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Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”*…

 

Nostalgia

Detail: The Blue Boat (1892) by Winslow Homer

 

Coined by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688, ‘nostalgia’ referred to a medical condition – homesickness – characterised by an incapacitating longing for one’s motherland. Hofer favoured the term because it combined two essential features of the illness: the desire to return home (nostos) and the pain (algos) of being unable to do so. Nostalgia’s symptomatology was imprecise – it included rumination, melancholia, insomnia, anxiety and lack of appetite – and was thought to affect primarily soldiers and sailors. Physicians also disagreed about its cause. Hofer thought that nostalgia was caused by nerve vibrations where traces of ideas of the motherland ‘still cling’, whereas others, noticing that it was found predominantly among Swiss soldiers fighting at lower altitudes, proposed instead that nostalgia was caused by changes in atmospheric pressure, or eardrum damage from the clanging of Swiss cowbells. Once nostalgia was identified among soldiers from various nationalities, the idea that it was geographically specific was abandoned.

By the early 20th century, nostalgia was considered a psychiatric rather than neurological illness – a variant of melancholia. Within the psychoanalytic tradition, the object of nostalgia – ie, what the nostalgic state is about – was dissociated from its cause. Nostalgia can manifest as a desire to return home, but – according to psychoanalysts – it is actually caused by the traumatic experience of being removed from one’s mother at birth. This account began to be questioned in the 1940s, with nostalgia once again linked to homesickness. ‘Home’ was now interpreted more broadly to include not only concrete places, such as a childhood town, but also abstract ones, such as past experiences or bygone moments. While disagreements lingered, by the second part of the 20th century, nostalgia began to be characterised as involving three components. The first was cognitive: nostalgia involves the retrieval of autobiographical memories. The second, affective: nostalgia is considered a debilitating, negatively valenced emotion. And third, conative: nostalgia comprises a desire to return to one’s homeland. As I’ll argue, however, this tripartite characterisation of nostalgia is likely wrong.

First, two clarifications: nostalgia is neither pathological nor beneficial….

In the past few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of nationalistic political movements that have gained traction by way of promoting a return to the ‘good old days’: ‘Make America Great Again’ in the US, or ‘We Want Our Country Back’ in the UK. These politics of nostalgia promote the implementation of policies that, supposedly, would return nations to times in which people were better off. Unsurprisingly, such politics are usually heralded by conservative groups who, in the past, tended to be better off than they currently are – independently of the particular politics of the time. In a 2016 study conducted by the Polish social psychologists Monika Prusik and Maria Lewicka, a large sample of Poles were asked nostalgia-related questions about how things were prior to the fall of communism 25 years earlier. The results revealed that people felt much more nostalgic and had more positive feelings about the communist government if they were better off then than now, if they were older, and if they were currently unhappy. Doubtlessly, older and conservative-leaning folk who perceive their past – whether accurately or not – as better than their present account for a significant portion of the electorate supporting nationalistic movements. But we’d be misled to think of them as the primary engine, let alone the majority. For the Polish results show something very different: a large number of younger individuals avidly supporting nostalgic policies that would return their nations to a past they never experienced…

Neuroscience is finding what propaganda has long known: nostalgia doesn’t need real memories – an imagined past works too: “Nostalgia Reimagined.”

* Marcel Proust

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As we we muse over our madeleines, we might recall that this date in 1970 was “Black Tot Day,” the last day on which the British Royal Navy issued sailors with a daily rum ration (the daily tot).  In the 17th century, the ration had been beer– one gallon per day– but the the switch was meade the following century to rum in order to cut down on the weight and volume necessary to carry to meet that requirement.  The daily allowance was steadily reduced thereafter, until finally it was eliminated.

And so, on July 31, 1970, the last tot was poured as usual at 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11am) after the pipe of “up spirits.”  Some sailors wore black armbands, tots were “buried at sea,” and in one navy training camp, HMS Collingwood, the Royal Naval Electrical College at Fareham in Hampshire, there was a mock funeral procession complete with black coffin and accompanying drummers and piper.  The move was not popular with the ratings (enlisted personnel), despite an extra can of beer being added to their daily rations in compensation.

