Nostalgia and the globalising world — from Thomas Hardy to 2010

Chinese artist MA Leonn's Nostalgia 24

I have lately been reading Thomas Hardy [2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928]: Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Now when I was teaching English my classes and I had a few laughs at Hardy’s expense, particularly about some rather risible moments in Tess of the Durbervilles, and I have always loved the apocryphal story about Hardy’s heart being eaten by a cat as it was waiting transport for burial in his beloved Wessex; the rest of Hardy lies in Westminster Abbey.

One of the great drivers in Hardy’s work is nostalgia, in his case for a pre-industrial Britain. For example, in Chapter 22 of Far from the Madding Crowd we read:

They sheared in the great barn, called for the nonce the Shearing-barn, which on ground-plan resembled a church with transepts. It not only emulated the form of the neighbouring church of the parish, but vied with it in antiquity. Whether the barn had ever formed one of a group of conventual buildings nobody seemed to be aware; no trace of such surroundings remained. The vast porches at the sides, lofty enough to admit a waggon laden to its highest with corn in the sheaf, were spanned by heavy-pointed arches of stone, broadly and boldly cut, whose very simplicity was the origin of a grandeur not apparent in erections where more ornament has been attempted. The dusky, filmed, chestnut roof, braced and tied in by huge collars, curves, and diagonals, was far nobler in design, because more wealthy in material, than nine-tenths of those in our modern churches. Along each side wall was a range of striding buttresses, throwing deep shadows on the spaces between them, which were perforated by lancet openings, combining in their proportions the precise requirements both of beauty and ventilation…

This picture of to-day in its frame of four hundred years ago did not produce that marked contrast between ancient and modern which is implied by the contrast of date. In comparison with cities, Weatherbury was immutable. The citizen’s THEN is the rustic’s NOW. In London, twenty or thirty-years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone. Five decades hardly modified the cut of a gaiter, the embroidery of a smock-frock, by the breadth of a hair. Ten generations failed to alter the turn of a single phrase. In these Wessex nooks the busy outsider’s ancient times are only old; his old times are still new; his present is futurity.

So the barn was natural to the shearers, and the shearers were in harmony with the barn.

I must say I have relished Hardy; there is some beautiful writing in those novels. Hence the Best Read 2010 tag.

Nostalgia is amazingly powerful, especially in periods of profound change.

The term nostalgia describes a longing for the past, often in idealized form. The word is a learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος, nóstos, “returning home”, a Homeric word, and ἄλγος, álgos, “pain” or “ache”. It was described as a medical condition, a form of melancholy, in the Early Modern period, and came to be an important topic in Romanticism.

In common, less clinical usage, nostalgia includes a general interest in past eras and their personalities and events, especially the “good old days” of a few generations back recast in an idyllic light, such as the Belle Époque, Merry England, Neo-Victorian aesthetics, the US “Antebellum” Old South, etc. Sometimes it is brought on by a sudden image, or remembrance of something from one’s childhood.

It is easy to see how this connects with globalising processes, both as a coping mechanism and sometimes as a quite fierce reaction. Al Qaeda, to take an extreme case, is driven in significant measure by nostalgia for a golden age of a partly imaginary caliphate when all was well with the world. Needless to say not all nostalgia leads to violent extremism, but it can.

See Nostalgia and the Local in an Age of Globalization by David K. Moore, University of Northern Iowa — a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association Chicago IL April 15-19 2004.

Let’s confess: I too experience nostalgia, but we must always be on our guard about it, a point which emerged for me in an excellent essay by Australian writer Louis Nowra in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald. This resonated very much with my own memories.

…Don’t get me wrong; all national identities are fabricated out of a mixture of illusions and sanitised history. Anyone who has lived in the US and has seen the hungry and homeless knows how different the reality is from the promise that everyone can achieve the American Dream. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has been threatened with jail for acknowledging that Turkey was responsible for the Armenian genocide of 1915.

Each nation has its reasons to fashion its sense of national self around lies and wish fulfilment, and Australia is no different. The intriguing thing for many creators is that our contemporary lives and national characteristics are more complex and morally dubious than what Australians would like to believe…

In a few generations Australians will hardly remember any politician from this era or find in their speeches and articles anything that tells us about what it was to be Australian now. The best way to find out what was happening in our society and how we truly viewed ourselves will be to read our novelists and playwrights, and see our films.

Unfortunately, people like my Uncle Keith are still held up as great examples of the admired Aussie bloke. His brother, my uncle Bob, discovered the joys of theatre after fighting in World War II. I told him the advice his brother had given me. ”That’s nonsense,” he said. ”Be different because Australians love to destroy anything they don’t understand by bringing you down to their level.” He was probably right.

painting source