Nostalgia in Modernity

Something Professor Olsen said in lecture recently, about nostalgia being present in every time period, reminded me of the Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard. The film is about an aspiring writer who, while writing about a nostalgia shop, is transported back to Paris in the 1920′s and has the experience of a lifetime reliving what he calls the Golden Age of literature and creativity. The story captures the theme of nostalgia not only by definition, but also by studying the term’s interesting level of subjectivity; that nostalgia, although being a part of human nature, the longing or affection for better times past means different things for different people. With this in mind–and with an understanding from recent lectures of what nostalgia means to ancient Romans–I have a question;

what does nostalgia mean for us in today’s society?

To the ancient Romans, nostalgia was a fond remembrance of the Golden Age. Most ancient Roman writers identify 146 BCE as the year when most everything about the Roman people began to decline. This decline was considered to be the effect of two main events; the end of the Punic wars, and the influx of goods and slaves from conquered regions, i.e. Greece. The end of the Punic wars brought about what some referred to as the Punic curse, where, once Romans no longer had a strong enemy to fear, they gave themselves over to avarice, luxury, and vice. The huge influx of money, slaves, and art pouring in from Greece (whom some Romans considered to be soft and effeminate) was also considered a culprit of the decline. The decline to which Roman writers reference is mainly a decline in the private morality and religious feelings of ancient Romans. Two major ancient Roman works that present theories of nostalgia towards a Golden Age are Juvenal’s Satire and Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. Both of these works refer to a Golden Age of morals and religion that existed before the age of Caesar and lament the failings and atrocities, including moral licentiousness, of their present ages. Feelings of nostalgia were present and founded in ancient Rome; however, feelings of nostalgia differ from age to age, and as we study ancient Rome in a modern context, I want to look for examples of nostalgia in our own modern world.

Nostalgia is not the same for everyone, but it can be the same for groups of people. I am nostalgic towards classical music with the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, and I have friends who feel the same way; however, I also have acquaintances who think Justin Bieber (who probably doesn’t write his own music anyway) is more original than Johnny Cash. Just as an aside, there are many examples in our society of revival that mustn’t be confused with nostalgia. For example I don’t think our society’s taste for past fashion trends counts as an example of nostalgia because, in this case, the feeling has become a reality of revival. If I remember correctly, a fundamental part to Midnight in Paris is the idea that nostalgia can only exist as a feeling, and that fully reviving the past or reliving the past is dangerous to the mind. Nostalgia is a fundamentally a feeling.

With nostalgia, the good things of the past are exact opposite to the ills of the present. One major ill that I consider to be unique to our society, possibly even our generation, is environmental degradation. Just this past summer I was camping with my family and as we sat stargazing around the camp-fire, my father remarked at how different the sky looked from the times when he went camping as a young’n. Perhaps decades ago the experience of looking at the night sky was extremely breathtaking, and now because of light pollution and climate change it’s just another ceiling; not worth acknowledging. While longing for past natural environments of beauty is one example of nostalgia in our society, it is sadly not a feeling shared by many; in a world driven by the global economics of production this nostalgia refers to a good and bad story that has little to no importance in the fast-paced forward race our world seems to be in. Thus nostalgic ideas in our society seem to be minor and of little importance.

It may be that the idea of nostalgia is foreign to our society. The ancients seemed unashamed to admit their failings as a society once great and golden; but modernity is based on the forward motion of development and progress and seems to consider the past, although maybe worthy of legacy, as no longer valuable. Nostalgia does exist in our society–we see it in things like music and beauty. Overall as an idea in a modern society, nostalgia is an uninterpreted dream; interesting but the lessons remain undiscovered.

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