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You Can Never Go Back
Waxing nostalgic about places once dear to us.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” — Heraclitus, c. 500 BC
Do you remember that gigantic hill you once sledded down as a kid? When the snow was so deep, the sled so fast, and the hill so steep when you had to climb it again?
If you went back for another run in recent years, it probably lost its luster. It was neither quite as tall nor as steep and the snow was a little thinner.
And just like that, your perfectly saccharine childhood memory was dashed into a million snowflakes, never again seeming as legendary as it was in your mind.
You can thank nostalgia for that.
The origin of the word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots: nóstos, meaning “homecoming,” and álgos, meaning “pain.”
When the term was first coined in the 1600s, it was associated with soldiers abroad who were depressed, experiencing a kind of homesickness. Their present pain was associated with being separated from home.
Even though we think of nostalgia as something wrapped in warm and happy memories, in many ways, nostalgia is equally laced with the heartache of reality.
Not too many years ago, I had the chance to return to the bar where I spent my 21st birthday. I thought I’d capture at least a little bit of the magic and wonder of that evening. You might say I was feeling nostalgic.
Cornwall’s in Kenmore Square had all of the hallmarks of a fine British pub: low ceilings, tankards hung from beams, and John, the owner-chef, making his signature burgers behind the grill. You had to descend about 7 or 8 steps to go inside, where you were welcomed with a sense of warmth and friendliness.
Nearly 20 years ago, John and Pam had to relocate Cornwall’s across the square after the development of the Hotel Commonwealth began. The new location had the same vast collection of beer, the same recipe for the burger laden with oats and onion, with John in his chef’s apron and Pam working the room. But it felt antiseptic and impersonal. It just wasn’t the same.
In the meantime, other stalwarts of Kenmore Square disappeared. Planet Records, India Quality, Nemo’s, the Rathskeller, and many other establishments just closed up. And like that, the square was completely different.
Oh sure, it still housed an MBTA station. It marked the intersection of Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue and the eastern tip of Boston University’s campus. But it didn’t feel the same.
As Heraclitus observed, it wasn’t the same river any longer. Time forged on and changed the façade of the buildings as much as it changed the clientele within them.
Nor was I the same.
I had experienced much more, seen much more, grown much more. I was a different person.
That memory of my 21st birthday in the warm glow of the pub, surrounded by friends and colleagues, would be forever burned in my brain. But I couldn’t recreate it. I couldn’t go back.
In his posthumous autobiographical novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote:
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood...back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame...back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Nostalgia can be wonderful when it helps us forge happy memories of the past. But it’s also a mask that blinds us to the changes made by time as it marches ever onward, affecting the people and places that we like to think of as static and permanent.
In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym said,
“…nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into a private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.”
Longing to return to the places we’ve been is a natural feeling. The story of the Garden of Eden is one of the earliest examples of nostalgia: an idyllic world that we no longer have access to, thanks to human nature.
Jay Gatsby longed to recreate the past with Daisy, combined with his newfound wealth of the present, but Nick observed how it was impossible for Gatsby to recreate the past.
My last trip to New York City was on March 12, 2020, just as the pandemic was closing in. I stayed at the Omni Berkshire Place, a legendary hotel that opened in 1926. You could stay in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Suite, where the two collaborated on Oklahoma! Talk about nostalgic.
And in January, I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel, adjacent to Grand Central Station. It’s part of the experience every year during the gathering of the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), the international literary society dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. Built in 1924, the Roosevelt was home to Guy Lombardo and his orchestra, who famously broadcast from there every New Year’s Eve beginning in 1929.
But like tastes in music, things change. In June, the Omni Berkshire Place closed its doors; the Roosevelt Hotel is no longer.
We think such things are a constant part of our present, yet they’re as temporary as we are.
We like to think that we ourselves remain as static and immovable as these places of our past, but we too are ever-changing.
It’s just that nostalgia fixes them and certain versions of ourselves in our memories like the pages of history.
In reality, such memories are time-ravaged and time takes its toll on us as well. While “age doth not wither or custom stale” the memories of these towering edifices of our imagination, they and we feel the effects of the world around us.
We change. We adapt. We grow.
And we create memories and nostalgia for the next generation.
“...nostalgia goes beyond individual psychology. At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time.” — Svetlana Boym, 2001
Turning a Page
After 70 years, IKEA announced it will no longer produce a print catalogue, opting to go digital instead. If you’re feeling nostalgic, visit the digital IKEA museum to leaf through decades of past catalog issues. (Business Insider)
Memories on this Day
More than 40 states dropped a lawsuit on Facebook alleging antitrust behavior. Facebook’s argument is that the government can’t turn back time, but Kara Swisher counters that the need to take legal action has been obvious for a long time. (The New York Times)
This year is a year of holiday shopping like no other. Despite the downturn in the economy, nostalgia and boredom are combining to keep toy sales high. (The Houston Chronicle)
“For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;” — William Wordsworth, 1807
Don’t have any good memories to return to? No worries! Imaginary fond memories work just as well. A surprising finding from neuroscience. (Aeon)
This is the same feeling I got when first reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, knowing we weren’t all that far removed from the era in which he came to life. Edgar Smith felt the same when he asked “What is it that we love in Sherlock Holmes?”
“We love the times in which he lived, of course: the half-remembered, half-forgotten times of snug Victorian illusion, of gaslit comfort and contentment, of perfect dignity and grace… But there is more than time and space and the yearning for things gone by to account for what we feel toward Sherlock Holmes.”
Mind the Manners Gap
In1943, the U.S. Military produced a training film “How to Behave in Britain.” In this excerpt, Burgess Meredith gives a wonderful and nostalgic tour of an old British Pub. (YouTube)
There’s a romance to the open road of novels of the past, but there’s a sense of nostalgia about the city, whether our heroes are returning to it or arriving for the first time. (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“He wanted to recover something, some idea of himself that perhaps had gone into loving Daisy.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
🎧 Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey host Stuff You Missed in History Class, a show that takes a look at lesser-known historical people and events. An entertaining and well-researched podcast, bringing a sense of wonder to the past. A recently re-aired episode from 2014 is the Tulsa Race Riots, an obscure event that was highlighted by the new HBO show Watchmen.
📘 In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen brings history alive in all its complexity and ambiguity. Beginning with pre-Columbian history and ranging over characters and events as diverse as Reconstruction, Helen Keller, the first Thanksgiving, the My Lai massacre, 9/11, and the Iraq War, Loewen offers an eye-opening critique of existing textbooks and a wonderful retelling of American history as it should—and could—be taught to American students.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.