Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

I remember, I remember


For the ancient Greeks nostalgia was the ache that a traveller far away from home had for returning home. It was saddening. But it could inspire them to press on journeying even when to do so seemed hopeless. Today nostalgia is associated more with a sedentary life. It is the sweet and sentimental ache that we might feel for an imagined past. It distracts from the present demands of life’s journey. Despite its association with self-indulgence, however, the place of nostalgia in personal and in political life is worth revisiting.        

Most of us have images of past events and places in our lives, most deeply of our childhood, which are invested with magic. Their world is simple, full of unalloyed joy and of promise of something beyond the everyday. Our later memories of them, which may be triggered by similar places, may stir in us pleasure, gratitude and longing for the something beyond our daily lives. As Paradise places they may evoke desire to return to the enchanted world they represent and sadness that it lies in the past. If nurtured they act as a compass bearing that establishes where our lives now stand in relation to what matters most to us. They also give us energy for the future. They are of the past but they make us grateful for the present and shape our hopes and so perhaps our plans for the future.

The images of nostalgia are always gilded. They are selective and unchanging in contrast to the complexity and randomness of a fuller recalling of our childhood. In this we recognise that the perpetually sunny day was frequently rainy and cold, that the trusting child was often beset by anxiety, that the amity of sibling relationships was often quarrelsome, and that the total and lasting happiness of the Paradisal image was in fact transitory. The unalloyed delight represented in the image excludes the pain and transience that were part of the reality.

Our recognition of the selectivity of images that engender nostalgia suggests that within it is a double process. The images reflect a process of enchantment that creates a magic world. Also integral to nostalgia, however, is a process of disenchantment in which we realise how partial and timeless is the child’s view of a world that in reality is more complex and transient. In nostalgia the hope and joy recalled in the paradisal image is matched by a corresponding sadness that this is a paradise lost.

The challenge posed by nostalgia is to hold enchantment and disenchantment together. The latter is a necessary part of adult life, as is the larger vision of something more that is preserved in the child’s vision. It is potentially a destructive process, whether fuelled by self-doubt or the malice of others. Those whose memories we deconstruct are likely to be resentful. We may be attacking something precious to their identity and to their hope for the future. In the Odyssey, Penelope’s suitors who trashed Odysseus’ dreams of homecoming paid a heavy price. If we give our own lives to deconstructing dreams, hopes and idealised memories, they may be admirable for their honesty but ultimately lacking in humanity.

Childhood memories of course, can fuel nightmares as well as happy dreams. In creating the future we can be either crippled or energised, encouraged or discouraged, by the memories of the past.


'In nostalgia the hope and joy recalled in the paradisal image is matched by a corresponding sadness that this is a paradise lost.'


What is true of nostalgia in personal lives may also have its counterpart in public life. Our imagined view of the past shapes our view of what the future of society should be. Nostalgia may also account partly for the heat in ‘culture wars’ that set those who want to keep sacred an imagined past and those who wish to deconstruct it.

This can be seen in the place that the Biblical creation stories have had in Christian societies. They portray an idyllic world of peace and harmony between God and human beings, of plenty, leisure and companionship. It is a garden scene seen simply through a child’s eyes. In the Christian imagination it provides an image of a caring God and of what the world could be like. It also provides a license to help make it so. Though providing enchantment, however, the story of creation also includes disenchantment through Satan who suggests a meaner and more worldly-wise interpretation of God’s motives. The subsequent stories of the world of the patriarchs display a constant tension and flux between enchantment and disenchantment.

The heat of the debates about the truth of the Biblical creation story is not surprising. These debates have usually been described as a conflict between science and faith. From the perspective of nostalgia, however, they have also been a cultural struggle between those for whom this simple image of the childhood of the world provided enchantment, a safe place in the world and a hope for the future, and those engaged in disenchantment. The former perceived the latter as stripping away the magic of the world, safety from within it, and hope from the future. Those who dismissed the historicity of the stories, of course, may well have had other childhood images that underlay their commitment to scientific rigour. Both sides brought more to the debate than the logic of their arguments.

‘The heat of contemporary cultural debates may also reflect the dialectic within nostalgia. The image of a world of brave British settlers arriving in an empty continent and founding a prosperous, just and harmonious society in Australia is a comforting myth that gives people standing in their world and also shapes a hope for the future. Those who are comfortable with this image are naturally upset when people point out the complexities. The more so when they propose the image of native Australians at home with one another and their environment, only to be invaded, depopulated and subjugated by European invaders who remain strangers in their own land and rightfully demand justice. The conflict is less about facts than about imaginings of the world, one European focused and the other Indigenous, each grounding identity and hope for people. 


'This constant process of enchantment and disenchantment leads to re-enchantment.' 


This conflict between images of beginnings is seen even more clearly in the recent debate in the United States about the decisive moment in the formation of the nation. The accepted view is that the key event was the 1776 Declaration of Independence. The challengers nominated 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in colonial Virginia. Historians, the great enchanters and disenchanters, have debated the evidence for the proposal, but the deeper issue lies in the power of the two imaginings of the two accounts to confirm or disturb a sense of identity.

Cultural debates provoked by nostalgia are tedious. They are generally not self-reflective. In our personal lives we generally find a better way to deal with nostalgia. We move beyond the detail of our child’s imagining while treasuring its core, and situate it in a more complex mixture of stories of our past. Nostalgia preserves the power of our memories to give us a place in the world and hope for the future, while allowing us to enlarge our understanding of the world to accommodate others’ stories in a fuller reality.

That may also be the best path to follow when reflecting on cultural nostalgia. In dealing with the different visions of Australian beginnings we might affirm the settlers’ image of a life labouring to developing the land as a source of identity and hope. We might include it, however, as a moment in a larger story of a people who lived respectfully on the land and who draw on this story as a source of identity and hope. Both these stories then can be complemented and brought together by ethical and historical reflection on the fatal intersection between the two stories. This constant process of enchantment and disenchantment leads to re-enchantment. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Couple looking through their old photos. (BraunS / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, nostalgia, culture wars, values, history



submit a comment

Existing comments

How to turn nostalgia into neuralgia in one easy phrase: "...invaded, depopulated and subjugated by European invaders who remain strangers in their own land and rightfully demand justice." I know writers can't help themselves but we've been taken from empathetic, silvery ASMR rivulets of childhood's remembrance to the fingernails on chalkboard grating of something that isn't a "remembered" event; there's no nostalgia in something you didn't experience. Nostalgia would be remembering with a child's naivety the sentiment of learning the struggles or challenges of colonists to survive in their new environment or perhaps intermingled with a new found sadness that it may not be true. This is a novel approach to visiting the sins of the forefathers on their progeny; personally, I don't buy into the guilt trip; it wasn't me and it wasn't anybody I know. I'm wholly disinterested in finding a nationality origin to besmirch today, particularly if the "justice" sought is perverted. It's a repressed memory session of some event that subtly contrives to nominate perpetrators to blame; they're dead now. It's not the history that alienates me from listening, it's not a walk down memory lane... but a condemning phraseology mixed in a hypnosis session. Watch the watch.

ray | 02 December 2021  
Show Responses

Indeed, Ray; I side with you if you're asking when memory can be set aside and forgiveness kick in. I suppose that only that strange Unnameable Thing we call God can answer that one. Beyond that, of course, one perfectly understands why denial throws a wordy lifeline to some eloquent White (and many inarticulate?) Black males.....

