The bad ol’ days. Or not.

What is the future of nostalgia?

Used to be, nostalgia was a warm and fuzzy kind of word, conjuring up images of a kinder, better time, and concomitant thoughts. Whether that was all true was, of course, another matter.

But now, what of nostalgia? Does it even have a future? There’s so much out there that appears to have not. A future that is. So why should nostalgia be any different?

This is a new question surfacing in the light of how nowadays – Covid-crisis, dumbing down of politics, a simmering rage in every conversation of import, the point-of-no-return rapidly being reached in environmental collapse and climate change – the pernicious thought is gaining hold that these are not the best of times.

So in looking back at them, nostalgia may well be tainted and sour. It was considered so in the bad ol’ days too. I learn that in the seventeenth century, “Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches, and a trek through the Alps would cure nostalgia. In 1733 a Russian commander, disgusted with the debilitating homesickness rampant among his troops, buried a soldier alive as a deterrent to nostalgia.” That would work, ey? This in a review of Svetlana Boym’s 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia. I’ve checked; it’s not in the Auckland Library system – your best bet is Amazon. Personally, I’d opt for the tramp in the Aps, thank you.

In those days, ‘nostalgia’ doubled as one of the descriptions for what we would now call clinical depression. It’s true the past may be conceptualised in many ways. And it certainly is dangerous if nostalgia is sweetened into a Disney-fied version of the past. We do it a lot in New Zealand. But our country in the 1950s (say) was a lot more sexist, racist, and uninformed relative to now. We were environmental vandals too. It’s just that with such limited population pressure, this last attribute hardly dented self-made myths.

So, even at the best of times, nostalgia needs a reality check. Maybe the whole concept needs an over-working. What is the point, anyway, of recalling and mythologising the past? You could say it’s a useful way to make sense of the present; and to understand the vectors and trajectories of history. If only not to repeat previous mistakes. But so much of nostalgia – in the current definition of it at least – is about the soft-focus view beloved of romanticists. The rosy past.

The impressive American writer (though she lives in Poland) Anne Applebaum has these observations about our issue this week: "And then there's another kind of nostalgic who doesn't just miss the past or wonder about the past, but who actually wants the past back as exactly as it was. And usually this is an idealized vision of the past. You know, back when we were great again, or back when the traditions were still in place, or back when we were still whole. And this is, by the way, a very common feeling in societies that are rapidly changing or modernizing." As almost all are – ours included.

She distinguishes between ‘reflective nostalgia’ – where we think about the good ol’ days (even though they might not have been); and the far-more-dangerous ‘restorative nostalgia’, where there’s an imperative in some conservative circles to actively bring those days back. You see this in campaigns to, for instance, return to the days of the laws written by men controlling a woman’s choices about her body.

So how will we look back to this not-so-good year 2020? It is a fulcrum of history, to be sure. But as new possibilities arise out of it, will we rise to the new route presented by this pivotal hinge-point? Will we begin living sustainably, properly, and in the long term? – as we have demonstrated we can in short periods of lockdown. Yes, we can do this, even if some whingeing about restrictions exists.

But some people, somewhere, are always complaining about something. It’s how they know they’re alive. Or will our future backwards view see us returning to BAU (Business as Usual) – that same BAU-Sheit that has got us to the verge of so many ecosystems collapse, and frightening, near-unstoppable self-reinforcing cycles of climate change and global warming? Will we be able to look back to New Zealand of 2020 and say that was a turning-point election in a turning-point year? One where we committed to a real fight against climate change? Where our promised targets in emissions reduction were made real? Where we chose to protect 30% of our ocean waters as marine reserves?

Because, the thing is, we can do this. And so make the Future of Nostalgia – and our mokopuna – viable again. Perhaps the greatest challenge to the Future of Nostalgia is whether or not we can look said mokopuna in their eyes and say we did the best we could. And so make these the days of the course correction that saved us – and more importantly them, and the other species they will share the new world with.

That would be a good future for nostalgia.