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On Nostalgia: It Doesn't Come in Cycles, and It Doesn't Mean We're Miserable

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I have a theory, which is that you know you're growing up when you read The New Yorker for the articles and don't immediately skip through to all the cartoons. It's like a man actually reading an article in Playboy (although let's get real, who even looks at Playboy anymore?), or buying the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition for the editorials.

But speaking of The New Yorker and growing up, that's what I want to talk about today, or something along those lines: I want to muse on Adam Gopnik's article on nostalgia and Linda Holmes' NPR blog post refuting his points.

Gopnik's thesis is that popular culture's nostalgia goes in 40-year cycles; we love Mad Men, for example, because it's set 40 years in the past. He argues that this is because the people who control pop culture are generally in their 40s and are intrigued by the time when their "parents were youthful and in love," and they were not quite born. I disagree; I'm not fascinated by the mid-'80s any more than I'm fascinated by the 1920s, and I don't see myself developing a desperate urge to make films or write stories set in the Reagan-era as I get older. While I have to wait until I'm 40 to see if this is true, Gopnik appears to be looking for a formula that doesn't exist.

Gopnik has fit his evidence to his hypothesis. For each decade, he comes up with a movie set 40 years in the past, but there are at least as many from the same decade that take place 20 years in the past. Or 10. Or 60. For example, he writes about people in the '80s being fascinated by the World War II era, citing Raiders of the Lost Ark and Empire of the Sun. What about Saving Private Ryan? Band of Brothers? Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Pianist, Schindler's List? Those were all set during WWII, and all made after 1997.

On NPR's Monkey See blog, Linda Holmes went after Gopnik's article and presented another view of nostalgia, one that argues that we will always look for escapes into the past because elsewhere always looks better, not because of a 40-year cycle. While I agree with Holmes that the 40-year cycle isn't true, I don't agree with her when she says, "What's eternal about nostalgia is the same thing that's eternal about travel: It will always happen, not because what's out there is so special that it will pull us out through the windows, but because what's in here is, at least some of the time, so difficult that it will push us out through the door." Nostalgia needn't be a function of present misery. It's a function of memory.

Memory allows us to romanticize a Fourth of July parade and the smell of fried clams on a beach without paying mind to how many bug bites we got or the food poisoning that followed. Our selective memory means the past stays murky, mysterious. But we needn't be unhappy now to enjoy the mystery of the "then." Holmes, before claiming that nostalgia comes from the desire to escape the present, says that the allure of nostalgia is the mystery of times past. That point I agree with; while we can revisit a place or re-watch a film, we cannot time travel (yet), so we can't check out what the past was really like. What we can do, however, is black out the bad times and let the good times glow, no matter how we feel about the present.

The murkiness means we can make the past what we want; it is dangerous, because we can look back and lament how much simpler, cleaner, better life used to be. Take Mad Men: yes, I suppose it was simpler, in terms of the punctuality of dinner, at least, when women wore aprons and men came home on the 5:40 train. But it could also be miserable, it wasn't always precise and easy, and some people (say, Sylvia Plath) couldn't handle it and stuck their heads in ovens. People drank themselves into stupors and smoked themselves into lung cancer. We have literature, films, letters, and all sorts of evidence that supports the bad as much as we have rosy memories and old soda ads that represent the good.

What Mad Men and great movies do so well is present both aspects of the era in which they are set. They don't let nostalgia block out the pain. Because the heart of the matter is that no time is better than another (well, after the invention of penicillin and indoor plumbing, that is); every era has its unhappiness, its romance, its beauty, and its messiness. And if it's a time before we were born, it's endlessly fascinating because we will never live it. It's a story; we can project our present selectively onto it. In the present the good and the bad are inextricable; we haven't distilled our experiences, so things can seem uglier and more confusing. But there's no rule that clarity comes with 40 years. Clarity can come with three years, if you have a good enough shrink. Or it can come never.

In the end, Gopnik's formula runs into too many counter-examples, and the Holmes' post, which starts out promisingly about the mystery of the past, trips on a simplistic "grass is greener" theory. There is no telling what era will capture our imaginations at any given time, and there is no reason we have to be unhappy now to want to explore or rework the past. There was just a summer night. And if it's the aromas and the fireworks rather than the bug bites and the upset stomachs we remember, who's to say that means we're miserable now? And who's to say we have to wait 40 years to find out?