Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

The Truth of Nostalgia

May 22nd, 2017 by G.

I have nostalgia for lives I’ve never lived.

I was just driving through a tiny foothills Spanish colonial landgrant.  There are a few small adobes, willows and cottonwoods by the streams, a twisted apple tree, a few cattle, stacks of firewood, everyone related.  And I felt a strong sense of the distinctness and value of their life.  And an attraction, like nostalgia.

That’s what the best tourism usually is.  Nostalgia for unlived lives.  Imaginative communion with them.

Of course, if I actually chucked my life and wormed my way into that land grant, I would discover the many defects in their mode of living.  But even if I didn’t, the thing I felt nostalgia for would slip out of my grasp.  I would much better be able to explain what was real and different about their life, and I would have a deeper, truer kind of affection.  But the thing I was looking for would stay out of reach.

Just as with the traditional nostalgia for the past–“you can’t go home again.”

Moderns usually think that this inability to reach it means it doesn’t exist.  The nostalgia I feel for the past, the romance I feel for other lives, they are all fake.  The prosaic, flawed experience from the inside is the real thing.

But this is the same flawed thinking that Lewis pilloried in the Pilgrim’s Regress.  The Giant has a kind of x-ray vision which renders people transparent so you can see inside them.  “See,” says the Giant, “beauty is a fraud because that beautiful woman is really pulsing wet guts.”  But there is no reason to privilege the Giant’s vision over the ordinary kind of vision.

Nostalgia is as much the truth about the past as the humdrum broken present of the past was.  Glory is as much the truth about war and heroism and the fearful nasty fighting is.  Romance and courtship are as much the truth about marriage as the sick kids and unpaid bills are.

We can’t keep both perspectives within the circle of the world.  We are either in or out.  But in the time to come, when our mortality is married to eternity, we will do both.  We will be nostalgic for the past that we have, in fact, gone home to.

Comments (6)
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May 22nd, 2017 10:20:35

Bruce Charlton
May 22, 2017

Yes indeed.

Tolkien, too, captured this sense of an ungraspable remote beauty, that recedes as approached — Yet in the Heaven of ‘Leaf by Niggle’ it is possible to Be In that distant forest while yet it retains all the romantic qualities accorded by distance:-

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.

Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful-and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle style-were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.

The birds were building in the Tree. Astonishing birds: how they sang! They were mating, hatching, growing wings, and flying away singing into the Forest, even while he looked at them. For now he saw that the Forest was there too, opening out on either side, and marching away into the distance. The Mountains were glimmering far away.

After a time Niggle turned towards the Forest. Not because he was tired of the Tree, but he seemed to have got it all clear in his mind now, and was aware of it, and of its growth, even when he was not looking at it. As he walked away, he discovered an odd thing: the Forest, of course, was a distant Forest, yet he could approach it, even enter it, without its losing that particular charm. He had never before been able to walk into the distance without turning it into mere surroundings. It really added a considerable attraction to walking in the country, because, as you walked, new distances opened out; so that you now had doubled, treble, and quadruple distances, doubly, trebly, and quadruply enchanting.

You could go on and on, and have a whole country in a garden, or in a picture (if you preferred to call it that). You could go on and on, but not perhaps for ever. There were the Mountains in the background.

They did get nearer, very slowly. They did not seem to belong to the picture, or only as a link to something else, a glimpse through the trees of something different, a further stage: another picture.

May 22, 2017

That is the stuff.

May 22, 2017

Perfect. Weirdly I was thinking about this a couple of days ago.

May 24, 2017

I have felt this exactly. And it’s a great consolation to me that somehow, when we are like Hod, the past will (even “alternate pasts”) will not be lost to us.

May 24, 2017

Er, that’s “God,” not some sort of divine bricklayer I meant.

May 24, 2017

There is but one great Story, but it is told in a million variations in a thousand cultures.

Judgement day may bring wrath for the wicked; but for the blessed, it will be a great gathering in which we listen to each in turn as he tells his version of the Story. And is told by our Master that it is very good; it is all very good.

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