“We’ll always have Paris.”
— Rick, to former lover, Ilsa, in Casablanca (1942)
A magic to revisit our past
What makes us yearn to return to moments from our past? We all do it, to all sorts of varying degrees. Searching for this wistful, often beautiful, longing for times before.
Nostalgia helps us connect to our past and to relive moments stitched into memory. It’s a form of time travel that imbues our lives with more meaning, often claiming the ability to stabilise and strengthen our sense of identity and place in the world.
We are reminded of the millions of tiny moments that have amalgamated to make the person we are today. Our happiest moments, our achievements. Our own stories we can unravel to experience all over again.
Triggers of nostalgia can be physical, where something within our environment becomes the immediate catalyst to slip between years and slice through history. Often, it is a sensory stimuli, which comes by surprise, sending us back to a particular yesterday.
Sometimes, it is a smell. Perhaps, freshly cut grass pulls you back to playing cricket in shorts and a t-shirt, beneath the swaying trees at your uncles, while the family barbecue smokes. Your dad bowls a loose one and you smack it high into the branches – where it stays – as you build-up run after run after run, gleefully laughing, while the adults shake the tree trunk and your younger brother sulks.
Or a particular song plays, and woven within its lyrics and melody, a tapestry of feelings soundtracks a teenage love, a heartbreak, a first dance, or some other time-stamped emotion. For me, at nine it was Gloria Estefan’s ‘Always Tomorrow’. At seventeen, Weezer’s ‘O Girlfriend’. ‘Walkabout’ on Atlas Sound’s Logos (2009), cemented true love at twenty-one. While we danced to Bowie’s “Heroes” for our first dance as a married couple.
Alternatively, triggers can just as likely be born from our mind, especially if we are particularly prone to negative feelings, or find ourselves in a place of loneliness or despair. Our mental health can twist even things we used to enjoy into feelings of mistrust and agony.
I admire a lot of John Lennon’s songs, particularly the music-as-therapy John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970). But I struggle to listen to his song ‘Beautiful Boy’, because of how time has connected this to my dad and to illness. While as much as I loved being a part of the club in my youth, my home city football team reminds me of my broken body which abruptly halted a possible professional playing career – a body I continue to have to do battle with on a daily basis.
Our current mindset very definitely effects how we process feelings of nostalgia. Despite the pleasant flood of warm and fuzzies it might initially propel towards us, nostalgia almost always comes with a secondary sense of loss – that particular moment has happened, it’s gone, forever. How do we handle this loss?
I’ll never be that young again. I will never have that same opportunity. The timelines will never cross over in the same way. Time only moves one way. We’re never getting it back.
The roots of nostalgia
The Portuguese have the word ‘saudade’ to describe a deep emotional state of nostalgia, or a profound melancholic longing for something now absence in our life. A something that most likely will never return. A lost lover, or family member, someone who has moved away, or died.
Saudade has been described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone. The 17th century Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo once described saudade as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy”. It brings sad and happy feelings simultaneously: sadness for the something missing, and happiness for re-experiencing this past.
I’m sure, at particular points in time, we all can admit to sharing this feeling of saudade. A wish to return to another particular when.
The Greek word ‘nostos’ forms the root of the word nostalgia and means a longing to return home.
One of the earliest nostalgists was also Greek. We can read Homer and discover how Odysseus used the power of memories to bestow him strength on his hazardous journey, in order to return home to his family.
Similarly to Odysseus, who left home to fight the war in Troy, we’re often drawn to nostalgia during periods of transition. For Odysseus, and for many others who served in times of war, feelings of nostalgia have the ability to grow to such an overwhelming level, that by the 17th century many doctors considered it a psychological disorder. Whereby the visualising of the past can become such a constant daydream, it leaves the subconscious mind, and therefore the present, confused. This led to the Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, calling nostalgia a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause”.
Some theorists have viewed nostalgia as a negative mechanism – a way to retreat into safe and secure internal walls built on foundations of happier times, when faced with particular moments of upheaval, stress, or sadness.
The feelings of dislocation, or alienation, resulting from military conflict, is one major transition which can trigger nostalgia. But we don’t all have had to sail past the Sirens or take on the Cyclops as Odysseus did – or experience the intense fear and isolation of lying low in the trenches. We all experience potential triggers daily.
Maturing into adulthood, or ageing into retirement, are other very common triggers. All of us will, at some point, experience the feelings of moving house, schools, jobs, possibly even countries, either to live, or to temporarily long for home while on holiday.
Whatever the trigger may be, when our subconscious mind discovers our present is not as happy as a thread in our past used to be, it may make us feel nostalgic in order to help us feel better.
This might storm a wave of euphoria up from our heart to our mind, which motivates us to take a stand, to fix things, to bring the happy moments back into our lives.
Nostalgia can become a psychological resource; a well of evidence to draw up in times when comfort is needed. A useful tool to harness the past, to endure change and create hope for the future.
If, for whatever reason, we’re unable to push forward, we may get carried under by the weight of the waves of nostalgia and achieve nothing.
