Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

I have a persistent early childhood memory which is about walking along a track between fields near the Norfolk coast in Eastern England.  We used to go for holidays there when I was a child, and there’s a strong set of associations between contentedly walking in early evening sun, a dry, beaten track carpeted with pineapple weed and common plantain, overgrown late summer vegetation beside the track, and wheat fields beyond. Several times recently I have realised that when walking along in a contented frame of mind, this memory is often at least partially evoked. Perhaps it is the late summer vegetation that can give me a partial taste of this memory when walking along a track, even where the landscape is otherwise quite different.PlantagoMajorPlantain

Is this nostalgia? Well, that all depends on how you define the term. I would rather distinguish nostalgia from this kind of experience of the past giving meaning to the present. Nostalgia involves hanging on to the past in some way, absolutising it in a way that distorts the present: but this experience seems rather to augment the present and make my experience of it fuller. I appreciate the flavour of the present landscape more because it is also, simultaneously, this past landscape. I think, perhaps, we often do this – probably more often than we realise. We integrate our experience through time by to some extent having one experience in the present in the terms of one in the past. That way the meaning that we attributed to the past experience is added to the present experience, not taken away from it.

Writers make a great deal of use of this phenomenon. There is Marcel Proust’s famous example of the taste of madeleine cake, that evokes a whole set of previous experiences. There are many novels in which writers have incorporated their own youthful experiences into a fictionalised narrative that carries more power because of it, such as D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’. In some of these, though, perhaps we can be doubtful about whether we are dealing with the meaning of the past augmenting the present, or nostalgia of a narrower kind.

Nostalgia of a narrower kind I would take to involve forming beliefs about the past experience that then distort one’s judgements about the present. The other day, accessing the Norfolk experience when walking, I began to see how it could turn into nostalgia. Supposing, in pursuit of this lovely memory, I tried to re-experience it. I might drive for several hours back to Norfolk and go in search of the exact spot where my childhood memory took place. The chances are, however, that I would be disappointed. Even if the landscape and the weather happened to be as I remembered them, I would have changed in a way that would make that fleeting mood that has somehow got engraved on my memory elusive. I would probably feel that I was having a boring adult experience of walking along that track, not an enchanted childhood one. Trying to recapture that experience, rather than integrate it, would be an absolutising move, taking an abstract idea of that experience and exalting it in a way that does no justice to its context in experience, then or now.

One kind of extreme absolutising response would be to idealise the experience nostalgically, and the other would be to dismiss it and assume that the experience is not relevant to me now. But the Middle Way seems to involve the possibility of a full acknowledgement of the power of that experience, together with an acceptance that now, forty years later, my experience is different. This is not just a version of the commonplace observation that we cannot recapture the past, for we can indeed recapture the past, in the present. Somehow the past can carry on enriching the present.

Perhaps this is the gift of age? I’m sure those older than I am can say more about whether this can happen further the older one gets. Is the savour of past experiences potentially integrated more with present ones, the more past experience one has? The gift of youth might be single-pointed, full-blooded experiences that age cannot recapture, but the gift of age might be multifaceted, rich, complex experiences of the meaning of the present integrated with the past.


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

5 thoughts on “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

  1. Hi Robert,
    Your snapshot of a childhood memory is very lovely, I could almost follow the track in my imagination bringing to mind memories of walks I have done.
    I think of my past as a bundle of memories, like a bundle of neuro connections, inevitably changed by the passage of time, the mind keeps working on them, some we keep, some we bury in our unconscious if painful, often re-awakened when we least expect it. Our general outlook may effect them, whether we are predominantly extrovert or introvert, memories are balanced on scales, some come down on the happy side others are weighed down by sadness.
    I view my past as a conglomeration of mixed memories manipulated by the process of revision, not as events really happened for the most part, influenced probably by my genetic make-up. I have very little attachment to nostalgia as I grow old, of course I have happy memories that are precious, for me the present is where I feel most comfortable, of course the present will soon be a memory, what kind of gloss will I put on it, time will time.

    1. For me, the clue to the meaning of nostalgia lies in the word, the last five letters of which – algia – mean ‘pain’. However, in my own experience, the pain of nostalgia isn’t the sort that makes me say “Ouch!”, or look in the cupboard for paracetamol. Rather, it’s a pleasant mild ache, actually felt in the upper chest and throat, that suggests the movement of energies there. It’s the kind of ache one gets while watching a “weepy” at the cinema, provoking a gulp and maybe a pricking of the tear ducts.

      Any memories that come to me alongside feeling nostalgic are fleeting and disconnected. I don’t feel disposed to give them much attention, and they have a two-dimensional quality to them.

      There are two main triggers to nostalgia in me: one is the smell of a place, and there are three biggies: the smell of an old (pre-1950s) car interior; the smell of chocolate on an easterly breeze (I grew up about four miles west of the old Cadbury factory in Bournville, Birmingham. The last is a sweetish smell that still hangs around the top of Mare Street, Hackney E9, near St Joseph’s Hospice. I first smelled it in my late teens when I got off the Number 6 bus to to join the nursing school at Hackney Hospital in 1956. It still hangs on the air nearly 60 years later, and evokes that ache.

      I don’t think I idealise the experience, because it always surprises me, is as transient as a robin on my spade, and I don’t seek it out (although I would happily sniff an old Morris Oxford or a 1943 Ford Pilot if I was lucky enough to see one). Have i integrated these youthful experiences as a pleasant tug of the heartstrings to comfort my latter days? I think maybe the reader will find the answer between the lines of this comment.

  2. Hi Norma and Peter,
    Thanks for these interesting responses. I agree with you, Norma, that often memories aren’t ‘true’. I don’t think they have to be. Even if they are entirely fabricated we could still have a more or less integrated relationship to them.

    And I enjoyed your examples of smells, Peter. Smells seem to have a hotline to our immediate sense of meaning. For me a similar example is the smell of creosote, which I associate with the same childhood holidays. It was a jolt to discover how toxic and environmentally unfriendly creosote actually is! I think creosote is probably related to more two-dimensional, less integrated nostalgia than the memory of walking.

    I think what I particularly wanted to get across is that an integrated past-event-in-the-present isn’t really a ‘memory’ at all. We tend to think of memories as something separate from our current experience. Rather, it provides some sort of highlighting or additional dimension to present experience. It may be dependent on events that happened in the past, but it’s not just a representation of the past.

    1. Ah, that’s a very interesting thought to entertain(about how to understand memories), Robert.

      Your philosophy really does put my long held assumptions about meaning in a completely different light, and I find my thinking is becoming more and more tentative since I started studying with you and the other migglers. That’s what I think I was referring to as a loss of spontaneity in an earlier post. It’s a new feeling, and an intriguing one.

      Have been re-reading your advice on meditation and am ‘starting again from the beginning’!


  3. Hi Robert and Peter,
    I see what you mean Robert, well I think I do, a past memory repeated in the present, under new circumstances has meaning, has become embodied. I remember happy family meals when I visited my father and how important they were to me and today I enjoy meals I share with my family, for me they take on a special meaning, maybe quickly forgotten by the others.
    Peter, smells are evocative, we had an air raid shelter in our garden where we would sleep some nights in the early 1940s, I remember the smell of London clay, I have heard that others have the same memory, which has reinforced the memory, new mown grass too, another popular memory that I notice, some music to a lesser extent has a similar effect, a flash of recognition.

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