Keywords: Nostalgia

Darryl Campbell observes that the past is a dangerously easy thing to embrace.

I always dread the moment when I feel like I’ve started to put down roots in one place, because inevitably that means I’m on the cusp of leaving. I’ve moved 22 times in my life already, and I’m about to do so again in two months, almost in time for my 25th birthday. That means that I’ll have moved, on average, once every thirteen months. How lucky I am.

One of the few virtues to living such a peripatetic life is that it allows me to hoard nostalgia. According to Don Draper, nostalgia is “a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone,” and it can be shocking how often and unexpected those twinges can be. They accumulate with every relationship severed, every suitcase packed, every “let’s-keep-in-touch” email sent. That unheimlich feeling that you get when you see someone for the first time in twelve years and realize that although their hair and clothes and eyesight might not be the same, there’s still something familiar about them is nostalgia too. If anyone ever feels like a melancholy, nostalgic soak, I’d suggest fetching yourself a nice glass of whisky and clicking through the Facebook photo albums of those of your high school friends whom you haven’t seen in a while.

In other words, nostalgia isn’t the sole preserve of retirees, grandparents, and college professors. Instead, it’s an easy self-indulgence, one that requires nothing more than an ironclad belief that things used to be better.

And that makes nostalgia a very fraught thing. It’s perfectly possible, for instance, to feel nostalgic about things that you wouldn’t ever want back. Take, for example, the poor reception to the recent remakes of Knight Rider and The Day The Earth Stood Still, or the half-resurrection of the new wave band The Cars. On a larger scale, the aftermath of the second World War still “exercises a powerful hold on the British imagination,” according to historian Robert Hewison, even though nobody would ever want to go back to postwar Britain. Clearly, some things are better left in the past.

Meanwhile, feelings of anxiety or helplessness in the face of large, impersonal forces, can trigger that kind of politicized nostalgia that, as the perpetually red-faced, foaming-at-the-mouth Frank Rich will tell you, can turn into screeches of resentment and calls for the arresting of all political change per se, in the name of a golden age that never really existed. For example: Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s attempt to promote “Confederate History Month” was an attempt to conjure up the romantic, Gone With The Wind-type images of antebellum Virginia without all that messy slavery business. Or the firestorm over the Texas Board of Education’s historical revanchism (“Texas Gives the Boot to Liberal Social Studies Bias,” reads the state Republican Party’s blog), in which matters of historical interpretation were settled 10 to 5 along party lines. Beware politicians who wield the past for any reason.

It’s not the case that this is the only mixture of politics and memory that’s based on half-remembrances and partial truths, of course (there are still plenty of viable Communist parties in Europe!). But nostalgia, because it’s so easily accessible, has a nasty way of turning into unthinking reactionaryism, as our friends in the Tea Party have a way of reminding us at least once a week.

To quote Milan Kundera: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” In other words, it’s better to leave nostalgia where it belongs, as a sentiment that’s best suited to private thought rather than public action. (I leave the question of cultural nostalgia open for debate; after all, no remakes whatsoever means no Bewitched on the one hand, no Battlestar Galactica on the other).

Which brings me to the point of all this hand-wringing. The idea for this series, Keywords, came from a book of the same name, written by Raymond Williams in 1976. That book tried to explain those kinds of words that everyone knows the definition of until they think about it a little bit harder — art, culture, society, liberalism, and so on. It was a modernist project in every sense: it sought to delimit, once and for all, the lexical boundaries of these words and the sum of human knowledge on them. A big task, even for such an influential literary critic as Williams.

This series, on the other hand, has been much more solipsistic, and intentionally so: who am I to hold forth about huge abstractions, when I can barely wrap my mind around my daily experiences? In that sense, it was a really more of an in-joke that only I knew about (until now, that is). But the study of concepts is a bit limiting — one should either go big or go home, and I guess I’m not interested or patient enough to write a book along the lines of Mark Kurlansky’s Cod just yet.

I thought about ending with the kind of treacly platitudes that seem to be appropriate for such occasions (here’s what I thought of just now: “In the end, everyone has to find his or her own keywords.” Get it?). But I’ll refrain, just this once: after all, it’s time to move on to the next series of self-indulgences.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.