I research nostalgia. I didn’t think that’s what I was doing, when I began some of my projects, but the more I read and write, the more I realize that’s what I do.
I was sitting with a student earlier this year, after he took a makeup exam because illness had caused him to miss the final. He said “You had another question about nostalgia on there. You asked us about that a lot.”
“It’s a really important concept,” I said. “The nation was founded on nostalgia, after all.”
I said it in sort of an offhand way, and then realized that I actually did mean that. The mythos surrounding the founding of the United States is one of progress, one of moving forward, starting anew. But the narrative, even though it’s been constructed as one of modernity, progress, advancement, often is actually a narrative about hanging on, sometimes viciously and with our nails digging in, to the past.
Then I realized that, while I am studying ethnic literature, race representation, and identity construction, what I’m studying that encompasses all of that is actually nostalgia. Nostalgia for the “golden age” that never really was; nostalgia for the future that immigrants wanted for themselves but did not actually find; nostalgia for broken treaties; nostalgia for ravished cultures and landscapes; nostalgia for the American Dream of equality and prosperity; nostalgia for “authenticity” and for clearly defined and labeled roles. Nostalgia for–what? Fantasies that never actually were?
Nostalgia takes on a much more personal element as well. I can see the affects of nostalgia as I look back on the dominant and counter-narratives in the United States. I can also feel the affects of nostalgia in my own life. I also find myself sifting through dominant and counter-narratives of my own life. I find myself thinking with longing of past choices, and of choices not made. I find myself often thinking with nostalgia of dreams that will not be, and dreams that still can be. Nostalgia is so often thought of as directed toward the past, but it is also something that permeates our present and tints our visions of the future.
So perhaps as I study the nostalgia of a nation, I’ll also find myself studying my own nostalgia. Strange, how my academic projects almost always teach me something about myself, particularly when my self is not the subject of the project.