Michael Furtado | 11 December 2021  

Who will buy, a bit of heaven?
Gold and silver have they place
But happiness is before your face
Man’s spirit is a timeless thing
The Father gives us music to make it sing
Capturing things from long ago
Memoirs of love and of woe
“Do you remember the buttercup or lamb in spring?
The gentle hand that to school did bring
Was there a friendly word given by Mum or Dad when you were sad
Did the Sun ever surprise sending sparkling visions before your eyes?
Or the silvery Moon peep its head from cloud as you laid upon your bed
As the wind blew your hair were birds singing in the air
Standing by the roaring sea as it showed its majesty
Did the stars seem brighter than the morning dew, as they showed themselves to you?
If to all of this you can say no, we have further yet to go
Do you remember the pain of birth?
As you arrived here on earth
As raindrops on a windowpane is your life just the same
Will not the rainbow show its self again?
Does terror stalk you through the night?
Did not the frost ever bite?
Did not God give you sight
Are you frail and old?
When winters gone does not spring unfold
Have loved ones returned to clay
Does not all flesh go that way?
Do your prayers seem in vain?
Where has virtue gone? Her lovers to sing her song
Let nothing dark or evil in
Will you not hold (Grasp) the Father’s hand and say I want to understand
If we do not seek, how can His love we repeat
If you hide your frailty and sin
You collude with evil and it will win
‘When sin is hidden it creates its own prison’
The Christian heart can take no part
The Spirit will surprise, if in humility, from the light within we do not hide
Leading us into the fullness of life (Heaven).
So is an act of humility too much to ask; please consider continuing via the link
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 03 December 2021  

"On Reading a Book of Poems by Children"
Their minds are full of possibility,
their offering their reward;
they sing of giants, ships and maps,
of magic woods and caves and dwarves . . .
Fresh . . . clean as snow before it melts . . .
they talk as if they know
only the sunlit garden
before the shadows fall,
the yard before the gates are closed
or years have time to build a wall . . .
As voices call me from the page
- oblivious of youth and age -
somewhere inside this unlocked cage
a child is rising, running to meet them.

John Kelly | 03 December 2021  

I wonder if there's much room for nostalgia in Nigeria if you've been captured by Boko Harem?
"The small children are being used as suicide bombers and having absolutely no idea whatsoever what is going on," John Campbell told VOA, "but if you take older children, 13, 14 and 15 years old, particularly girls, as far as we can tell they are very often orphans."

"They are very often promised immediate entrance into heaven as martyrs, and their position in this earthly life is pretty terrible," VOA June 2019.

Happy childhood memories are the entitlement of the privileged few. In WA I wonder how the victims of child abuse reminisce about their childhood. "Boys who reported sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Christian Brothers in Western Australia were often abused by the brother to whom they complained, a royal commission has heard.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard that boys have been subjected to torture, rape and beatings by Christian Brothers in four childcare institutions since the 1950s." Guardian 28 April 2014.
Nostalgia for the past is a luxury Australians can ill afford. With Beijing pressing economically and waging cyber warfare, buying infrastructure and imposing tariffs from without, threatening to nuke us if we side with Taiwan, bankruptcy and crippling of Australia is their true intention.

Francis Armstrong | 03 December 2021  
Show Responses

I hear your pain, Francis, and commend your vast and unrelenting coverage in ES of global child abuse. Never forget Newcastle, where I worked for some years and which you've yet to tick-off on your list. No one should have to wait until the conversion of the Jews before you share your pain on that front. It seems broken people need to share their broken experiences if we are at all to survive.......Thank you for this.

Michael Furtado | 11 December 2021  

There’s a grievance, a sense about a grievance, and a sense of grievance. Intergenerational trauma, as a phenomenon, exists, but whether it is a sense about a grievance or a sense of grievance needs to be cleared up because a sense about a grievance is, like a workplace injury claim, the settling of a definable injustice, while a sense of grievance is a neurosis.

roy chen yee | 04 December 2021  
Show Responses

I sense there's pure poetry in there somewhere, Roy, somehow struggling to be born....

Michael Furtado | 11 December 2021  

The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse...

Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken.

