The things of the past are never viewed in their true perspective or receive their just value; but value and perspective change with the individual or the nation that is looking back on its past. - Friedrich Nietzsche
[W]e need to distinguish between nostalgia and the reassuring memory of happy times, which serves to link the present to the past and to provide a sense of continuity. The emotional appeal of happy memories does not depend on disparagement of the present, the hallmark of the nostalgic attitude. Nostalgia appeals to the feeling that the past offered delights no longer obtainable. Nostalgic representations of the past evoke a time irretrievably lost and for that reason timeless and unchanging. Strictly speaking, nostalgia does not entail the exercise of memory at all, since the past it idealizes stands outside time, frozen in unchanging perfection. Memory too may idealize the past, but not in order to condemn the present. It draws hope and comfort from the past in order to enrich the present and to face what comes with good cheer. It sees past, present, and future as continuous. It is less concerned with loss than with our continuing indebtedness to a past the formative influence of which lives on in our patterns of speech, our gestures, our standards of honor, our expectations, our basic disposition toward the world around us. - Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, pp. 82-83This is a special year for our family. For that reason, we are taking a vacation this summer that I have dubbed "The Blast From The Past" vacation. 30 years ago this June, I graduated from high school, so my class is having a reunion. After that, we are driving from my hometown down to the nation's capital where we will spend a few days touristing around. Lisa and I will also be showing our daughters some of the places we went, and places that became special to us during our courtship and first year of marriage.
The whole memory versus nostalgia thing; the way memory works and doesn't work; the way our memories, and our thoughts about those memories, change over time; the way impressions we carry with us for so much of our lives can be wrong; all this and so much more is a fascinating topic for me. My wife often remarks that I have an uncanny memory; she insists that I can give not only the year, but the month and date and day of the week a particular event occurred; I can recall whether it was sunny or cloudy, what I and others were wearing, and what song was playing on the radio. The fact of the matter is this is true, for the most part. I do have that kind of memory. The thing is, however, it isn't comprehensive, nor does it escape the trap of them being my memories.
No matter how detailed a recollection might be, no matter the vivid colors and smells recalled from a walk through a field on a summer afternoon, or the sound of a lover's breathing while sleeping beside you, these are, for all their life-likeness, partial, a snapshot rather than a panorama. For all that I can recall events and people and places with a particular kind of accuracy, I rarely rely on these memories because they are just that: my memories.
Furthermore, while the sensory information is complete down to the small tear in an item of clothing or that it occurred on a hot rather than just warm day, because I can remember the feel of the sweat on my face, a crucial aspect of these events is lost forever: the emotional backdrop against which they occurred. Thus, for example, I can recall, say, being at a dance in the Junior High Gymnasium back when I was in high school; I cannot nor will I ever be able to recall what I was thinking and how I was feeling at any of those particular events. What I and others did, how we looked, what we said - all that is there. Why we did these things and not others; how we felt when we asked this girl to dance and were turned down, or when that girl asked us to dance and we said yes, beyond the assumption that the former felt bad while the latter felt good, how is it possible to recall the roller-coaster of emotions that is adolescence? How is it possible, to delve back a bit further, to recall the emotional life of preadolescence? I can remember events from when I was 7, 8, even younger; I cannot, nor should any claim that I could do so be accepted with any credibility, recall at all what it felt like to be such an age.
The fact is, I find it difficult to reconstruct the emotional weather of my life two or three years ago; ten years ago; twenty years? Hardly. So it is that I plan on spending some time with people and in places from my past. By and large, this won't be in service either of nostalgia or memory. I'm attending my high school reunion not because of who any of the people were; rather, I want to celebrate who we've become, now that we've reached what I call the safe shore of middle age. So, too, while Lisa and I will share stories and places with our daughters while in DC, we will also be enjoying all the changes that have occurred there over the years, seeing the sights and visiting the museums and such because they are enjoyable in and for themselves. Memory will help; nostalgia, too, won't be a horrible guide because, as Lasch says, it freezes moments in time. As such, I should be able to navigate a confusing city without too much effort because I have a fondness - one might say even rose-colored - for the mess of north/south and east/west streets intercut by the angular state-named avenues.
I hope I never forget the limits of memory, even one that works as well as mine seems. I also hope I never forget the difference between real memory, which includes the horrible and the boring and the mundane, and nostalgia. Even as we take nine or ten days and revisit the past, I want it to be in the service of the present.