Wednesday, 17 April 2019

WHAT IS NOSTALGIA NOT? - 2.

This is my grandmother.  She is one of the people I have most admired in the world.  She died quite some time ago now, but she remains one of my greatest inspirations and most formative influences.  We knew each other so well that even though she is no longer here, I can have interior dialogues with her about things which bother me, because I can imagine what she would have said.

Many medievalists are interested in the idea of ancestors - and indeed the concept of ancestry, formulated differently at various points in time, was a fundamental way of evoking dignity, authority, and litanies of values.  I've been trawling through medieval English petitions on the hunt for expressions of nostalgia, and some of the search terms I have been using is 'ancestors', 'grandfather', 'predecessors' etc.

But just referring to one's ancestors is not enough on its own to indicate nostalgia.  When I think of my grandmother, there is certainly a tinge of nostalgia for times spent together (we recently scattered her ashes, and my mother produced an amazing selection of her recipes which certainly was a journey of nostalgia in taste).  But my thoughts of her, and my evocations of her aren't really about nostalgia.  They are about admiration for her wit and her integrity.

All this to say, that as a historian I should be very careful about taking references to ancestors as indicators of nostalgia.  On occasion, such evocations might be signals of nostalgia - but admiration for someone in the past may be not so much a longing for a former time, as a sense that one's connection with that person stands above time.  This is certainly the case for how I think of Mum (I called her this because my mother did) - quite apart from the fact that I'm acutely aware of the incredible education and opportunity which was denied to her and open to me.  I do miss her though.

Friday, 22 March 2019

WHAT IS NOSTALGIA NOT?

As I venture ever deeper into the nostalgia labyrinth, I'm becoming more aware of the real danger of conceptual slippage.  There are so many ways of thinking about the past, and there is such an enormous array of scholarship on memory, that it is tempting to adopt the most capacious view of my subject.  But nostalgia is a very particular way of thinking about the past - and I'm going to be really careful to avoid discussing memory more generally.  It will be a useful exercise to think through some tempting areas which really are not nostalgia.  There's a further reason for doing this, in that 'nostalgic' is so often used as a polemical term to diminish the value of people's response to the past ('you're just nostalgic, reactionary' - whatever - it's an effective way to crush a particular way of thinking).

I may as well begin reflexively.  I gave a seminar paper on the subject of nostalgia earlier this term, and was asked the very perceptive question why more historians are not working on this intriguing topic.  The answer is, as ever, multi-facetted - but one reason, I think, is that many scholars are nervous about being accused of being nostalgic themselves (in literary analysis of nostalgia - more common for a later period - this is a common apologetic trope).  I can just about see how you could become a bit nostalgic if you worked only on the most exquisite manuscripts, or medieval music - but interest in the past and nostalgia are very different.

I am emphatically not nostalgic for the fourteenth century.  Were I able to time-travel, I would reject the invitation (though I do feel rather differently about the C16th  - I really would love to have a conversation with Michel de Montaigne, and Henry IV of France - not at the same time).

Henri IV (image source, Wikipedia): to whom is nostalgically ascribed the phrase: 'no peasant in my realm shall lack a chicken in his pot on Sundays'

But how could one possibly be nostalgic for a period of mass mortality, high levels of physical violence, revolting food and intensive labour?  A few years ago, I had a series of pretty melodramatic health issues - one doctor, realising I worked on the Middle Ages, pointed out that I should be very grateful to live now, because in a former age, I would have been dead many times over.  It wasn't a desperately kind thing to say, but he did have a point.

In other words, there isn't any problem in disaggregating interest in the past and nostalgia for us as historians - so too, for the medieval people I'm studying, I need to be careful to distinguish between their interest in, and their longing for, the past.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

NOSTALGIA 13

I was lucky enough to be able to carve out a bit of time for some music this evening.  The harp had its usual transporting effect on me, and I remembered a time many many years ago when I was busking in Stratford.  There was a splendid moment when an elderly man stood listening very attentively and then decided to come up for a chat.  He asked me what I was studying, and was delighted when he learned that I was reading history - because, he told me portentously, 'I have had several previous lives'.  It was an intriguing, if slightly disturbing conversation.

Not unexpectedly, he had apparently been Tutankhamun's personal slave and had many a tale to tell about this painful but gratifying experience.  He had experienced various cataclysmic events in the Roman world too.  But the life for which my music apparently made him most nostalgic, was that as a thirteenth-century Cathar - I didn't think the Cathars had lap-harps, but I let it pass. His experiences as a member of this dualist heretical sect were very romantic - set amongst the rolling and verdant foothills of the Pyrenees.  He had been one of those besieged at Montsegur during the Albigensian crusade, but had managed, against all odds, to escape.

