I was talking with a friend today about nostalgia. He was not attracted to it; I admitted its pull. Here’s a definition: “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.”1 The definition seems appropriate. Thinking of a street and a neighborhood, of the trees and the people, of a certain moment in the solar systems long journey around the center of the Milky Way, fills me with joy; thinking of how it all has or will vanish, fills me with sadness.

Do I desire to go back? For a few hours maybe, to see that world from the outside, to see if my memory is accurate, to experience its beauty. But not to be in it, from the inside, as a ten or twenty year old. Who would want to actually be young again, to return permanently? Fools maybe, but no others. The wise love that the past was once home, that it molded them, but they no longer desire to live there. As Tennyson said:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

Would I live my life over again? Maybe, if the other option was oblivion and I could learn more the second time around. But not to live in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. 

I will continue to reminisce, but I reject traveling back in time even for a moment. If I did I might be disappointed; the past might not be as good as I remember. And then I would have lost something special … good memories, however flawed.


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8 thoughts on “Nostalgia

  1. I tend to agree with you. I am very reminicient. Though, I think it really depends on the life you experienced. There are people I’ve known, almost the entirety of my life, that if I were them I would not be so nostalgic.

    I would go so far as to say that I wouldn’t mind hitting a rewind button to 15 as long as I was able to take my knowledge with me. I don’t have regrets, the knowledge I have came from the mistakes I’ve made but, I wouldn’t mind a few do-overs.

    Maybe nostalgia is a natural, evolutionary trait that helps us make better decisions as we get older. Even if our nostalgia is is not a correct memory it is usually favorable. Is it possible that our favorable nostalgia helps us make more favorable, confident decisions in the future.

  2. You are right; if you had a mostly memories then there would be no joy in reminiscing. And I also agree I’d go back if I could take my 60 year old experience to my 20 year old body, yeah I’d go for that. I’d definitely take do overs. I think it is so stupid when people say “I wouldn’t change a thing.” Really? Then you didn’t learn anything. Your final idea is fascinating and I’ve never thought about it. Off the top of my head it does seem there would be some survival advantage for minds that replayed the past and learned from the replying. Of course explaining advanced traits like this is tricky and critics say it is hard to explain all of our tendencies as bestowing some survival advantage. And there is something about the narrative or story we tell ourselves that impacts what we do now. I’ll have to think on all this more. So much to think about. But thinking’s fun.

  3. Can think of two valid reasons to be nostalgic.
    #1. Is obvious: we were younger in the past.

    #2. The world was less entropic.

  4. especially at this stage of my life, I am definitely obsessed with childhood nostalgia, but in reality it has started years ago. I don’t necessarily want to be a child again, but experiencing the special things I experienced then. I started to observe that the more I grew older, the better my childhood seemed, and I was not wrong. There are too many reasons why and it is a huge topic, but for example, I will never forget those Christmases I experienced until the age of 10 or so. There was magic, I could feel it in the air. Then this entire world vanished. I have not celebrated Christmas for decades, because obviously to me it has no meaning now.

    I think that to answer questions such as: “do I desire to go back?” we have to ask another question first, or rather two: “Who am I? “ in the sense of “what has my life been like then, and what is it like now?” and “Why would I go back?”. My answer is “I would definitely go back. And in eternal recurrence, even.”. (but only while being unaware of this state, of course). There are too many special things that I had then, that I do not have now. They would be very hard to express into words, too. An analogy with a known piece of literature, is in the main works of Marcel Proust, where he re-experiences after a long time how a madeleine tastes. But I don’t think it’s about the madeleine, but about how “more colourful the world seemed then”. For example, I found on ebay all the comics I had read when I was 8; for me it was an incredible and moving experience to read these fantastic stories again.

    I remember how I felt then, I had no worries on my mind except that stupid place called school, and some people being weird and hostile, but never inside our home, which now seems a paradise. I was loved, I was free, I felt full of life, what can be better than that? Every time I could buy a new comic, I would run to the newsagent and carefully deliberate for 10 or 15 minutes which one I should buy. Then I would choose one and run back home, leaping for joy. I felt blessed. (I also liked to SMELL the pages of my new comic book). My mom would give me her wonderful smile and hugs and would prepare me a succulent sandwich, I would wolf it down and bury my head in the new comic book, lost in a fantastic world.

    Of course, these things are only meaningful to me; other people have had soccer or cotton candy instead of comics, for example, or more likely, several of these things together. Granted, this means that my present life isn’t that good. In fact, I feel old already, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not overly bad, but life is lived in a disillusioned state at best. As Leopardi wrote in his Zibaldone: “We need illusions, and we need them hour by hour, too. For having no illusions means one is in a state of sorrow and emptiness.” But, and this is a big but: if you are not overly obsessed with your childhood memories and related nostalgia, i.e. you can say “Yes it was good, but today is pretty good too”, then I think that this is the optimal balance. If you say “it was really bad!” then this has been a grave misfortune.

    I feel really sorry for people who have had a bad childhood. Even having not overly bad, but distant parents, I think is sad. I have been lucky in this respect. And of course, your reminiscing should never be an excuse to try to escape the present….when it’s time to take action, I do so (although it’s often hard to even get started). I don’t sit around all day thinking about my childhood, but I admit I do it often, several times a week I retreat into those fantastic memories for a few minutes. It is a very personal world for each of us and it will never be repeated through eternity. It was the time when the world seemed colourful and exciting.

    For me, it feels as if I were an alien who lived on a distant, wonderful planet for a short time, and then my spaceship crashed on this weird, weird planet. It’s not a complaint (who wants to hear that? not even I), just a realization. Truthfully, it does feels like it’s all been a mirage. But, again, mine is not a complaint at all, just rather ‘cold’ deliberation. Or as cold as it can be.

  5. something interesting about childhood nostalgia is that in ancient times, it seems that people in fact did not have a “childhood”. I heard that in a lecture from The Great Courses (I don’t recall the title of the course but it dealt with how ordinary people lived in ancient times, instead of just how Alexander or how other famous people lived). And of course, I have been mentioning childhood nostalgia, but for other people could be nostalgia for a different phase of their lives. I am thinking of Bertrand Russell: his childhood had not been good, both his parents died when he was small, and he felt alone, but then at Cambridge his life rocked (but you John know all this already about Russell).

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