T S Eliot Ash Wednesday

Edward Fido | 06 December 2021  

Andrew has drilled down into our everyday experience of nostalgia revealing its comforting, challenging and concerning dimensions. A little more attention to the phenomena which prompted the ancient Greeks experience of aching to be back, immersed, in their homeland may shed some light on the strident demands and unruly behaviour which, has entered our political domain.

Taking our cue from Jung's diligent and cautious probing of the zone where consciousness gives way to the unconscious, it could be that ancient ache for the homeland had a twofold source: a need to be nurtured by familial faces and places as a relief from dealing with ever new locales, languages, laws and mores. As humans, we have an abundance of coping mechanisms – but they all have limits. Perhaps those ancient Greeks were overcome by novelty fatigue and craved a dose of 'the same old' of their youth. After all, modern day airports and hotels have a basic sameness of layout and furnishings to help to modern day traveller rest in familiar surrounds.

And so, an outbreak of nostalgia for these ancient travellers could lead to a cathartic camp fire – where tales of shared coming of age rituals in loved landscapes could move on to retelling the tales of known heroes; such that sleep could take each one into dreamland where their homecoming would share, in some measure, with Odysseus' return to Penelope and Telemachus.

Today, unfortunately and worryingly, many of our contemporaries feel little nostalgia for their political homeland – as they make do with life on the economic margin and witness reliable employment and the promise of wage growth retire further into an unattainable horizon. Their limits to coping with the law of ever shrinking expectations should not be over taxed – exploring new camp fires of inclusion needs to be on our agenda.

Bill Burke | 06 December 2021  

I imagine, too, Bill Burke, that Odysseus and his crew had had their fill of the shock of the new in far off Ilion, and, similarly, over a millennium later, the Athenians on the banks of the Assinaros in their abortive Sicilian expedition where Thucydides graphically describes the cries of grown men for their mothers, children, wives.

John RD | 07 December 2021  
Show Responses

John - I noticed in another of your posts to Michael that you may have a lessened presence in this conversation arena in the new year. I hope your other concerns will not be too onerous, and will permit you to contribute your always well resourced, pertinent and lucid opinions. As I remember, our first exchange involved some of Newman's thinking - so, perhaps we can borrow from a saying he frequently employed 'Oremus pro invicem.'

Bill Burke | 13 December 2021  

My thanks, Bill - Newman's "Oremus pro invicem" is a very welcome, apt and practicable desideratum.

John RD | 14 December 2021  

'(May) Mars be always in your windy tongue and in your flying feet.' Go well!

Michael Furtado | 04 February 2022  

Memory is a tricky thing and modern Psycholgy does not cover what are known as "faith events". These days those who witnessed The Transfiguration would be regarded as either having smoked pot or hallucinating or both simultaneously. The traditional epics, like Beowulf, are often as much about the inner working of the mind as historical truth. Jung would probably see Grendel as a Negative Anima projection. Sometimes folk memory is remarkably true, as in the Irish folksongs 'Skibbereen' or 'The Rising of the Moon'. Much Scottish Neo-Jacobite stuff is incredibly maudlin. Bonnie Charlie was lucky to have escaped with his life. It was only Highland honour and extreme bravery in the person of Flora Macdonald which saved him. Sometimes we reconstruct the past and make heroes of villains, but there were real heros, like Joan of Arc. Real history is not just what happened but is also in our blood. My ancestors were there when England became Anglican. Some of them were C of E clergy. I believe its part of my cultural DNA. Jung believed in something like that.

Edward Fido | 08 December 2021  

A lovely piece about the healing sweetness that nostalgia can bring to bitter and sometimes unforgiving memory. This is happening to me as I age and in regard to my father. Great Thanks, Andy, for your superb words in helping me to come to terms with this.

Michael Furtado | 09 December 2021  

Michael F, if you are having problems with memories of your father, welcome to the club. I find these memories are part of psychological growth and not to be repressed nor moralised about. They are definitely not a religious problem, but a normal psychological one. Normal people do have normal psychological problems and sometimes a good professional or something like a Grow group can help. (Caveat emptor!) Be careful of posting too much really personal stuff on these forums, as there are some nutters and voyeurs around. Most people here are fine, but there are some extremely odd ones.

