The Curtain of Events that has Fallen Between us and the Golden Age

And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in such an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to revert. It begets this bastard but pampered child, Nostalgia. How we yearn – how you may one day yearn – to return to that time before history claimed us, before things went wrong. How we yearn even for the gold of a July evening on which, though things had already gone wrong, things had not gone as wrong as they were going to. How we pine for Paradise. For mother’s milk. To draw back the curtain of events that has fallen between us and the Golden Age.

So how do we know – lost in the desert – that it is to the oasis of the yet-to-come we should be travelling anyway, and not to some other green Elysium that, a long while ago, we left behind? And how do we know that this mountain of baggage called History, which we are obliged to lug with us – which slows our pace to a crawl and makes us stagger off course – is really hindering us from advancing or retreating? Which way does salvation lie? No wonder we move in circles.

Graham Swift, Waterland.

If the idea of progress has the curious effect of weakening the inclination to make intelligent provision for the future, nostalgia, its ideological twin, undermines the ability to make intelligent use of the past… “Nostalgic sentiment…cultivates  a sense of history”. But a sense of history, as we have seen, is exactly what the nostalgic attitude fails to cultivate. It idealizes the past, but not in order to understand the way in which it unavoidably influences the present and the future. Nor does it unambiguously assert the superiority of bygone days. It contains an admixture of self congratulation. By exaggerating the naive simplicity of earlier times, it implicitly celebrates the worldly wisdom of later generations. It not only misrepresents the past but diminishes the past. It attempts “less to preserve the past”, as Anthony Brandt has observed, “than to restore it, to bring it back in its original state, as if nothing had happened in the interim.” Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, and Disneyland’s “Main Street, U.S.A”, exemplify, in Brandt’s view, the passion for “historical authenticity” that seeks to recapture everything except the one thing that matters, the influence of the past on the present.

Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics.


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