Posted by Jay Livingston
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. That’s the gist of a Times op-ed this morning by Daniel Gilbert. In fact, in Gilbert’s view, nostalgia is a doomed emotion.
Maybe we’ve reached nostalgia’s end. . . . . Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered.Gilbert presents no data, but he’s a Harvard professor of psychology (his course is one of the most popular) and a best-selling author and a serious researcher. So he ought to know, right?
The nostalgia on his mind is the nostalgia of place, and he assumes that we can be nostalgic only for places that are unique – luncheonettes with homemade pies, record stores whose offerings depend on the quirky preferences of the owner. You can’t be nostalgic for a homogenized landscape, where all downtowns have the same Starbuck’s and Gap, Gilbert says, because these will not change.
Americans may no longer need to gather at midnight on the last day of the year to yearn for their yesterdays, because wherever they are they will see the landscapes of their youths.I think Gilbert is wrong. To begin with, even if the store names stay the same, the stores themselves will change, and in 2030 we may be remembering fondly the way all those Gap stores looked back in 2010.
Second, nostalgia seems attached much less to place than to objects and experiences. (I made this same argument two and a half years ago in connection with “American Graffiti.” In future decades, today’s iPods and X-boxes, Zu Zu Hamsters and World of Warcraft will occupy the emotional space now filled by IBM Selectrics and Allman Brothers LPs.
Third, and most important, memory may be psychological (Proust and his famous cookie), but nostalgia is social. Nostalgia is not for what is unique and personal but for what is shared – the TV shows we all watched, clothing styles we all wore. If every mall in America has a Gap and an Olive Garden, this should make them stronger candidates for nostalgia. You may have grown up in Tennessee; but the year is now 2030, and you’re living in California; the guy you meet in a bar comes from Wisconsin. But you can both recall the old Starbuck’s (“Remember how they sold CDs and called the workers baristas, and you could get a ‘vente’?”).
That’s the gist of Billy Collins’s poem “Nostalgia,” a spoof on the whole idea (“Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.”) Listen to Collins read the poem to a live audience here . (Scroll down to #15.)
(Today seems to be nostaliga day. As I was reading Gilbert’s column this morning, I was also watching “Annie Hall” – thank you, IFC – with its theme of nostalgia and loss, and Diane Keaton singing “Seems Like Old Times.” Then my son switched to the Sci-Fi channel, which is running Twilight Zones all day, black-and-white film with old actors when they were young, and Rod Serling eternally smoking a cigarette.)