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I remember, I remember

  • 02 December 2021
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