Friday, June 11, 2010

Of nostalgia

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The notion of nostalgia intrigues me. I am one of its victims. Suffices that the moment be past for me to remember it with nostalgia. 

Isaiah Berlin discusses it in his book "The Roots of Romanticism". He looks first at the notion of depth, as in a piece of art or a thinker which we might call "deep". According to him it's also something that was born with Romanticism, this idea that there is always more than meets the eye, than meets the brain. 

From there he explains that because we can never reach totality, because infinity is out of our reach we can only turn around and pine for the past. While thinkers from the Enlightenment believed firmly that the future could be perfectly satisfactory  if we found the right way - the right laws, the right rules -  to reach it, the Romantics aspire to heights, to impossible perfection. I have a lot of admiration for Berlin's thinking but I am not convinced by his explanation of nostalgia. it seems to me a case of a thinker pushing a triangular object into a circular hole within his system and explaining how perfectly well it fits. Isn't there more to nostalgia than a lack of faith in the future? And nostalgia is common to other cultures besides Romanticism. I had always thought that the nostalgia expressed in African American culture had been passed down by ancestors deprived of their homeland. But I wonder if it's does not find its origin in Africa's own very strong brand of nostalgia in many of its cultures, hear Ismael Lo (below). 

My curiosity has been pricked, i'm going to keep on investigating. Any comments or suggestions welcome.

Ismail Lo:

Salif Keita:

Contributed by  - -  Arabella Hutter


  1. Beautiful, nostalgic songs. What about the painting? What is it, and why? Is it nostalgic.

  2. Thanks for pointing out I overlooked the title. The painting is called "Two swallows and a weeping tree", by Kiang Liang, a Chinese painter. Is it nostalgic? I think so. I was hoping to find examples of paintings of nostalgic woman looking at landscapes, which I know exist, but have not been able to locate them if you know where I can find them!

  3. My friend Sara pointed out to this coincidental article in the New York Times:

    Thanks, Sara!

  4. nostalgia is a wonderful subject, i suspect a very human one, though i'm not a bird or an ant. all i know is that much of my writing and rumination is necessarily nostalgic. it keeps me believing the warmest times might happen again.

  5. Love the idea, the image of the nostalgic ant, reminiscing dreamily while perched on a tired twig - your next short story? I bet some animals experience nostalgia, dogs, chimps, of when they were small and they mom groomed them carefully. Or of the wild sex they had when they were young and handsome.

  6. Depends. Nostalgia toward what?

    Sometimes it can drain the present.

    I am tired of people talking about their youth in the seventies.

  7. one's past is one's present. so are future plans. and it all disappears before you can tack it to the wall. jon