PROVOCATION 1: Denise Riley
Perfumes are designed to heighten desire but Denise wondered whether nostalgia was not in fact the opposite of perfume: a bromide that was traditionally supposed to weaken desire, indeed to weaken the whole system of intelligent resistance. She compared nostalgia to “an oily paste” the consumption of which condemned the indulger to a series of false closures or endless beginnings, its purpose being to obscure a more thorough, more honest engagement with the truth.
This modern sense of nostalgia, she argued, depends on the luxury of actually having a ‘past’, a past that presents us with a sanitised version of events and distances us from the the genuine. Surely the past ought to be raw and jagged. Today’s nostalgia doesn’t even offer us emotions, she said: it offers moods instead. Nostalgia is mood music. A little like perfume too then.
The very word, she suggested, was one of a group such as ‘trauma’ or ‘irony’, words with similarly diluted meanings that form a deliberately misleading and seductive shorthand. She mentioned the Nostalgia Critic on YouTube who offers to remember the past for you “so you don’t have to”. She talked of John Major’s speech about cricket and warm beer (adapted, I suspect, from Betjeman) whose purpose at the time was to reassure Eurosceptic conservatives that being part of Europe didn’t mean there wouldn’t always be an England. She offered nostalgia as the twilight zone between history and memory, quoting Plath: “What I want back is what I was once.”
Nostalgia wasn't just a bromide: it was a sedative and a liar.
Nostalgia may be condemned on ideological grounds in contemporary Malaysia for example, argued another, where the government is currently trying to impose an exclusively Malay identity on many Indians and Chinese who have inhabited the country for generations. So nostalgia might in fact be a form of resistance.
But what might we be nostalgic enough to fight for? Edward Thomas’s response to this question was to seize a clod of earth and reply: This.
The discussion passed on to the question as to whether we can ever separate history and desire. Could we distinguish between the questionable political use of nostalgia on the one hand and nostalgia as an aspect of a desire with a shifting object on the other?
Might one be properly nostalgic for one’s youth if one’ youth was spent in fighting an oppressive political force?.
It was becoming clear that nostalgia, the word, was being used in two possible ways in two different situations.
After the break it was Owen Sheers's turn to provoke debate. What he said followed on from Denise's criticism but turned it into a different and unexpected direction. Owen Sheers follows in the next post.