Monday, May 20, 2013

A Warning Against Nostalgia

Like Stephanie Coontz, I've spent a good part of my career warning students and readers about the "dangers of nostalgia."  I wrote about the topic at length in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America

Yet I am a very nostalgic person--whether it be my New Jersey working-class upbringing, 1970s music, the American Basketball Association, the New York Mets, or the destruction of local communities at the hands of global capitalism.

Over at The New York Times, Coontz reflects on the disease of nostalgia.  Here is a taste:

In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties with friends and family. It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth.

In society at large, however, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.

Nineteenth-century Americans were extremely worried, the historian Susan Matt points out, about the incidence of nostalgia, which was the term used to describe homesickness in those days. According to physicians of the era, acute nostalgia led to “mental dejection,” “cerebral derangement” and sometimes even death. The only known cure was for the afflicted individual to go home, and if that wasn’t possible, the sufferer was seriously out of luck.