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Nostalgia: A Powerful Force for Good, or an Evil and Sneaky Manipulator?

By Petr Knava | Think Pieces | November 28, 2017 |

By Petr Knava | Think Pieces | November 28, 2017 |

Nostalgia can go fuck itself.

Okay wait.

Let’s track back for a second.


There are a lot of Big things happening in the world right now.

In America, the Weinstein and Spacey revelations have broken the seal of silence around the systemic sexual violence that sits over Hollywood like the thick, toxic cloud of pollution that blanketed Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Women, emboldened by the bravery of their sisters and galvanised by the anger and the despair unleashed by the Trump administration are rallying and beginning to take control of the narrative. They are mining despair and turning it into action and hope.

In Britain, a resurgent and confident Left led by Jeremy Corbyn has similarly taken control of the country’s political narrative. In the shadow of a disastrous and self-serving Tory Brexit, a potential reversal of several decades’ worth of reactionary politics is on the cusp of becoming a reality. For the first time in over a generation, there is the sign that real change might be possible.

In the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia continues to ruthlessly pummel Yemeni civilians in a brutal, one-sided ‘war’. 7 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation thanks to Saudi Arabia’s blockade, and 150,000 children will likely die from malnourishment in the next few months. Civilian infrastructure is being systematically destroyed. The Saudis are aided and abetted in this butchery by Western arms companies acting in tandem with their respective governments, and nobody seems capable or willing to do anything about it. We are complicit in genocide but this does not, apparently, matter.

In what is for now still called ‘Spain,’ the people of the region of Catalonia have inadvertently revealed some fundamental shortcomings and hypocrisies woven into the fabric of the European project. A Catalonian call for independence is met with a repressive crackdown by a fascist-descended government, and a vacuous response from the heads of state of Europe follows. Just like with the crushing of Greece only a few years before the veil of ‘democracy’ is briefly pulled back and the true nature of the supranational entity that is the EU is revealed.

As I say: A lot of Big things.

There are always Big things happening. They never stop happening.

This post isn’t about any of them. This one here is about one of those small-scale, personal things.


It feels perversely indulgent these days to talk about anything but the Big things. But you know what? Sometimes it’s just necessary.

So this small personal thing is about nostalgia.

I have this thing with nostalgia.

The thing is, is that it can go fuck itself. That’s a phrase that I have had to repeatedly tell myself out loud over the years. ‘Go fuck yourself, nostalgia.’ It’s one of the few personal mantras that I employ. I don’t have many, but I have a few. Some are stolen from great figures in the past, others my own creations. Usually it’s pretty obvious which one is which. For example, if you were to hold up ‘Go fuck yourself, nostalgia,’ and ‘It doesn’t matter how slow you go, so long as you do not stop,’ I’d say it would be relatively easy to tell which one was the ancient Confucian aphorism, and which one the modern day Knava saying.

So why, ‘Go fuck yourself, nostalgia’?

Nostalgia is many things, both good and bad. It can be a source of joy, a warm comforting blanket of familiarity to occasionally swaddle yourself and take refuge in. It can also serve as a creative crutch, having a deleterious effect on storytelling by hobbling innovation and drowning it in references and intertextuality. We’re seeing this happening in Hollywood right now, where nostalgia has become big business indeed, and where original ideas are being swapped out for easy callbacks. But what I want to talk about here is what nostalgia is to me: A bit of a disease. Or at the very least what you might call an affliction.

There’s a bit of dialogue in Noah Baumbach’s 1995 debut, the splendid little low-key dramedy Kicking And Screaming, that gets at what I’m talking about, albeit from the opposite direction. You don’t need to know too much about the characters involved. It goes like this:

Max: I’m too nostalgic. I’ll admit it.

Skippy: We graduated four months ago. What can you possibly be nostalgic for?

Max: I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory… and I didn’t have a good time.

I am Max. I reminisce the shit out of everything.

The crucial difference is that whereas Max looks back with pessimism and a grim scowl, I reminisce in shades of gold and pink. I look back on my time at the bar and I see that I had a great fucking time! More than that, as a matter of fact, as with only the smallest remove from the actual event my nostalgia will convince me that it was probably the greatest time that ever was, and that likely will ever be. Yep, it’s all downhill from here, sonny boy. You might as well bask in the reflective glow of this glorious moment while you can. From now on all that’s gonna happen is its memory will slowly recede and fade, and nothing will ever happen that might approximate its shining wonder.

And this feeling fucking sucks. Because in life, we plow on ahead with hope, stretching our hands and fingers towards a better future. That’s the only reason to keep going. No matter how dark the night, you keep marching, because deep down you know that the dawn will come again and the sun will shine all the brighter. But what if you keep forgetting about the dawn to come? What if you keep thinking that the latest one was the last one—no matter how many times you’ve been proven wrong and shown that there’s always something coming up to make everything worth it? If it sounds like I’m making a bigger thing out of this than it is, make no mistake, I’m not short on perspective—I don’t suffer from depression or crippling anxiety or anything like that. I know this nostalgia affliction is small fry when compared to the bigger picture. But some people will always have it better and some people will always have it worse, and all feelings are legitimate.

