I. What is Nostalgia?
Remember when things were simpler? When you were a kid and you could just play all day while other people took care of your responsibilities for you? Most people have memories like this. But of course we know that they’re illusions — childhood is also a time of painful changes, confusion, and powerlessness. In fact, most kids can’t wait until they’re grown up!
This is called nostalgia — remembering the past in a rosy, positive light, even though the true past is more complicated. It’s a sentimental or wishful emotion that makes us reminisce, or recall past times.
II. Examples of Nostalgia
Dublin keeps on changin’ and nothing seems the same…My mind’s too full of memories, too old to hear new chimes. I’m a part of what was Dublin in the rare old times.
(Irish Folk Song)
The Rare Old Times is an Irish folk song from the 1970s, written about the way that Dublin changed in the 20th century from a relatively small, traditional city into a glass-and-steel global capital. The narrator is an old Dubliner who tells a sad story of losing everything he knew in his hometown. The punk band Flogging Molly took the song and recorded this ironic high-energy cover:
In the America I grew up in, people respected the flag…you may not have always agreed with what was going on…but you respected the flag.
(The America I Grew Up In)
Nostalgia is often found in politics, where people reminisce about an earlier time when the country was more pure or moral, or our current problems didn’t exist. Politicians paint a rosy picture of history that matches their particular political ideals. This is usually just a mirage, of course — the past was a divisive, violent, and dangerous time, just like the present. With just a little research, you can often find that current issues are nothing new.
III. The Importance of Nostalgia
Nostalgia is a perfectly natural emotion — from time to time, everyone feels a little wistful for the past, especially as we grow older and the memories become more and more distant. For some reason, human beings have always looked back on the past as somehow simpler or more pure. This even appears in our myths and religions: the Garden of Eden, for example, can be interpreted as a religious allegory of spiritual nostalgia.
Because everyone experiences this emotion, writers often use it to evoke a response in their readers. However, it’s best to use nostalgia with a purpose. It’s fun to write a nostalgic piece that just brings up old memories, but ultimately a writer should do more than just say “Remember this, remember that?” The memories should be brought up in order to tell a story, send a message, or paint a picture with some meaning.
IV. Examples in Literature
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
(Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
This is one of the most famous openings of any book, and in fact it’s just a tongue-in-cheek critique of nostalgia. Dickens is saying that when people reminisce about the past, all they’re doing is transferring their own desires onto the world they grew up in – coming up with a memory that makes everything look like it was perfect back then (whatever this might mean to that individual).
The feeling that you’ve got to be everlastingly fighting and hustling, that you’ll never get anything unless you grab it from somebody else, that there’s always somebody after your job…that, I swear, didn’t exist in the old life before the war.
(George Orwell, Coming Up for Air)
George Orwell’s semi-autobiographical novel Coming Up for Air is all about the way that English life changed after World War I. The novel covers a period of intense industrialization, when everything in the country gets “cemented over,” and the narrator’s small hometown expands almost overnight into a large, industrial city. Many people have interpreted Orwell’s novel as a critique of nostalgia, but also as an exploration of how the world really did change dramatically after World War I (and, of course, World War II as well).
V. Examples in Popular Culture
The world seemed to all make sense…but that sense seems to slowly fade after 3rd grade.
(Eric Cartman, South Park)
In this episode from season 4, the boys are moving up to fourth grade and suddenly struggling to keep up with more challenging schoolwork and a demanding new teacher. Looking back on the 3rd grade, Cartman sings a wistful song about how nice their teacher was and how good they had it. Shortly afterwards, the other boys remind him that third grade was actually no better.
People who get nostalgic for childhood were obviously never children.
(Calvin & Hobbes)
One of the main themes in Calvin & Hobbes is that childhood isn’t an idyllic, carefree time, and children are not innocent, perfect angels. In this particular comic, Calvin has just been shoved to the ground by Moe, the bully, and he reminds the reader that childhood is an extremely difficult time and we’re just remembering it through the emotional lens of nostalgia.
Buzzfeed and similar websites are swimming in nostalgia. Every few weeks there’s another article like “24 Things Only 90s Kids Will Remember” or “19 Images That Will Make You Feel So Old.” These articles target people in their 20s and 30s who look back with nostalgia on their childhood and teen years by reminiscing about the way their lives used to be. College Humor did a brilliant spoof of this pop-culture phenomenon: