On Nostalgia and Memory

This article, titled, "When Nostalgia Was a Disease", from The Atlantic is worth noting during our times when it appears as if many Americans have become almost pathologically nostalgic for a past that never existed - the all-white, suburban world portrayed in 1950's television programs like "Father Knows Best" and "Leave it to Beaver."


"Obviously the prevailing view on nostalgia has changed over the years, to the point where we now actively cultivate it with GIF-laden lists and VH1 specials, and rarely, if ever, die from it. But advice on treatment from French doctor Hippolyte Petit is as relevant to someone clinging to the past today as it was to a soldier driven mad by a milking song hundreds of years ago: 'Create new loves for the person suffering from love sickness; find new joys to erase the domination of the old.' Or, just let it go."

But, there is a danger in thinking that all references to the past are nostalgic. Christopher Lasch wrote about nostalgia in the preface to his great book, The Culture of Narcissism. In that work, Lasch differentiates between our need to learn from the past and feel connected to it and nostalgia.

Here is a quote from Lasch:

"In a narcissistic society - a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits - the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist's inner life. A society that has made 'nostalgia' a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present. Current dogma equates every such reference to the past as itself an expression of nostalgia"

People frequently tell me that I am an analog guy in digital times. My preference for paper calendars and work journals is seen as quaint or nostalgic. And they may be right - however, "new modes of consumption" all come at some cost.

Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Neil Postman's "Technopoly."

"You will find in Plato's Phaedrus a story about Thamus, the king of a great city of Upper Egypt. For people such as ourselves, who are inclined (in Thoreau's phrase) to be tools of our tools, few legends are more instructive than his. The story, as Socrates tells it to his friend Phaedrus, unfolds in the following way: Thamus once entertained the god Theuth, who was the inventor of many things, including number, calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing. Theuth exhibited his inventions to King Thamus, claiming that they should be made widely known and available to Egytians. Socrates continues:

'Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went through them expressed approval or disapproval, according as he judged Theuth's claims to be well or ill-founded. It would take too long to go through all that Thamus is reported to have said for and against each of Theuth's inventions. But when it came to writing, Theuth declared, "Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom." To this, Thamus replied, "Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm that will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality; they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant, And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to Society."