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Measuring out the tot (diorama aboard HMS Belfast)

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Written by LW

July 31, 2020 at 1:01 am

“There was a clarity to the Nineties”*…

 

90s

 

From Captain Marvel (set in 1995) through reboots and revivals like Twin PeaksFull HouseRoseanne, and The X-Files to the recently announced re-reunion of the Spice Girls, we are awash in 90s nostalgia.  But perhaps we’d be wise to rethink our rage for the retro… and to do our best to learn from that history…

North Americans tend to take a rather rosy view of the nineties, with some pronouncing them as “the last great decade.” That was the title of a three-part documentary TV series that aired on the National Geographic Channel in 2014. The following year, a New York Times commentary written by Kurt Andersen – an alumnus of Spy magazine, another fixture of the nineties zeitgeist – wore the headline, “The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously.” Mr. Andersen went so far as to suggest that the decade “provoke[s] a unique species of recherche du temps perdu” that puts it apart from the usual cycles of nostalgia. “[L]ooking back at the final 10 years of the 20th century,” he wrote, “is grounds for genuine mourning: It was simply the happiest decade of our … lifetimes.”

Mr. Andersen seems to make a compelling argument on the nineties’ behalf. For much of the decade annual economic growth in the United States averaged around 4 per cent, a number it’s only since come close to matching now. Unemployment, he wrote, shrank to new lows, median household incomes grew by 10 per cent, and stocks quadrupled in value. Here in Canada, the decade got off to a rougher start economically, with the country going even more deeply into recession than the United States in 1990-91; and then, mid-decade, enduring a period of severe restructuring that saw dramatic cuts to social spending thanks to ballooning federal and provincial budget deficits. By the last years of the decade, however, Canada’s economy was in a similarly healthy position, in time to enjoy such other fruits of the nineties as Viagra and the internet, with all its democratizing, utopian promise. It was the decade, too, when we first became tethered to our mobile devices, with market penetration of cellphones nearing 40 per cent by 2000, and the way we consume culture and interact with politics began to evolve to the point we’re at now, after decades of staying more or less the same.

Mr. Andersen neglects to acknowledge how income inequality would spike during the decade, or that some combination of technological change and newly signed trade agreements would contribute to the hollowing out of the North American manufacturing base that working people depended upon. Near the end of his essay he allows that the decade was not without its problems – noting the failure to heed the growing danger presented by climate change, and how passage of the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, with bipartisan majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress and the support of President Clinton, would help pave the way for the financial crash of 2008. Of these problems, however, Mr. Andersen blithely remarks, “But they weren’t obvious, so … we were blissfully ignorant!”

Which is entirely the point. In the introduction to his 2008 essay collection  Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, the historian Tony Judt argued that, in time, we would come to regard the period between the fall of communism (1989-1991) and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as “the years the locusts ate: a decade and a half of wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Quite suddenly, Mr. Judt argued, we fell under the notion that history could have little to teach us, except in the most narrow triumphalist sense. “With too much confidence and too little reflection we put the 20th century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market.”…

In an essay eminently worthy of the read, five-time National Magazine Award-winner Chris Frey argues that our nostalgia for the 1990s obscures the story of how the decade created the crises of the present: “How the Nineties are coming back to haunt us.”

* “There was a clarity to the Nineties. It was pre-9/11, before that anxiety kicked in that exists right now about the financial crisis or terrorism. We were all just going to move forward into the millennium and everything was always going to get better. Then, whoops, that didn’t happen.”  – Carrie Brownstein

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As we learn from the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that Auburn Calloway, a Federal Express employee facing possible dismissal for lying about his flight hours, boarded FedEx flight 705 as a deadhead passenger.  He carried a guitar case concealing several hammers and a speargun, intending to crash the plane after injuring the flight crew in a way that would seem consistent with an accident; but the flight crew succeeded in subduing him.  At his trial it emerged that he was trying to commit suicide in a way that would allow his family to collect $2.5 million in life insurance proceeds.  Calloway pled insanity, but was convicted of air piracy and attempted murder and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences; federal sentences are not subject to parole, so he remains imprisoned at Lompoc Penitentiary.  The aircraft, N306FE, is still in service.

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N306FE

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Written by LW

April 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In a lot of places, of course, the ’80s had never really come to an end”*…

 

 

frankie-goes-to-hollywood

Frankie Goes to Hollywood: You have woken up under your high school gym teacher.

 

Simple Minds: You have tasted a scented pen.

Mike and the Mechanics: You have thrown a Rolodex at a raccoon or skunk.

Peter Gabriel: You know what Fimo tastes like.

Roxette: You have injured yourself with a Q-Tip.

Madonna: Your bedroom smells like Midori.

