Nostalgia is denial!” proclaims the smug pedant played by Michael Sheen in Woody Allen’s terrific new movie, Midnight In Paris. He’s poo-poohing the craving of protagonist Owen Wilson for the bygone era of Paris in the 1920s, a Mecca of creativity and artistic ferment idealized by Wilson’s character, Gil, a Hollywood scriptwriter with a Pinocchio-like urge to become a “real” writer.
Does it count as “nostalgia” to crave something you’ve never actually experienced? Lots of people (especially those of us who write historical fiction, and the majority of those who read it) do feel sometimes like we were born in the wrong era. Who doesn’t occasionally have a pang of yearning for some simpler past time when communication wasn’t so instant, media wasn’t quite so mass (or massive), and a person had time to, you know, sit and think once in a while?
Allen sets us up to resent Sheen’s pomposity and cheer on Gil when he escapes into his fantasy of ’20s-era Paris: talking shop with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, clinking champagne glasses with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. But guess what? The joke’s on Gil (and the audience) as the movie progresses, and escape into the past proves to be no solution for problems in the here and now. When Gil meets a Frenchwoman in the ’20s who longs, in turn, for the belle epoque Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin, Allen suggests that obsession with the past can become the serpent that swallows its own tail, an endless cycle of turning backward as opposed to facing the present. Gil has to make the decision to stay lost in the past or turn the page.
There are two kinds of people in the world. No, not male and female; not even Red and Blue. There are those who habitually look forward to the future, and those who are perpetually gazing backward to the past. Those in the former category are the most engaged in life, with new plans and new projects compelling them onward every day. But the latter group, those who long for the past as an alternative to everyday reality, are the most likely to get stuck in time.
I’m not talking about people who have managed to make the past their profession, local historian Ross Gibson, say, or musicologist Ukulele Dick. For curators, historians and preservationists, the past is their present, and their future. I mean people in the grip of longing—and this is what I think of as nostalgia—for a time in their own past in which they remember feeling more secure, happier, and/or more in control of their lives. People unduly fixated on their glory days in college, or their military service, or the long-gone days of their children’s babyhood often seem to be the least able to adapt to the present day. Remember when they used to say the best years of your life were in high school? Think how awful that would be if it were true.
Art Boy and I have just come back from a week in the Midwest at a family reunion—four generations of siblings, cousins, spouses and children, doing the delicate Dance of the In-Laws at close quarters. (Ten adults, one bathroom, no homicides; who says there are no miracles?) By far the happiest people in the group were those who were excited about the future: the architect brother with a slate of challenging new projects ahead of him; the sun-worshipping sister with a new community services job in the Virgin Islands who’s building her dream house on St. Thomas.
But the proof of the pudding is Art Boy’s mom and clan matriarch, Helen Aschbacher. Six years a widow, she astonishes the family with her perseverance. At age 90, she still drove her own car, worked as a seamstress, and went to the gym. At 91, she got rid of all but her most cherished things, sold the too-big house in the Illinois suburb where her family had lived for three generations, and moved north to the tiny hamlet of Spooner, Wisconsin, to be closer to relatives. She was determined to do this “before I get too decrepit,” when she could still be of use to someone. She’s spent the intervening year fixing up her beautiful little duplex apartment, getting her Wisconsin driver’s license, locating a new church (and a new gym), and getting on with her life. She always has a new project in the works. She is never bored.
“The past is prologue,” as Prospero says in “The Tempest”; it shapes and nurtures us, but it was never meant to be the entire scenario of one’s life. How can it be? It’s over with the turning of each new second; the minute you started reading this column is already a memory. Time only moves in one direction. We can’t go backward, as far as we know. (If we could, wouldn’t someone from the future have dropped in on us by now? Hmmm … well, considering the state of our present, maybe not.) We can only go forward, or else run the risk of coming to a screeching halt. The past is a great place to visit, but who wants to live there? Old memories are to be cherished, but new memories are just around the corner, ours for the making.
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