The Real Thing

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Like Coca-Cola, nostalgia is sweet but oh so corrosive. It turns cold-eyed realists into sentimental fools. It offers stale and illusory comforts from the past in place of the bracing air of the present. It puts private memories ahead of public history, resulting in anecdotes of the most inconsequential, most banal, most parochial nature.

Even its own meaning it has managed to corrode. The “algia” part of “nostalgia” is the same as the “algia” part of “neuralgia”. It means pain. And because the first part of the word comes from the Greek “nostos”, the pain that nostalgia signifies is the pain of the past. More specifically, the past associated with home, a time and a place of plenitude that has been lost. Not the sweetness of looking back with fond feelings. Not the rose-tinted sentiment that recalls halcyon days larking among sand dunes or punting along rivers, producing a warm reflective smile. No. Authentic nostalgia—the real thing as opposed to Coke—causes a contraction in the heart, like the sudden tightening of a violin’s strings. It stings and it smarts because the past cannot be revived, because home lies on the far side of the earth’s expansive curve. The archetype is Odysseus cut adrift, pining for Penelope, uncertain of his ever returning. His modern counterpart is Proust or perhaps Jacques Derrida, the sephardic Jew from North Africa who confessed to his “nostalgeria”. The memories thus conjured scrape against the soul because they are tantalising images of what might be gone for good. And not only tantalizing—seen but not grasped, as if trapped behind glass—but treacherous. We are cautioned by psychoanalysis that such mental pictures could be edits a posteriori, not to mention inventions ex nihilo. The past might be no more substantial than a Greek myth; home nothing but a castle in the air.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 18, 2012

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