Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (5)

PROVOCATION 4: James Scudamore

After Wojciech's fierce visceral provocation, James Scudamore’s defence of nostalgia, or rather his re-definition of it as childhood bookishness comprising the realm of dream and invention opened new territories. He recalled his own peripatetic childhood with its frequent relocations, a life that entailed reading on the move. His favourite early fictional characters were, he said, much like him, people who lived by books.

He reminded us of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes with its enchanted narrator, Francois Seurel, of The Great Gatsby, of what he called ‘the doomed fantasists club’ and the realisation that, through literature, we could ‘recall experiences we have never had.’ He led us to Don Quixote where truth and illusion share the same space and where Quixote is ‘undone by books’. And yet, most importantly, Quixote 'does not fracture: he bends'. Novels, he argued, invent the notion of fictional truths where we are invited to believe things we know not to be true.  That can be dangerous too, of course. Emma Bovary is undone by her romantic reading. It would have done Emma good to get out more and have less contempt for where she actually lived, said James. She did not bend: she fractured.  James quoted Larkin’s “Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence’.

Importantly, he suggested that the bookish realm was a way of missing things by inventing them, a theme that was later to appear in Kerry Young’s provocation. Elsewheres were important. We create invisible cities where time and space contract. He quoted Marquez to the effect that ‘what matters is not what happens but what we remember’, and that 'nostalgia is weaponised'. He described the way the central character in his new book breaks into derelict asylums to note details of graffiti and old notices. Ruins are nostalgia too, not just picturesque ruins. Nostalgia takes us not only to Tintern Abbey but to Chernobyl.


The point was made that nostalgia, in China, is for family rather than the past because there was a different concept of the past: in effect the past was constantly present. But the sense of that presentness of the past, someone added, was temporarily suppressed by the Cultural Revolution.  The historical past could however still exert considerable power.

There is also the Welsh sense of hiraeth, the focus of which dates back to 1282 and embodies the longing for a Welsh past that is still powerful and can motivate the Welsh rugby team. But even that sense of history might be guided by love of a different kind from that felt by soldiers for each other.

We might, someone else noted, explore the maternal sense of love, as in ‘motherland’and ‘mother-tongue’. Yes, another added, but some places thrive too much on love, history and the past. Italians are, in that way, surrounded by beauty and a tangible historic past. They thrive on nostalgia. Might love itself, someone suggested, be a capitalist concept?

There remained the idea of nostalgia for genuinely lost homes. ‘Ostalgia’ the nostalgia of some East Germans for their communist past got a mention. Wojciech responded with its opposite: Westalgia. Nostalgia can be an intoxicating and highly valued state of being. Someone instanced the melancholy of saudade in Portugal, the sense of longing for the impossible, the vanished.

It seemed at this stage that while we had a wide range of definitions of nostalgia we could still agree on certain things, particularly on the idea that it was to do with missing something. The question was whether what we are missing really exists and, if it does, whether it is of value?  And, behind the value, whether nostalgia, as Denise first suggested, was a tool of power intended to sedate and mislead real enquiry through the kind of frivolity that Wojciech accused all fiction of indulging, or if it was - through a slight adjustment or amplification of meaning - a vital function of the imagination and a necessary aspect of any human existence.

The fifth provocation by Akhil Sharma took us into complex psychological territory from the author's point of view,  and touched nerves associated with exile writing, on the questions of exoticism and expectation, and, importantly, on the commercial literary uses of nostalgia. That's the next post.


Gwil W said...

Nice to see the Dragon of hiraeth.
The flag is the Welsh family Cadwallader emblem which was chosen as the Welsh flag I think in the 1950s, Wales having never officially signed up to the union and hence not represented in the union flag. The 1st Queens Dragoons were in Austria recently. They are at home in Cardiff and they still have the double eagle on their caps and on their standards and this dates to the time the commander in chief was the Austrian emperor , an honor granted him by Queen Victoria. They were marking the 1914 anniversary amongst other things and the musicians played the rugby union theme World in Union which I thought was a wonderful gesture.

George S said...

The hiraeth example was put up by Owen Sheers, Gwilym.