The chateau of Montsegur (image source: Wikipedia)

After a perilous journey the length of France, he had stood on the coast at Calais, gazing at the white cliffs of Dover - which meant, finally, sanctuary.  I must have looked rather sceptical at this point - although I was doing my best to be as polite as possible.  'Do you know', he asked me slightly irritably, 'what the Cathars were often known as?'  'Yes', I replied (as it happened, I was really fascinated by the fourteenth-century Cathar trials at the time), 'They were known as the Bonhommes'.  'And do you know what my surname is?' he pursued.  'No', I replied nervously.  'GOODMAN' he shouted triumphantly.  And with that, he was gone.

I rather doubt that my explorations of fourteenth-century nostalgia will turn up any nostalgic time-travellers, but the memory of my acquaintance certainly gives nostalgia an usual spin.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

NOSTALGIA  12_ NORTH AND SOUTH


I’ve just treated myself to re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855)I LOVE this book – it is deliciously romantic; I feel a real affinity with Margaret Hale (in all her often misplaced attempts to do the right thing); and the thoughtfulness of its social engagement lingers long after the final page is turned.

Cover of 1867 edition, by George du Maurier.  Source: Wikipedia.


Margaret is the daughter of a clergyman who resigns his living in Helstone, in rural Hampshire for reasons of conscience: they move to the industrial northern town of Milton.  The move represents a rupture of all that Margaret loved and valued, and she is somewhat repulsed by what she sees as the ugliness of Milton and the subservience of the bonds of human warmth to the diktats of trade.  She makes regular visits to the mill-workers, who are a little dubious of the rather patronising nature of her kindness, and she passionately expresses their point-of-view during a strike to the mill owner, Mr Thornton.  All the while, Margaret is desperately homesick for her charming life at Helstone: everything that is wrong with Milton is, at least implicitly, wrong by comparison with the idyll that was her home.  And, of course, everything that appears to her to be wrong with Mr Thornton is bound up in this sense of homesickness and dislocation.  The North seems to Margaret to be a place so caught up in the making of money as to drown emotional engagements: she sees masters and workers incapable of communicating with one another, despite, or perhaps because of, a much greater degree of mobility between classes and constant competition. As she remembers it, the South was a place where rich and poor treated one another with compassion and human kindness, despite, or again perhaps because of, more rigid hierarchies.  Margaret’s nostalgia for her Hampshire pastoral idyll is really not about social equality: she hates the exploitation of others in industry, but the order she nostalgically uses to critique it is one of unbending social ranks.



But Margaret is only 19 at the start of the novel – and, in many ways, she grows up far more than do her parents over the course of the story.  She learns to value Milton life and its ways.  She learns, very painfully, what was misplaced about her judgements both on Milton and on Mr Thornton.   As the value judgements she passes on the North become more complex, so too does her nostalgia for the South.  And when, near the end of the novel, she returns for a day to Helstone with an elderly friend, she is shocked and dispirited to find, not only a rather obnoxious new vicar and his family in her old home, but a level of superstition and prejudice amongst her erstwhile neighbours that her nostalgia had somehow managed to obscure.


It is only in the final pages of the novel that we learn that Mr Thornton, who has loved Margaret confusedly but unstintingly, has visited Helstone himself.  He realised the extent to which Margaret felt rooted in, and identified by, this place.  He gathers some flowers, which he keeps sentimentally in his pocket book.  It’s a very lovely moment, but it’s complicated by the nuancing of Margaret’s own attitudes to Helstone by this point in the novel.  She now sees the extent of her idealisation of the place, and the values which she seemed to long for have been reshaped by both her experience and simply by growing up.


In many ways then, this is a novel really built around the theme of nostalgia.  It is both the stimulus and the frame for the social critiques which lie at the heart of the narrative.  But nostalgia is also a journey.  The feeling itself is shifting and catches the light from different angles as the novel progresses.  Margaret never stops loving her first home and all that it seemed to represent, but she learns to cast that love differently and more expansively as new experiences burst into the frame.

Monday, 25 February 2019

NOSTALGIA 11

Sunday with the boys was really idyllic.  (Lest I seem too smug, life is full of challenges, and Saturday involved a 12-hour car journey, and someone hitting us on the motorway).  The spring sunshine was soul-warming, my older son spent the majority of his time up a tree or upside-down, and we explored streams and woodlands and an old half-buried plough-share.



I felt something akin to nostalgia.  A warm, bittersweet feeling - a sense of how fleeting time is, and the impossibility of grasping something so lovely and holding onto it.

I'm reading George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier at the moment.  In a passage about half-way through the book, he describes a very similar kind of nostalgia for a present which feels so fleeting that it is bound up with a sort of loss.  His purpose is highly critical and political, but there is this same sense of transience.

