The Nostalgia Will Eat Itself

How our world of constant nostalgia is devaluing the very concept of nostalgia.

Nostalgia, in the right doses, can be a joy. Proust totally understood that when, in Swann's Way, he wrote about taking a bite of a madeleine that had been soaking in his tea and being transported back to his childhood:

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

Walking streets we knew as children, hearing a song that recalls a specific time and place, seeing a movie that imprinted itself on us when we were young - these are powerful things. In small doses. And privately.

We are drowning in nostalgia today, and every time I think it can’t get any worse the movie geek internet convulses with oral histories and lists to commemorate the anniversary of yet another mediocre film from 10, 15, 20 years ago. And through it all the same properties keep rearing their ugly, boring heads, properties that weren’t good in the first place and whose continued popularity seems to be largely due to audiences having a Pavlovian reaction to what they used to like. Look at how many adults are legitimately invested in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie to get a sense of this.

Nostalgia, when over-indulged, really sucks, but it sucks these days in two very particular ways. First, nostalgia is a conversation killer. When you like a work of art for nostalgic reasons - you saw it as a kid, your sick dad showed it to you before he died, it evokes memories of a magical time in your life - you’re not actually talking about that art anymore. You’ve left the art behind, just as Proust has left the madeleine behind. That quote makes for a shitty review of a cake, but it makes for a good discussion of the writer's childhood, and that’s what you’re doing. You’ve taken the conversation away from the art and made it squarely about you.

The big truth here is that nobody cares. Nobody cares what age you were when you first saw The Goonies, they want to talk to you about why it’s good or bad. And when your appreciation for a work of art is tied almost exclusively into your personal experience, any attack on that art becomes an attack on you, which is also a conversation killer. If I say here that The Goonies is a horrible piece of shit movie, I guarantee there will be people who get their feathers ruffled and feel like this is a personal attack because their nostalgia has internalized the movie to an unhealthy extent.

This doesn’t mean everything you liked as a kid is unworthy, although I imagine an awful lot of it is. If there’s something you liked as a kid that you still like today and you can articulate why you still like that thing in ways that go beyond “I saw it when I was eight,” that’s a sure sign you’re operating on a higher level. A level on which you want to be operating, one where you’re actually thinking about the stuff you consume, and one that allows you to actually have conversations with people about art. I grew up loving the Planet of the Apes movies, and I still do, and I think I can make a pretty convincing argument why these films are great - arguments that extend beyond the circumstances in which I first saw them, at the very least.

There’s a second, and more insidious, way that nostalgia sucks. It’s a very modern way of sucking, and it’s a kind of sucking that the internet has perfected - overkill. The sheer amount of nostalgia in which we traffic has absolutely devalued nostalgia in general. Let’s put it this way - if Proust was chowing down on those madeleines every single day, all day long, their evocative power would fade. The connection between that sensory experience and his childhood would become diluted by repetition; eventually they would just become some pretty good madeleines he’s eating a bunch.

That’s what the constant nostalgia cycle is doing for us online. I write this at the tail end of the 25th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, and I’m shocked by all the nostalgia I see for the movie. Not just because the film is pretty mediocre and largely interesting as a historical oddity, but because the film feels fucking omnipresent to me. Nostalgia works best when it’s a rare, when the feeling is bringing back memories and emotions that aren’t always at the forefront. A guy who never moves out of his childhood home has a very different response to walking in that front door than a guy who left home at 18 and hasn’t been back in 20 years.

We’ve never left the home of Tim Burton’s Batman, so I don’t understand how we’re able to wax nostalgic about it. So many of the things we celebrate in this geek culture we celebrate constantly; I don’t understand how someone can be nostalgic for Star Wars if Star Wars never goes away.

I mean, I guess I can, because we already established that reacting nostalgically to a work of art has little to do with the art itself and everything to do with your personal history, but at a certain point living with that constant nostalgia has to become nothing more than dwelling in the past. It feels fundamentally unhealthy.

Our obsession with nostalgia and anniversaries and living in the past hasn’t gone unnoticed. We all complain about reboot/remake culture, but it’s a direct reaction to the endlessly simmering nostalgia. We bring it on ourselves. Proust was writing almost exactly a hundred years ago, so modern audiences didn’t invent nostalgia, but we have perfected it. The Baby Boomers really honed nostalgia, fixating on Howdy Doody and the TV shows of their childhood. My generation, Generation X, hung on to all sorts of 70s bullshit in an irritatingly ironic way. And the Millennials have truly upped the ante, living in an almost constant state of nostalgia, often for things that happened less than a decade ago. Heck, I’m getting nostalgic for all those “Things Only A 90s Kid Will Understand” articles that dominated Buzzfeed two years ago. Last week I saw a Huffington Post headline that crowed about how a Harry Potter cast reunion photo would make your heart leap. The last Harry Potter film came out three years ago - this reunion isn't exactly a long time coming. This gives you a sense of how much nostalgia is catching up with us.

Done right, done sparingly, nostalgia is a wonder. There’s an endorphin rush that happens when you see a trading card or a TV commercial that you haven’t thought about in decades, a thrilling firing of the synapses as your brain dusts off old memories and begins reconnecting dots you forgot were even there. Events and people come rushing back, and you feel like you have jumped over canyons of years to return to a place long gone, like you’ve been granted a brief view of the machinery of the world. Everything has a sudden and bracing perspective. Proust said:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself.

“It was myself.” Nostalgia, done right, is an understanding of the self, a way of communing with the totality of your experience. You can’t carry all of that with you all the time - your brain would buckle under the burden - but short nostalgic leaps allow you to realize the wholeness of you. You can see, for a moment, the entire path you’ve walked. You get God’s perspective on time.

But as with any drug that high gets harder to reach with each repetition. What does the 25th anniversary of the release of Back to the Future III really mean if you’re constantly talking about and writing about and buying mash-up t-shirts of that movie? You wear away the specialness, and it’s not about getting high anymore, it’s about getting a fix.

I don’t begrudge anyone their nostalgia, just as I don’t begrudge anyone their fetishes. But like fetishes, nostalgia works best when it’s personal, when it’s private and when it’s practiced with those who you love and trust. I feel the same way when you tell me you like to spooge on feet as I do when you tell me why seeing Return of the Jedi in your local theater at age 7 was such a seminal event - good for you, please keep it to yourself.