Wednesday, March 03, 2010


The Past Isn’t Past

When I sat down, after over a decade of publishing journalism, criticism and poetry, to write novels – which is to say, finishing them; I’d been starting and abandoning novels since I’ve been 12 – there was no question that they would be historical. As in, set in the past. There are reasons I chose to write mysteries, and other reasons why I chose Ernest Hemingway as my reluctant literary sleuth, and that decision essentially decided the novels’ settings and eras. But the project had to be historical, not because I’m mad for historical fiction in particular, but because I’m mad for the past. I’m a nostalgist, I suppose, meaning, the world of the past grows for me in loveliness and vitality as the world of the present shrinks in pettiness and stupidity. Predictably, this ratio of feeling is widening as I age.

Nostalgia has gotten a bum rap in the last 40 years or more, mostly as a victim of academic English departments and the rise of postmodern theory. Actually, "nostalgia" as it was more or less redefined for all of us in the ‘70s, as we began to idealize and resurrect the ‘50s and then the ‘60s, initiating a cycle that grows notoriously shorter as it progresses and as our cultural technology speeds along, was always kind of thin stuff. Nobody can make a passionate case for Happy Days, Grease or Sha Na Na being deathless cultural gifts, or for their popularity being anything more than mass whimsy. Nostalgia embodied in the pop-culture arena can be as trite as anything that’s up-to-the-minute current.

And what’s more, it could be politically and socially poisonous, seen a certain way. The theorists, especially the feminists and postcolonialists, had reasonable stances against nostalgia, as an enabling ideology (stretching that term a bit) for ages of systemic misogyny and colonialist oppression. For hundreds of years women and Third Worlders paid the price of a romanticized British Empire (among others) and a sense of masculine prerogative that hearkened back to an easier, safer, more controllable past. Today, this is best embodied by America’s neo-conservatives, for whom the Eisenhower years were a golden age, and more extremely the "tea party" movement, which seeks to bring American public policy back to the 1800s, before Teddy Roosevelt passed the income tax.

I have no argument with this jaundiced view of nostalgia, and the hazards it recognizes. They could hardly be more real. But nostalgia isn’t a virus, and we don’t have to eliminate it like small pox. For one thing, the past is beautiful. History is beautiful. Proust, of course, makes the greatest and saddest case for this. Michael Chabon, admitting in an essay to suffering "intensely from bouts, at times almost disabling, of a limitless, all-encompassing nostalgia, extending well back into the years before I was born," makes a concise claim toward the impulse’s reevaluation:

"The mass synthesis, marketing, and distribution of versions and simulacra of an artificial past over the last thirty years or so, has ruined the reputation and driven a fatal stake through the heart of nostalgia. Those of us who cannot make it from one end of a street to another without being momentarily upended by some fragment of outmoded typography, curve of chrome fender or whiff of lavender hair oil from the pate of a semiretired neighbor are compelled by the disrepute into which nostalgia has fallen to mourn secretly the passing of a million marvelous quotidian things." ("Landsman of the Lost," Maps and Legends, 2008)

I’d be as happy as the next guy to blame the situation on rampaging commodification, as Chabon does, though I suspect a good many cultural pressures are responsible collectively. Whatever – if you belong to this tribe, Chabon provides you with an anthem in the next paragraph:

"We are not, as our critics would claim, necessarily convinced that things were once better than they are now, nor that we ourselves our parents, or our grandparents were happier ‘back then.’ We are simply like those savants in the Borges story who stumble upon certain objects and totems that turn out to be the random emanations and proofs of existence of Tlon. The past is another planet; anyone ought to wonder, as we do, at any traces of it that turn up on this one."

Here, here. This speaks to my sense of it – the past, in particular the past I never experienced, prior to the ‘60s, is beautiful and fascinating for being both forever unchangeable and forever unknowable, not "better" (as if we could choose) but different, fondly alien. And it seeps through our world, like a watermark. The past is a seductive arena because its tribulations and conflicts are already resolved, for better or worse; retrospection allows us to see the humanity and fiery pleasures of, say, the British homefront during WWII, Paris in the 1920s, or New York in the 1880s, in ways that the immediate stresses and distractions and crises of the time kept everyone from noticing. This is why Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is such a deathless document – not because it’s 100% accurate in its famous recounting of the ‘20s – it couldn’t be – but because it focuses on things and feelings that required time to debarnacle, cleanse, polish and reappreciate. If not for nostalgia, an entire way of seeing human society as it has passed through time would be lost.

As it is, so much is lost, and there’s little we can do to stave the flow, despite the obsessive efforts by untold armies of fiction and memoir writers, history teachers, record and book and antique collectors, archivists, old film lovers, obsolete model railroad fanatics, archaeologists, sports trivia nuts, drag queens, library lovers and museum workers. I’ll give you a taste of what I mean, what I find beautiful about the past: travel posters from the 1920s, early-century book engravings, the cavernous backseats of 1950s Oldsmobiles, the fey yet crystalline dramatic intention of silent movies, pith helmets, terra cotta architectural curlicues, old spice cabinets or specimen drawers, wallpaper (even today, wallpaper that strives to be modern is ludicrously ugly, and so most designs are conscientiously retro), console radios, living rooms not centered on TVs but on fireplaces, Studebakers, old leatherhead football helmets, gaslight, 19th-century newspaper logos, and so on. I prefer these things to their contemporary counterparts, but not because I actually want to live in the past in which these things were contemporary. That would ruin it – the iconography of life is ordinary to you whenever you live. No, I prefer them *because* they’re ghosts of an evaporated world. I posses a fiery ardor for them the way you do for the women you’ve loved and no longer know, the house that you grew up in but has since been bulldozed, and the grandparents about whom almost all you can remember is their smell and their sense of patience.

So, it’s small wonder that my novels would be set in the past – writing fiction, after all, is more fun and immersive than reading it. Who wouldn’t want to vacation in a previous era? With all the ways we’ve designed to escape our present moment, it seems almost an inherent tragedy that the past is inaccessible and lost. Who can blame us for swooning over its artifacts and residue?

Michael Atkinson is a longtime New York film critic and poet, and author of seven books, including the upcoming HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT, due in the summer of 2010. His website is

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