action channel for crime and war films, the Lone Star channel for westerns, Scream for horror movies, the Independent Film Channel for movies made outside major studios, the Documentary Channel for non-fiction films. Some channels depend on the belief that thousands of people will eagerly watch hockey games played long ago, in some cases by players now dead. At all of these channels, programmers spend their days picking through the film and TV archives.

Nothing I say should be interpreted as resentment of this tendency. I love libraries, and television's decision to become a vast library of elderly images could not be more agreeable. If film artists of today fear the competition of the past, they should reflect that the weight of classical literature has never impeded the publication of new novels.

Besides, packaged nostalgia answers a widely felt need. It's a way of slowing down time. Two social scientists, C.M. Cameron and J.B. Gatewood, summed up that process in an article they wrote for the journal Human Organization a few years ago. Nostalgia in popular culture, they wrote, operates as "a psychological adaptation to circumstances of rapid culture change ..."

A cognitive sociologist at Rutgers University, Eviatar Zerubavel, can explain how we create the traditions we need by using collective memories. In his 1997 book Social Mindscapes, he says we all live in "remembrance environments" and "mnemonic communities." These mental landscapes, constructed from shared feelings about the past, determine how we think about ourselves and our place in history. Zerubavel sees men and women conducting their lives as members of communities created by "mnemonic socialization." By our memories you shall know us -- and we shall know ourselves.

The Age of Nostalgia has electronically extended the reach of life-shaping memory beyond clusters of like-minded people and made it part of national and international consciousness. In our time and place, nostalgia has stopped being a disease and become, in its way, a cure for alienation.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image