The Bitter Sweetness of Nostalgia
With its Greek roots -- nostos (a longing to return home) and algos (pain) -- nostalgia sounds so familiar to us that we may forget that it is a relatively new word. It was used first by the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer, who in 1688 described a lethal malady among Swiss mercenaries serving abroad. Desperate to return home, the soldiers became apathetic and weak, lost both sleep and their appetites, and then, crestfallen, died. The "emotional upheaval" of serving abroad was "related to the workings of memory" and was reckoned to be a disorder of the imagination. In effect, the stricken Swiss opted out of the seventeenth century by screening out the world around them. By the nineteenth century, however, nostalgia began to shed its medical connotations and became less a bodily and more a psychological condition. It also went from being a treatable illness to a terminal condition of the mind, its new meaning suggestive of a long-ago but half-remembered time as opposed to a yearning to return to a specific place.
Moreover, the nostalgically remembered past stood against the present and thus invited comparison. The former was made into a spectacle that was beautiful, bearing little or no relation to the ugly latter. In effect, nostalgia makes the past feel safe from the unexpected and the untoward -- in other words, making it so very unlike the present. Rather than remembering precisely what was, we tend to make the past comprehensible in relation to the present conditions of the here and now.
Memory is the great organizer of consciousness. Memories of people, scenes, and events that were previously vague or conflicted metamorphose into obvious and consistent recollections. Memory simplifies and composes our perceptions...
Essentially memory may operate to alter the past we have known and experienced into an imagined past that is a stranger to us and nothing more than a might-have-been.
For a brief theoretical formulation on this point of view we might turn to the sociologists. A recent theory argues that nostalgia is unlike other types of recollection because of the special past that it envelops. Happy memories are placed on a pedestal whereas unhappy memories are knocked off theirs, and we think hard before picking them up, dusting them down, and putting them back again. This has an insidious effect because the diversity of the past is thus suppressed. However, although nostalgia draws its strength from the past, it is unmistakably a product of the present. Nostalgia always appears against the backdrop of massive identity dislocations, in periods of "rude transitions rendered by history," in times of fear in the face of electrifying change, and at those transitional points in life when anxiety or, as some sociologists call it, a hypochondria of the heart, is felt.
Any "untoward historic events" that tear into the fabric of a society, disrupt its taken-for-granted attitudes and practices, and cut short the very "lungs of culture" in which people breathe the air of significance place that society's connection with its history under pressure. Confronted with these "explosive upheavals," we are driven like tumbleweed before the buffeting winds of change and upheaval. Hence, the desire to preserve a thread of continuity is crucial. Everything contradictory threatens to undermine what has been so patiently built up.
Nostalgia looks to alleviate this condition by exploiting the past in specially reconstructed ways. In doing so, nostalgia cultivates an appreciative stance toward "former selves," it acts to restore a sense of sociohistoric continuity, and it allows time for change to be assimilated, restoring confidence and imparting meaningful links with the past. In other words, nostalgia sweetens history with sentiment, its iconography of praise is constant, and it is accustomed to remember more romantically than historically.
MORE AND CONVERSELY...
Our unhealthy obsession with the past prevents us from addressing the problems of the future. Looking back, as historians always like to remind their readers, is an entirely natural and even laudable thing to do. There can be few people who are not stirred by unexpected memories of their youth, awakened by a glimpse of an old photograph or a snatch of a half-forgotten hit; there are few pleasures as bittersweet as remembering happy days that can never be recaptured. And yet our current obsession with anniversaries and retrospectives, our willing submersion in the warm, soapy bath of nostalgia, represents a distinctly unhealthy flight from the possibilities of the future.
George Santayana famously wrote that 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it', but it seems that whether we remember it or not, we are stuck in an interminable time loop. Talk of the 'nostalgia industry' barely does justice to a vast, multi-million-pound operation designed to exploit our childhood memories and teenage affectations. This season, it would take no effort at all to spend entire days, even weeks, reliving the Sixties and Seventies, perhaps dining on revived brands such as Smash or Spam before strolling out to hear the Rolling Stones in concert or watching the new James Bond film. Television executives strike gold by bringing back Doctor Who and Robin Hood; novelists win fame and fortune by revisiting the UK's Thatcher years or Britain in the Blitz.
