Recently when READY PLAYER ONE came out, I started a debate on SMS about nostalgia with two old friends from an old book club I ran in Joplin. We read READY PLAYER ONE the year it came out or something.
By “start a debate,” I really mean that I got emotional about nostalgia per se and started ranting some counterpoints at a simple observation Professor Doug Welch had made. Only through talking it out did my emotion turn into something logical and usable as Doug justifiably lost interest. Chad mediated. Doug took the position that nostalgia’s bad in large doses. Dunno if he still feels that way. Probably. But by now he has DEFINITELY grown bored and moved on.
I have not, however, because I obsess over ideas that I like for whatever reason.
So here’s where I landed:
Nostalgia’s a big word for “the good old days,” but the problem is that none of us are good enough or old enough to know precisely what it was truly like back in the Good Old Days. We experience goodness and oldness — what is primitive in the highest and best sense — as children of Eden born after the end of the world, long after judgement day, and our glimpses of Eden we grasp in a youth spent in Sodom. For Sodom too shows us our longings, but though all of our longings share the same end, since all of our longings are different, and since Sodom cannot contain their end, we quickly wake from our dream to find ourselves in a nightmare and wonder how we ever thought it a dream. We were not wrong: we are, still, children of Eden. But children of Eden raised in Sodom. Our best glimpses of our good old days came from those who raised us and their inept articulation of their good old days and so on in infinite regression. That means we can never have the whole of it, enough goodness, enough oldness to find ourselves in Eden from whence we were snatched — kidnapped — long before living memory. Our nostalgia covers too little ground to paint the whole picture of the good old days: we need the best of my nostalgia and yours and our parents and grandparents…
It’s not that we’re nostalgic too often.
It’s that we’re nostalgic too seldom.
That which we long for stems from more than a place, a destination. We long for a person. A person who was not snatched or rather who knows the way out of this prison – out of this snatchery — back to the home we’ve never been. A person who called himself The Way, both Eden and the road home. He knows what the good old days were really like because he himself goes by the name The Good Old Ancient of Days.
The causes of our deepest nostalgia sleep in him.
He’s the meaning and the end and the point of all nostalgia, all longing, all Sehnsucht. He’s the golden era, the gilded age. He’s what it’s like to grow up, rather than merely growing old, and to find yourself like C.S. Lewis old enough for fairy tales. To grow up and find ourselves young again in him. He’s not just the Good Old Ancient of Days. He’s also good morning and have a good one. Nostalgia of Nostalgia, well wish of well wishes, greeting of greetings: Dominus Vobiscum. (Ez 39:35)
So when we come across nostalgia in a film like READY PLAYER ONE or STRANGER THINGS or IT or GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY or even something darker and elitist like MAD MEN, the problem isn’t that we have nostalgia and that nostalgia is bad. As I’ve articulated elsewhere (paraphrasing Lewis and Tolkien and MacDonald and Chesterton and so on): all fiction is fantasy and all fantasy is envisioning a way out of our present matter and human agents. Fiction plays with the forms of things. It’s not lying at all. It’s tinkering with metaphor. It’s hypothesizing in the truest sense: building a new foundation so that a new world can exist upon it. Worldbuilding. That’s why tomorrow’s inventions depend so heavily on today’s science fiction and tomorrow’s psychological breakthroughs depend so heavily on the problem novels of today. We use escapism because we want out of prison and nostalgia is one means of that escape: to use the keys of our past to unlock present pain.
The problem’s not the qualitative existence of nostalgia, that we have it or have too much of it.
Rather we have too little.
For we settle for the nostalgia of ATARI when we really want the thing behind the ATARI: in the case of the game Adventure, we want the secret the maker of the game hid within the game and in the case of Pong, we want the principle of parry and riposte. Or for Mad Men, we’re searching for meaning in the midst of our having rendered most things meaningless. Our nostalgia — our Sehnsucht — is pointing towards an ultimate ends, the Former of forms, the ontological cause of all. Said in another way, the meaning of anything is first and foremost the meaning of everything. Nostalgia longs for that meaning in a backwards kind of way, in digging into the past, and any researcher obsessed with archives or lost arcana feels it as much as the nerdy kid with Magic the Gathering cards (and it’s no wonder the two overlap so often). Vision — especially technological vision — longs for that meaning in the future. Poetry longs for it in the present. Not to say they can’t blend, of course. The point is Sehnsucht: the longing for the home we’ve never known. The prophetic unveiling that exposes the forms of things.
There’s a great contemplative practice waiting for us in this, I think.
Next time you watch a film or read a book or what have you and begin to feel nostalgic, ask yourself: why? The same praxis of precept, principle, person we use for textual hermeneutics we can retool for aesthetic hermeneutics. In this case, the precept is the specific manifestation of nostalgia, in my case it’s 80’s film and MMO and DnD references in READY PLAYER ONE. But what’s the principle?
For me, it’s the community of men surrounding me in that time of life, men who have moved away and started families or taken jobs because that’s what capitalism does best: break up our common life.
We have found common things at last and marriage and a creed…
But once upon a time we had not only a shared grammar and shared experience, we had a shared text and a shared confession. We still share the latter two, even though the former two have faded, but that community is the principle behind the nostalgia for me. And the text and confession of that community make me long for the person behind them.
And that person — the Good Old Ancient of Days — calls me to make such communities again.
In this way, nostalgia may well be the most practical effect of any work of art. Nostalgia calls us to rebuild the good we’ve lost, to remember the good we’ve forgotten that our forefathers have forgotten. To resurrect the beautiful in a world that’s passing away: nostos the Greek word for ‘return home.’ Algos the Greek word for ‘pain.’
Nerd culture makes me homesick. But not homesick for Everquest. At least not on the deepest, truest level.
On the deepest, truest level, I will seek the secret to this game we’re playing, the secret our Maker has hidden within it:
The Easter egg.
Lancelot Schaubert has sold hundreds of stories, articles, and poems to markets like TOR (Macmillan), The New Haven Review, McSweeney’s, The World Series Edition of Poker Pro, The Poet’s Market, Writer’s Digest, and many similar venues.
To grab a free copy of chapter one of his best written work (slated for 2019) and his best song, click here.