There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
— Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy (1320)
The Danish writer, Kierkegaard, wrote that our need to escape the present by keeping ourselves busy is our greatest source of unhappiness: “The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.”
Some believe that the more satisfied we become with our life, the less nostalgia we will experience, and the more productive we ultimately will be.
Content overload. Nostalgia repackaged
In recent decades, there has been such an incredible rapid growth and subsequent turnover of technology. This process, as more and more of our lives revolve around the digital world, has the ability to elicit a strong nostalgia for particular physical objects, moments, and memories. While the increasing concentration of digital content across so many channels has the effect of twisting and changing our own sense of what nostalgia means to us.
Marketing, particular brand awareness, has regularly milked nostalgia to forge an emotional connection with the consumer. But now there is so much content everywhere, literally at our fingertips, this has started to affect the way we process information and make memories.
With our ability to engage with limitless data, essentially anytime and anywhere, our attention spans have been shortened and transformed our ability to harness nostalgia in order to grant context and perspective.
Despite our wandering attention spans and constant data bombardment, we remain prolific producers of our own digital information. On smartphones and through social media, we document as much, or as little, as we want of our lives. This information is then stored essentially forever. Archived in the cloud. While nostalgia used to possibly arrive thanks to that particular song by Weezer playing on MTV, or a whiff of your neighbours freshly mown lawn; today, the past can be easily accessed with a few taps of our fingertips.
Our idea of ‘the past’ looks to be changing, because we are drowning in a meta-sea of data.
Millennials wanting to relive the past do not need to reach back as far as I do. An early-onset nostalgia has formed, where, because there is such an information overload, the sense of time compresses – just like 50,000 songs can be taken off our shelves, compressed into MP3s, and homed in our smartphones.
We’re nostalgic for things only a short distance away. British comedian James Acaster released the book, Perfect Sound Whatever, in 2019 (itself taken from a Jeff Rosenstock song) about all the albums he bought in 2016, which he hyped, with absolute sincerity and passion as “the greatest year for music of all time because it’s my greatest year for music of all time”.
Some may think that honour should belong to 1969, or 1991 – name any year, from the mid-nineties backwards, really – it couldn’t possibly be from an age only three years gone? It can to James, because the music from this year connects in complicated ways with his own personal traumas which were coexisting.
Perfect always takes so long
Because it don’t exist
It doesn’t exist
- Jeff Rosenstock, ‘Perfect Sound Whatever’ (2016)
Time seems to move quicker, because most things are instant and readily available. Our smart phones bring us access to a form of magic. We live our lives on our phones, and for many our phones become our lives.
And because of this, our phones becomes our memory, in both a literal and symbolic sense, and our most accessible avenue to nostalgia. Not just in the fact we can view years of photos in the cloud in an instant, but also how every status we have ever written could be bounced back to us through apps such as Timehop. Giants such as Facebook and Apple drive the nostalgia experience for us, to the point we can view our own nostalgic conveyor belt for infinity.
Does, therefore, our use of social media as a memory archive eliminate the need for nostalgia at all? Will our own nostalgia become a redundant phenomenon?
Will these often treasured moments of surprising nostalgia fade as we lose our own ability to archive? Our words (in texts and emails and tweets) and posted images set to be buried in the virtual graveyard. Will we even lose authorship of our own story?
The past is the future
We are in the age where nostalgia, particularly in what we view and digest, is of a massive attraction to big business. Every week, new box-sets of old television series are being listed and promoted across streaming services for new generations to watch. With this, how we view the media of the past, but now watched through the present zeitgeist, affects our nostalgic appeal of texts.
Take Friends (1994–2004), a much loved, long-running series, but in recent years there has been many a narrative written around the show for being problematic – issues of a lack of progressiveness, a lack of diversity; it’s sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. It’s probably not too unreasonable now to imagine a super fan of the original run of the show to look back through ‘nostalgic-bombing’ glasses and totally write-off the show (and with this all the many hours of enjoyment originally watching the show).
We may become hesitant to dip too deep into a nostalgic text, in fear of upsetting a memory, or reframing meaning.
I still think that Mario Kart (1992) on the SNES is the best version of the game, namely because of the context of when I most enjoyed playing it – not when I originally was gifted the console and the game, but ten years later, playing it with my housemate Tom at university in the evenings in between studying film history and playing highly competitive games of table tennis. The game represents a very precise, locked-in, moment of time.
To spin this idea on it’s head. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) deliberately, and paradoxically, celebrates and glamorises history, by revisiting and altering it, mixing it with different postmodern levels of fiction, creating a new grand narrative for entertainment. Literally rewriting history to change the outcome of Sharon Tate’s murder.
Similarly, Stranger Things (2016–to present), although a very well written romp, complete with appealing characters, and stories with numerous twists and turns, regular moments of mayhem and mystery, a rampant mix of fear and humour, would it have been as successful if it wasn’t set in the 1980s? And such a hyperreal version of this decade as well? The show is more 1980s than the decade ever was, becoming a total simulacrum of reality. A new area of Disneyworld to take a ride on (minus the queues/stream on-demand), where a section of the audience are in on the joke.