This is a more recent phenomenon than we generally realise. Indeed, as mentioned before (see 1st piece above) the very word 'nostalgia' originally had a rather different meaning: coined in 1678, it described expatriate invalids or injured soldiers overcome by an almost physical longing for their native land. Sufferers were treated as if they had contracted some disease and as late as the American Civil War, soldiers diagnosed with nostalgia might be sent on sick leave.
Nostalgia in its current form, however, would have struck them as downright bizarre. Although Victorian ancestors might reflect wistfully on the lost innocence of childhood, they had no wish to spend their leisure hours pretending they were still living 40 years earlier. They might be fascinated by the styles and interests of bygone eras - the art of the Middle Ages, for example - but they were hardly besieging the toy shops for remodelled versions of their old playthings. And the British House of Commons might have resembled a public school, but School Disco would have found few takers.
By contrast, their successors in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, blessed with school holidays, paper rounds and pocket money, had the opportunity and the means to carve out their own cultural niches. They rarely seem like it at the time, but teenage years often represent a brief flowering of security and freedom, insulated from the pressures of maturity. Little wonder, then, that their attraction never seems to pall.
But there is more to it than that. Nostalgia appeals because it feeds, almost parasitically, off a broader sense of pessimism and decline. We turn our eyes to the past because we fear to look to the future. It is no coincidence, for example, that the first great success story of the modern nostalgia industry, the BBC's record-breaking adaptation of The Forsyte Saga in 1967, came at a point when the technological optimism of the post-war era was running out of steam.
Before then, space-age visions had been all the rage; comic books and pulp novels had dreamed of a brighter, better world of monorails and bubble-cars, conversations with computers and trips to the Moon. But by the late Sixties, the economy had run aground, inflation was mounting and Britain was heading for the sick bay. In a world where the future suddenly looked a frightening prospect, the intrigues of the Edwardians proved unexpectedly seductive.
One man asked angrily in the press 'Why shouldn't we enjoy it?', in tones familiar today. 'We are sick to death of living in a world where we are exhorted to be different from what we are by critics and politicians... no wonder we are happy to escape for 45 minutes each week into a world of elegance and good manners!'
The success of the Forsytes was a sign of things to come and, ever since, with growing momentum and appeal, nostalgic escapism has sunk roots into contemporary British culture. True, this is not merely a British phenomenon, but an inevitable result of the pressures of modernity. Hollywood loves nothing better than to wallow in a fictionalised version of the 1950s, all high-school prom and Mom's apple pie, while, rather more weirdly, the German idea of Ostalgie has reinvented East Germany as a lost world of socialist innocence.
But nobody does nostalgia better than we do in the UK. Historians often complain that nobody cares about the past any more, but popular history sells better in Britain than anywhere else on the planet, while castles and country houses pull in hundreds of thousands of visitors. And we may have lost an empire, but we lead the world in Second World War documentaries and 1960s compilation albums.
But whatever its compensations, nostalgia can be a dangerous and addictive habit. Yes, we are better off without that naive faith in the inevitability of progress that disfigured the 20th century; and yes, the combination of climate change, consumer debt, economic globalisation, international terrorism and all the rest suggests that tomorrow might be tougher than today. But harking back to sentimental versions of the past will hardly help to solve the problems of the future. It is better to face our challenges head-on than to cower in the false escapism of the everlasting school reunion.
Shouts Heard Round The World: Sixties History
For a decade that claimed to be all about peace, the Sixties were remarkably violent. In America, President Kennedy was assassinated, followed by his brother. Reverent Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. War erupted in Southeast Asia – again. In Britain, troops went to Northern Ireland in a “limited operation,” where they remain to this day. Violence begat violence on campuses all around the world. And the youth started making their voices heard.