I worry a little bit. I’m only 29 years old and already nostalgia is the emotion that blindsides me probably more than any other—apart from anger. More frequently and more strongly. And the two feelings are strangely symbiotic bedfellows. On one side, the anger is what wells up when the world knocks, when the shitshow that is the mess of inequality and imperialism and racism and sexism that we call How Things Are becomes impossible to ignore (because I am privileged to occasionally actually be able to ignore). And on the other side there’s the nostalgia, which comes from a place that longs for the world to be as good it once was, to return to a time that was Better, both on a micro, personal-scale, as well as a macro, world-wide scale.

But—and herein really lies the rub—that Better place and time? They are the domains of lies.

Nostalgia is the world’s greatest PR firm, and it keeps itself limber and efficient. While reality in its old age nurses a broken hip, nostalgia attends pool exercise classes and only keeps getting stronger. The older you get, the more memories you accumulate, and the more practice nostalgia gets at its PR act. The process is always the same. A memory, getting on a little bit with age and desperate to be liked, puts on its best suit and smashes its piggy bank and takes the bus to the shiny downtown offices of Nostalgia Corp., where it offers its life savings in exchange for the services of those insidious con men. The firm gets to work, and before you know it, every positive element from the memory—however small—is magnified tenfold and polished to a high sheen, while any associated negative feelings are blacked out like a passage in a declassified CIA memo. Except those blacked out passages are hilariously overt and therefore paradoxically transparent, which is exactly unlike how Nostalgia Corp. work. They leave no trace and no signs of entry, and they keep their hands clean. Sometimes, in an act of brazen Inception-level sabotage, any negative feelings in a memory can actually be spun to feel positive, to be turned into something that can be looked back on fondly. And you won’t even notice this cunning switcharoo unless you know what you’re looking for.

An example: On June 8th this year, our odious and inept Prime Minister Theresa May held a snap general election. Riding high on hubris, she tried to use it to consolidate her power and to crush the opposition. Instead, underestimating the street power and resonance of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party, she suffered a humiliating and historic defeat. I was there on the day, counting down the hours and the minutes until the result was announced. I had been out in a marginal constituency during the day, campaigning and knocking on doors with a friend, making sure that all registered Labour voters had been out and voted. Later, we decamped to a pub across town for the night to watch the results live with local Labour party members and activists. The elation of the night’s result is something I can still feel today. It burns like a bright beacon in my memories. And yet, on the day, while we were out knocking on the doors, half-running and hopped up on coffee and adrenaline, I only had one thing really pressing on my mind. Despite the enormous national importance of the day and the logistics of our task, my brain was swamped with one thought that—moment to moment—practically drowned out all others: ‘I really fucking need to take a dump.’ Yep. I must have eaten something quite…active…a few hours before we started door-knocking, because while I was out there on the streets of West London, carrying a load of red leaflets in my hands and delivering the message of the urgency of political engagement, I was also transporting a far heavier and more immediately pressing load somewhere else. I’ll spare you the grisly details but suffice it to say I couldn’t get rid of the latter until much, much later. Now when I think about that day, what I remember is the door knocking and the adrenaline-soaked rushing about and the tension in the air while we waited for the results, half-poised at the edge of a pit of despair. I remember the celebrations, the jubilation, the feeling of hope rising like a phoenix. I don’t remember the fecal matter camped out in my digestive system, crying out for hours and hours, beseeching that I set it free. Not unless I really think about things.

Which, really, is a pretty great illustration of how nostalgia works its magic. It’s also a situation that I thought about recently and that made me for the first time reconsider my attitude to nostalgia. Nostalgia at its simplest is a form of selective memory. One that skews towards the positive. It highlights those warm, pleasant feelings that you once felt during a situation, and it minimises those less desirable ones. And for the longest time I’ve been annoyed by this. How dare it fill my brain with lies? But then I started to consider June 8th and the bits that I remembered from Election Day and the bits that I didn’t, and I thought: Which are the productive parts to remember here, really? Because I’m pretty sure that nostalgia has made the right call. And then I thought about all the other pleasant memories I dip into now and then, and how many times I’ve reveled in the happy feelings brought up by them, and how many unpleasant details must have been swept out of view in each one. I broached this subject and told the story to my girlfriend, who is a psychology and neuroscience graduate, and who—after asking me why I was telling her about a story featuring me needing to poo real bad?—told me about the case of Jill Price, the first person diagnosed with hyperthymesia—a condition characterised by never being able to forget anything. After a bit of reading about and consideration of this woman with total recall, all I could help thinking was: ‘Holy shit am I glad that I don’t remember everything! Thank god for nostalgia!’

Because imagine remembering everything. Imagine never being able to forget anything. All the trauma and the embarrassment; all the rage and all the fear; all the anxiety and all the sorrow. It’d be maddening. We remember what we have to to survive. We remember the outcomes of bad decisions so as not to make similar mistakes again, but there is a filter in place, and often we suppress the negative feelings that arose as a result of those mistakes. And thank god for that. I don’t need all of that sloshing around in my head. Were we to remember it all we would be drowned in a paradoxical irrelevance, in unsorted chaos. The human need for narrative and for prioritising certain bits of information over others rarely feels so important as when considering the selective nature of memory.

So maybe it’s not such a bad thing, this memory manipulation thing. Maybe instead of being hurt by the thoughts of deception created by an idealised past, by memories written in golden lies, I should see nostalgia for what it is: A coping mechanism. An injection of warmth and a reminder of the good that can exist in a chaotic and unfeeling universe. Don’t rage against the lies. Instead, know their purpose. Soak up the warmth, recall the good, and use that to power the search for more.

Petr Knava lives in London and plays music

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.