'The picture I have called up, of a working-class family sitting round the coal fire after kippers and strong tea, belongs only to our own moment of time and could not belong either to the future or to the past.  Skip forward two hundred years into the Utopian future, and the scene is totally different.  Hardly one of the things I have imagined will still be there. […] Curiously enough it is not the triumphs of modern engineering, nor the radio, nor the cinematograph, nor the five thousand novels which are published yearly, nor the crowds at Ascot and the Eton and Harrow match, but the memory of working-class interiors […] that reminds me that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in'.

Feeling nostalgic for one's own time because it feels so transient might seem contradictory.  But in some ways it cuts to the heart of what nostalgia is.  The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa associated nostalgia with modernity because of what he called 'the social acceleration of time'.  The idea is that post-industrialisation, there is a quickening not only of the pace of production, but a shift in our experience of time.  There is less breathing space and everything feels constantly in flux. Nostalgia, in this reading, is the longing for a the perceived stability of the past.  It follows then, that in periods of what feels like acute change, one might experience the present with a sense of nostalgia. Or, put differently, that a feeling of nostalgia for the present is a symptom of rapid change.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

NOSTALGIA 10

Nostalgia is readily dismissed by many as deluded sentimentalism.  But the more I think about nostalgia, the more I'm struck by its complexity.  For example, I don't think I'm alone in experiencing a kind of nostalgia even for difficult and challenging periods in my life.

Today, a completely fortuitous combination of temperature and the feel of a particular pen took me straight back to the experience of Finals (very Proustian).  I used to keep my college room ridiculously warm because it somehow helped me to concentrate, and I made a lump on my finger through gripping my old biro so hard.  Those two weeks were horrifically intense and stressful - and yet, the feeling they evoked today, was one very far from revulsion. I wouldn't go back to that fortnight for anything - but at the same time, the thought of it is oddly comforting, as if I was cocooned in cloud of adrenaline and ideas.

Arras, Grande Place. Image, wikicommons.


Similarly, a while ago a particular hand-soap reminded me of the archives in Arras in northern France, where I spent a couple of months doing some of my doctoral research.  It was altogether a rather miserable experience.  The archives are housed in a couple of large concrete boxes on the outskirts of the city.  The bus to reach them also served the local mental hospital - we were an eclectic group each morning and evening. It was a horribly lonely period, and the time of my parents' divorce - Arras is lovely, but too large for a temporary resident to feel part of any kind of community, and not big enough to offer much to get involved in.  I stayed in a grotty youth hostel, and completely freaked myself out one evening by going to see the Da Vinci Code (what an awful film) on my own and getting totally spooked walking back through the medieval arcades in the dark.  But the hand-soap and its memories were, again, oddly comforting.

I wonder what is going on in such episodes  - these were just involuntary memories, but certainly nostalgic ones: bittersweet and somehow warming.  Perhaps it's because there were positive dimensions of these experiences which I didn't recognise at the time - or perhaps nostalgia is altogether more complex, responding to the looping and interweaving of moments in time, the doubling-back which offers a kind of stability in the face of change.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

NOSTALGIA 9 - MUSIC

Whilst sorting through some papers today, I came across the score for a piece of music which I learned to play when I was about 15.  There's a recording on youtube here (this is NOT me playing!)

image: youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yb43lJFdE5k)


The children graciously allowed me to get the harp out.  Playing the piece again really was a kind of re-visiting.  I felt myself with my old harp in the old house, with the cat lounging louchely beside me. I felt the sheer amazement and sense of privilege that I felt then, that something so exquisite could become accessible through a bit of practice.  And with these re-visited feelings, whole vistas of connected memories opened up.  The view from the window, the walnut tree, the time my brother knocked over my music stand in a concert because he had a fly on his nose, the time my hands froze because I was so tense, the time they froze in front of my terrifying Parisian harp teacher, her striking use of my lessons to indulge in her own reminiscences, her story of messing up this same piece in a concert in front of  the most famous harpist of the day, Lily Laskine, her flat with its jungle-like greenery, the children's shoe-shop I'd pass every time on the way to a lesson, the homeless man who would offer me a swig from his bottle on the metro ride to the lessons, and so on. And all these memories can be so bitter-sweet and delicious really - and such a journey until something jolts us back into the present.

What strikes me particularly, though, is the sheer power of music to evoke not just the past, but the emotive memory and longing which characterise nostalgia. It is almost a physical sensation.

Proust used the madeleine cake to evoke the power of unconsciously summoned memory.  It's a particular challenge for a historian to have to acknowledge that the most powerfully felt nostalgia is evoked not through words and documents, but through sensation - taste, scent, music.  I'm not sure how I might recover this kind of thing as a medievalist, nor am I sure that this kind of nostalgia is the same sort of thing that is experienced collectively, with political and social implications, which I am trying to study. But its intensity and power is such that it must lie at the heart of the ways in which we interweave the past in our presents and futures.