Edward Fido | 13 December 2021  
Show Responses

A timely reminder, thanks, Edward. Pardon the Actonianism, but I wasn't so much into breast-beating as reflecting on the relationship sons tend to have with their fathers, and which are often more complex than the unconditional acceptance we tend to get from our mothers. This brought to mind the Story of Jesus and His experience at Gethsemane, when He faced His own 'High Noon' as well as major concomitant questions about His Father's love for him. I find in Andy's writing a great deal of spirituality relating to 'engagement with' the world as it is that I don't personally get out of the 'withdrawalist' models that crowd the retreat market. I hope that clarifies what I meant. And might that now resonate with your experience?

Michael Furtado | 13 December 2021  

There are also times when the personal cannot be disentangled from the ethical and political. Not to do so diminishes the intelligence of our readers as well as consolidates the delusional world in which we sometimes live. My life's work has been on Australian Catholic School Funding. I am nothing if not Catholic. Apart from my gayness, justice constitutes the touchstone of my life. My brand of Catholicism was what Margaret Clitheroe and Thomas More died for. She submitted herself to being slowly crushed to death (it took many days!) before they killed her in York. He was methodically hunted down, inch by inch, before he had nowhere to go. Although I was brought up in India, the heroism of these two characters remains etched in my consciousness, so that my weakness has given me the obstinacy to see beyond the everyday personal discontentment that Margaret Clitheroe and Thomas More must have experienced but set aside rather than betray the Jesus they both loved. We are called to be 'people for all seasons', which means that while simplicity and civility must hallmark our discourse, so also must we be open about the disclosures required of us 'for the common good'.

Michael Furtado | 14 December 2021  

Margaret Clitheroe and Thomas More - both outstanding and inspiring witnesses among "the great cloud" of the same, MF, for reasons including the one you identify. More's: "Pray for me as I for thee, that we may merrily meet in heaven", hold special appeal for me.

John RD | 23 December 2021  

Generous of you, John RD, to respond in similar terms. Let us do that for each other, as well as for all who participate in ES, at this auspicious time!

Michael Furtado | 27 December 2021  

Your quotation, John, reminds that one of the most pernicious attacks on More's character emerges from James Wood's hatchet job on him in 'The Broken Estate: essays on literature & belief' (Jonathan Cape, 1999).

Wood's attack on More, notorious for its bias, followed the egregiously puerile 'Hell's Angel' (BBC, 1994) and 'Missionary Position' (Verso, 1995) pulp fiction that Hitchens thrived on producing and which is dismissible by anyone with knowledge and experience of the complexities and paradoxes of India.

Back to Wood: he damns himself by attributing a taste for literary criticism to his upbringing as an Evangelical Anglican, a (these days) comically anti-Catholic influence he claims to have 'shaken off' but which he also admits in the same book to have coloured his fevered imagination.

Equally, there are those who have attempted to besmirch Margaret Clitheroe's character as that of a fanatical zealot; whereas all available historical evidence points to her simplicity, humanity and steadfastness in standing up to impossibly corrupt Henrician odds.

Michael Furtado | 12 January 2022  

Similar Articles

Where to now with Religious Discrimination?

  • Frank Brennan
  • 29 November 2021

On Thursday, three Bills were introduced to the House of Representatives: the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021, and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021.  Collectively, these bills constitute the Morrison Government’s response to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review provided to government in May 2018.   


Is democracy going down the drain?

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 24 November 2021

There is much discussion about the future of democracy, freedom and other aspects of liberal institutions. Mainly in the United States, under the pressure of a polarised public life. But also to a lesser extent in Australia, in the face of the evasive and authoritarian behaviour of governments and the manifest priority of winning elections over addressing the existential threats of global warming and gross inequality.