Nostalgia Is Just Denial?

I was watching an old movie on TCM the other night, and a scene in which an older guy was trying to sell a movie concept to a middle-aged, know-it-all producer. The older guy was telling him that his idea was nostalgic, that folks would love it.

The producer walked around the office as if he owned the world. “Nostalgia?” he huffed. “Nostalgia is just a form of denial.”

What?! That stopped me cold. I don’t know what happened to the rest of that scene, or the rest of the movie, for that matter. That line simply bowled me over! I tried for the next hour to understand if that might actually be true, as i have been, for several years now, trying to not bring my beliefs into new information. Trying to be “not instantly judgmental” has been a difficult proposition for me over the years. My Buddhist teachings gently pointed that out early on. But being aware of a weakness and actually fixing it are two different things.

That said, this temporary dilemma of whether there is any credence to the thought, “Nostalgia is just a form of denial” is, for me, fairly easily argued, if not put to rest completely. I have always considered nostalgia as a positive emotion, looking back on happy (sometimes “happier”) times with a smile, perhaps occasionally with a yearning. But setting my personal belief system aside, Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia thusly: the state of being homesick
: homesickness
2 : a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition

Eh. I get it, but let’s check Wikipedia: Nostalgia is a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.[1] The word nostalgia is learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, a Homeric word, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain” or “ache”, and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Described as a medical condition—a form of melancholy—in the Early Modern period,[3] it became an important trope in Romanticism.[1]
Nostalgia is associated with a yearning for the past, its personalities,
possibilities, and events, especially the “good old days” or a “warm childhood.”

Ah, that’s more like it! Seems at this point that, at the very least, nostalgia is far more of a “sentimental yearning” than it is a denial of the present moment. I guess I actually resent the whole idea of nostalgia as a denial of any sort… For one thing, the longer one lives, the more one has to look back on. And I don’t think we often consciously slip back to memories of bad times… that, because of our human nature of wanting to be happy, we would tend to
remember good times, good friends, special occasions. Oh, I would have to admit that my brain sometimes goes back into the past without my consent, to bad times, painful situations that I would rather not think about. Is that my brain deciding to deny the present, even with bad memories?? Doesn’t seem likely… yet Merriam-Webster’s #2 definition, “a wistful or sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition” suddenly begins to make more sense. I suppose that “yearning for returning to some past period” could, conceivably, be construed as some sort of denial, a denial of present circumstances, most likely. Yeah, guess I have to give them that much. But it pains me, I have to admit. And in my selfish, belief-driven defense, I will say my “sentimental yearnings” are, when indulged in consciously, are all happy ones, that nearly always bring a smile, and other equally fine memories of good times and good friends.

Why do I allow myself to momentarily ignore my personal battle with being judgmental, for the sorry sake of being right about that ridiculous notion of nostalgia being no more and no less than a denial? Easy. Because when the outside world can change a noun we’ve used for our whole lives (movie) into a verb, (Let’s movie…) then, by god, I can indulge my equally ridiculous notion that nostalgia is NOT denial of any sort, but rather a most enjoyable mental sojourn into our past that is usually satisfying, and even occasionally enlightening! And even if it is denial, then by all means let my denial-driven nostalgia soak my thirsty brain with serotonin (if there’s no Jameson’s about) and throw me temporarily back into “an excessively sentimental yearning for returning to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” Take me back to the memories of “Twenty Three Skidoo” “Hotcha hotcha!” and “Oh you kid!” Make it so, denial. Do it now, nostalgia. Especially now.

Steve Hulse

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