Dead media revival
We’re used to working agile in software development; building up towards something fit for purpose through iterations. And this has seeped through to the media and beyond.
A lot of things are reiterated, rather than made off plan to a completed product. From Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo (2016), an album deemed unsatisfactory immediately after its release, with tracks soon pulled and parts re-recorded, to video games that are never complete out of the box, with updates and downloads always on the horizon.
Brilliant TV shows are rebooted, classic films are remade, for no other reason than for profit and to flog them to a new audience. There’s too many bad examples of these to even try to list just a handful.
Originality is a lonely commodity, rarely popping up in the mainstream. It is still there, but with the sheer glut of content, it can take a little patience and perseverance to mine the gold in the dust.
It feels as though everything is in a state of flux. There is no time to settle. A film can be remade in a matter of years. Time is circular and within this chronological whirlpool nostalgia’s shadow gets spun shorter.
Let alone nostalgia for films, we can even feel nostalgia for iterations of websites. For trends that have had their day (and occasionally come around again): MySpace, Pokémon, cassette tapes.
Think of the connotations of the great novel. Of classic cinema. Trends come and go, but even material, so long connected to strong traditions such as the printed word or a Hollywood film, are now facing the threat of becoming obsolete, or left behind by increasingly ephemeral digital successors.
The rise of streaming services means more films are being released straight to Netflix or Amazon Prime, with limited cinematic releases, bringing an art form designed for the big screen to our smaller screens. Likewise, I’m more likely to see fellow commuters reading their e-books, rather than a physical book on the train.
I’m all for choice and accessibility across media. But I am a purist when it comes to owning, or borrowing, a real book. Not one to shy away from an e-text, but to me there is something special, almost spiritual, about taking a book off the shelf, opening a new novel for the first time, flicking through the first few pages, and starting chapter one. I love placing a bookmark and using it as a measure of progress through a plot. There is a sense of swimming slightly without direction in an e-book – stuck somewhere between point A and point B of an arbitrary megabyte size – lacking the physical sense of journey, a book I can hold, yields.
How we listen to music is another sign of the times. How one media type rolls in all shiny and shouty, offering the best listening experience, ever. Before it soon becomes superseded by another shinier, shoutier, bit of tech.
Cassette tapes have seen a resurgence in recent times because of their relative cheap cost to produce and share. I’ve gone from throwing all my cassettes away (RIP the greatest mixtapes in the world ever), to collecting new ones from bands at gigs, or shiny, limited edition ones, coming in every colour of the rainbow.
In part, this habit is one fuelled by a nostalgia for the days of the Walkman and being a wannabe DJ, tape-to-tape recording off the radio. But, also, because of the desire to hold something tangible again, something unique and physical. I love MP3s but I can’t hear the sound of tape rewinding (aside from on YouTube, where you can search for any sound effect imaginable) and the clunk as it reaches the beginning again.
Music nostalgia is an area of personal intrigue. I own so much digital music, but still retain physical albums, mainly on CDs, a few vinyls. Many artists and labels choose to release digital only for financial reasons. But there are a rising number which are celebrating the physical addition. Not just releasing a CD, but creating a bespoke product in terms of packaging and associative extras.
Fluid Radio is a fine example: take the ambient compilation album, Place Language (2019) – true, it’s digital only because of its running length, but the packaging the download code arrived in is beautiful, with hand-drawn liner sheet and an inspiring essay by Robert Macfarlane offering introduction and context.
While, Spanish sound designer Edu Comelles’ latest album Still Life (2019) is not only a beautiful sounding album, it is beautifully packaged, using re-assembled vintage (circa: 1880–1950) hardback cloth-bound books. The package also includes a collection of writing, prints, library cards, vintage books marks and more. This is a fresh, DIY take on reusing the past to celebrate the present. A recycled physical product being used to promote new physical art. A cribbed nostalgia rewritten for the present.
Don’t neglect the present
So what have we learned? That nostalgia comes and goes. It twists and changes depending on our mentality and place. It both grounds us and stabilises us. Occasionally, it can be heavy going.
It might even be disappearing, drowning in the flood of rapidly created, and just as rapidly consumed and/or ignored, content.
As time compresses, our memories compress, too. Align this with our shortened attention spans, it may be more common to be nostalgic for the previous year, as it was for a generation ago.
It’s highly likely I will re-read this article again in the dark January months of next year and feel a certain saudade for the person I was when I wrote this. In fact, I think I can already feel a twinge of melancholy rising.
Cherish your memories, but always strive to make new ones. Value the physical, as well as the emotional. Love the photo stored in the cloud, but occasionally print one out and gift it to a relative.
Grant life to our shared words and pictures and don’t leave them to erode meaning in the virtual graveyard.
Even better, express your love or gratitude for a person face-to-face, in the moment.
Make a moment that will be remembered in that moment, as well as in many other moments in the future.
We own our past. We can craft our future. But while we are doing so, let’s remember to not neglect the present. Live and love for today.