But there was much more to Sixties history than violence. In fact, the refrain “Make Love, Not War,” was the true chant of the younger generation, led by emerging rock bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who. And with these rock bands, Britain re-invaded and conquered its former colonies; there were times that American rock bands couldn’t even make it onto the charts.
With the invention of the birth control pill, free love became another mantra (and “mantra” is another word introduced in the Sixties). Young men and women were freer to have relationships with one another, and they did. With this one change, the entire relation between men and women was undermined; no longer did “good girls” have to stay celibate to remain out of trouble. And now both young men and women were free to explore their sexuality. It made a more profound impact in Western society than most of us want to admit, even today.
All You Need Is Love: Sixties Events
Renaissance. From the bottom to the top, the Sixties were a time of change on every level. And you could tell. The most remarkable change was in the transformation from the socially-conservative fifties to the anything-goes seventies. This volcanic change was brought about by huge changes beneath the surface.
Probably the most important change was in how people saw one another. Women and men suddenly had a different, and more complex, relationship than ever before. Ethnic groups, too, were making their voices known in more and more places around the world. In the US particularly, Blacks and Native Americans participated in radical movements to change the discriminatory habits of their homeland. This enormous social and cultural movement spilled over into Europe and Africa, and was watched with great interest by the rest of the world. Would America be destabilized or changed forever?
In Britain, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other rock bands took over the music scene. The Americans weren’t far behind; Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Aretha Franklin emerged as major talents in the second half of the decade. These bands are still played regularly on the radio today, and those who are still alive still perform today.
Have It Your Way: Sixties Food
Yet again, the Sixties contradicts itself; at the same time fast food restaurants started to develop the patterns they still hold today, health food and vegetarianism were gaining steadily in the eating habits of ordinary people. Hippies and other socially-conscious groups chose to eat no meat because they didn’t believe in killing animals, and they grew food organically because they believed in harmonizing with their environment.
But the Sixties is where McDonalds started growing strongly, challenged by Burger King and Burger Chef, and when a 65-year-old loser named Harlan Sanders opened a restaurant he called Kentucky Fried Chicken. While some were eating healthier food than people had ever eaten before, others were eating food that would lead to obesity and many other serious health problems that still exist today.
Fun For A Girl And A Boy: Sixties Toys
The golden couple of the Sixties were undoubtedly Barbie and Ken (although Sindy and Paul were pretty close). These lifelike, though not anatomically correct, dolls and their armies of friends and accessories fulfilled many little girls’ dreams, and shaped how they thought about becoming a woman. Barbie was the first career woman many girls came in contact with, and she was very unlike their mothers! The boys weren’t left out, though; Matchbox cars were introduced for them, and vintage Sixties Matchbox cars are still collectors’ items today.
For older kids, Twister was invented in the Sixties; it’s still popular today both as the old game and as more adult versions.
They Had A Dream: Sixties Celebrities
The Sixties were a time of excitement, and there’s no denying that this was because of the people of the Sixties. From cultural icons like Marilyn and the Beatles, to politicians and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK, to group movements like hippies and Black Panthers, the unique energy of the people of the Sixties gave shape to the decade.
Do You Remember When We...: Sixties Memorabilia
Today, you can get a little taste of the Sixties again by collecting memorabilia. There are people who decorate entire rooms in a Sixties theme. If you don’t have the money to pick up authentic Sixties collectibles, you can always buy some of the newer Sixties-inspired products.
For instance, lava lamps are back with a vengeance, as are psychedelic colors and designs. There are entire stores based around selling Sixties movie and concert posters. Beatles memorabilia, authentic memorabilia, is not as expensive as you might think; the Beatles were the first celebrities with their faces stamped on practically everything, and as a result you can find coffee cups, coasters, plates, clothes, and lunchboxes generously decorated with the Fab Four’s faces. Inflatable furniture is back too, just like bell bottoms and miniskirts.
The Sixties may be gone. But they’ll never be forgotten.