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Getting Nostalgic over Nostalgia
February 25, 2014 D.J. Clark

Getting Nostalgic over Nostalgia

Posted in Forum Post

Nostalgia. I have long puzzled over nostalgia. Why is it that we have such unbelievably strong feelings associated with certain past events — feelings that were not present (or were not present in the same degree) at the time of the event itself? What is the meaning of nostalgia? I have never heard a satisfactory account of nostalgia. In fact, all I have ever heard by way of so much as an explanation of nostalgia is the following evolutionary one:

“Those who paint the past in a brighter light – those who think that the last pasture and the next pasture are greener than the present – tend towards more mental stability and possess more motivation than those who see the past as it in fact was and the future as it most likely will be. Those with more mental stability and motivation have more survival value. Hence, history has selected for the nostalgic. Nostalgia, then, does not mean anything; it has no axiological significance; it is merely an evolutionary accident.”

There is plenty that could be said to this entirely speculative thesis (not that there is anything wrong with speculative theses; there’s just something wrong about masquerading them as empirical science). I will restrain myself to saying only this. Nostalgia is far more nuanced a thing than this evolutionary thesis makes it out to be. Sometimes nostalgia does remembering something as “rosier” than it seemed at the time; sometimes it turns the brightness level up on a memory. But this is not all it does. It also plays with the contrast, with the sharpness, with the focus. And sometimes it even points to a past experience and tells you that it was “darker” than it seemed at the time. It reinterprets past experiences in many different ways, and in many different directions.

But there is one constant element in nostalgia. It’s not “rosiness”; it is the interpretation of that past experience as full of more significance and more meaning than that experience seemed to have at the time. Perhaps there is a bland evolutionary thesis for this element too. But as long as this thesis implied that nostalgia was merely an evolutionary accident, I wouldn’t buy it. Why not? Because I have experienced nostalgia, and I have experienced it as presenting something true when it presents those past events as “full of more significance and meaning than that event seemed to have at the time”. When I look in my backyard I experience the image of a garden; and I experience this image as presenting something true — namely, that there is a garden back there. No inference involved; it is just belongs to the phenomenology of the experience itself. Same with the experience of nostalgia. Its phenomenology carries its own warrant. It presents itself, not as a reinvention, but as a perception.

Nostalgia, it seems to me, is a way of seeing elements of the past that transcend us in the present: it is a way of seeing those events in a way closer to how God must have seen them.

But there’s even more to the phenomenology of nostalgia worth mentioning. (We’re getting into very foggy waters here — I’m afraid I may be getting into experiential depths which escape my ability to verbalize. Let me try anyways.) Not only does nostalgia involve the perception of a past event as being more significant and meaningful than it originally seemed; it also carries with it the feeling that this increased significance is of a transcendent character. No, that’s not quite right. The character of this significant is more precise than mere “transcendence”. This is better: The significance I feel in nostalgia is a significance that feels of a transcendent, and personal, character.

I give tremendous weight to the way nostalgia presents itself to me, just as I give tremendous weight to the way my vision presents itself to me. I just find myself believing what these two different sources of perceptions tell me; no inference involved. And, in the absence of good reason to believe that they are deceiving me, I feel justified – in fact, obligated – to continue believing what they tell me. And what nostalgia tells me is that this life and this world belong to a much bigger life and a bigger world — a life and a world of a transcendent and personal and beautiful character. Nostalgia does not, I confess, tell me about the Christian God per se; it doesn’t make mention of the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Atonement or the Two Natures of Christ. But it sure points at something compatible with – and I would argue, suggestive of – the Judeo-Christian God. It sure feels like nostalgia permits a look into the world that Israel and the Church have proclaimed. I think they call it the Kingdom of God.

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