Tommy Tutone: You have attempted to use a Polaroid picture as an ID.

Eurythmics: You have lost a mood ring in a hot tub.

The Smiths: You have read aloud to a hamster, ferret, or turtle.

Def Leppard: You have used a package of lunch meat as a pillow.

Psychedelic Furs: You have worn sunglasses through an entire tooth cleaning…

Consult a (very complete) list to find out “what your favorite 80s band says about you.”

* Nick Harkaway, Tigerman

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As we revisit yesteryear, we might recall that it was on this date in 1082 that “Valley Girl” by Frank Zappa and his then 14-year old daughter Moon Unit, entered the Billboard Pop chart at #75. It peaked at #32 in August.  Written by the dad and daughter and performed by Moon Unit, and intended as a parody, the single popularized the Valley Girl stereotype nationwide; following the song’s release, there was a significant increase in “Valspeak” slang usage, whether ironically spoken or not (not the least of which was the film, Valley Girl).  Indeed, Zappa later sardonically observed that, despite his rich body of work, he was likeliest to be remembered as a novelty artist for “Valley Girl” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”

220px-Frank_Zappa_Valley_Girl_single

 

 

Written by LW

July 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We are homesick most for the places we have never known”*…

 

It is fascinating to note that from the early modern era to the twentieth century, the word nostalgia primarily indicated a disease, whose causes, symptoms and cures were debated. Nostalgia’s test-case was Swiss soldiers abroad who missed their home and were depressed. (It is not an ancient Greek term at all.) Immanuel Kant in particular was much vexed by the supposition that going home could somehow satisfy the longing for a lost past, which, he insisted, must remain unsatisfied by definition. Nostalgia in those days was a technical term used and discussed primarily by specialists. In the twentieth century, however, the word has become fully demedic­alized. It now means little more than a sentimental attachment to a lost or past era, a fuzzy feeling about a soft-focus earlier time, and is more often used of an advertising campaign, a film or a memory of childhood than with regard to any strong sense of its etymology, “pain about homecoming”. Victorians talked with passion about their feelings for the past, longed for lost ideals, and, as one would expect in an imperial age, often talked about travelling home, in overlapping physical and metaphorical senses. They also theorized such feelings and dramatized them in poetry, art, music and novels. But “nostalgia” is a major term for us, not them. In this sense at least, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

I can’t help wondering whether this shift in usage does not betoken a broader shift in politics too, or perhaps in cultural self-understanding…

Mosey (carefully) down memory lane at “Look back with danger.”

* Carson McCullers

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As we agree with Proust that “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” we might send epigrammatic birthday greetings to Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra; he was born on this date in 1925.  Berra played almost his entire 19-year baseball career (1946–1965) for the New York Yankees. Berra is one of only four players to be named the Most Valuable Player of the American League three times; according to  sabermetrician Bill James, he is the greatest catcher of all time and the 52nd greatest non-pitching player in major-league history.  Berra went on to manage the dynasty of which he was a crucial part, the Yankees, and then the New York Mets; he is one of seven managers to lead both American and National League teams to the World Series (as a player, coach, or manager, Berra appeared in 21 Fall Classics). He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Berra is also remembered for the “unique”  observations on baseball and life with which he graced reporters during interviews:  e.g., “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical,” “It’s déjà vu all over again,” “You can observe a lot by watching,” and “The future ain’t what it used to be.”  In The Yogi Book, Berra explained, “I really didn’t say everything I said. […] Then again, I might have said ’em, but you never know.”

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Written by LW

May 12, 2017 at 1:01 am

“There’s a good deal in common between the mind’s eye and the TV screen”*…

 

Not your correspondent… but might have been

It’s widely suggested these days that we’re in a “Golden Age of Television”… but hasn’t the history of the TV been one long Golden Age?

In case of fire, 82% of 20th Century Americans surveyed in the pre-Internet era would rescue the TV set. The other 18% would stay still watching the thing and ask, ‘What fire?’ America loved the magic box…

More glimpses of Americans and their tubes at “Found Photos: Mid-Century People Standing By Modern TVs.” Volume Two here.

* Ursula K. LeGuin

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As we tune in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1998 that Frasier set an Emmy record, becoming the first to take top honors for outstanding comedy series five years in a row (a record currently tied by Modern Family).  Frasier won a total of 37 Primetime Emmy Awards during its 11-year run, breaking the record long held by The Mary Tyler Moore Show (29).

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Written by LW

September 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

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