Nostalgia: Why the Left and Right Both Get It Wrong
You could say that culture is nothing less than proper adoration for the dead, both literal and figurative. Robert Harrison writes in The Dominion of the Dead that to be human and living in the world means to be a creature of “legacy.” “That explains why the living housed the dead before they housed themselves,” Harrison says. “They placed them in graves, coffins, urns—in any case they placed them in something that we call their resting place so that their legacies could be retrieved and their afterlives perpetuated.” The idea of home, then, as something more than just a temporary shelter for the living to take a moment’s rest in, but as something consecrated in both time and place, comes from the recognition of those original inhabitants and the knowledge that we’ll someday join them. Understanding this, we can see that a home can be more than a house. It can be a language, a song, a meal, or a game. Each can act as worthy abodes for remembrance of and communion with the dead.
In Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, Anthony Esolen brings up the bodies, so to speak, and reminds us of what the ancients took for granted–that a home that doesn’t house the dead alongside the living isn’t worthy of the name. Of course, Esolen, being a Christian, balances that pagan knowledge, so psychologically and socially practical, against the understanding that what we might call our true home transcends ancestor worship and grottos for the household gods. This is the eternal home that Esolen references in his title, with the word itself, nostalgia, hinting at some ultimate and universal residence that we can only intimate through its aching absence. He writes, “The Welsh call it hiraeth, ‘longing,’ and in one of their folks songs they say that nobody can tell what exactly hiraeth is, but it brings both great joy and intense pain.”
Esolen is adamant in believing that our contemporary world is particularly homeless, but he’s not blind to the common misconceptions of what “nostalgia” means. From the outset, he describes how the word is misused by people clinging to both ends of the political spectrum. The reactionary makes a lifeless cargo cult of the past, emptying it of its force while worshipping its form, the difference between a living and a dead faith. And the progressive errs in the opposite direction, fetishizing a future Eden that never comes. “Ithaca is not paradise,” Esolen writes, his point being that nostalgia in its best sense organizes the energy of the past in coherent enough form to bring value and order to the future. Nostalgia is relational, never quite settled and always in need of cultivation. “Make it new!” was Ezra Pound’s injunction, the past (“it”) and the new balanced carefully upon the fulcrum of homo faber. It’s an equation that Esolen proves in and with the lush beauty of his book.
As expected, Esolen moves along a familiar set of coordinates: time and space. One way to look at it is that these are the two elements that limit man. They form the limit and shape of our experiences, but in being so they’re also the two spectrums through which we can long for home. And they provide the means through which we transmit our human legacy and cultivate (there’s that prefix again) community. As Esolen writes:
It is that the longing to go home, to a real culture, is also a longing not to be alone anymore. They who are cut adrift in time are like survivors of a shipwreck, each clinging to his own spar or beam. They who are at home in culture dwell in something that spans the generations and renews them, throwing bridges across the divides of class and sex and age. Think of a black man and a white man who both love the poetry of John Keats, and what a profoundly beautiful thing they share in the depths of their souls. At the best of times the rich man and the poor man do not share enough. In our time, the rich man and the other rich man share almost nothing. We are alone.
The love of time, of the particular way that time has accumulated within us and enriched our own experiences, parallels the way Esolen describes how we should love place. “Let me suggest, then,” he writes, “that man loves his place because it would make a nice postcard. He loves it because it is in him, and he is in it; it bears the impress of his fingers, and it touches the nerves of his soul. The place that has once been seen and worked and loved by man is no longer a mere intersection of longitude and latitude.” Much in the way that a tradition that has been cherished and tended, kept strong with a pulse, becomes more than a slurry of names and dates.
Vital to Esolen’s argument, if one can call it that, and necessary to his depth, is a celebration of the particulars. He doesn’t make the case for culture, tradition, and transcendence in the broad, almost abstract language in which I describe it. This book is incandescent with detail, like a mosaic created by a master craftsman. Shakespeare, Milton, folk songs, the Book of Common Prayer, Hawthorn, Spencer, Pascal, Dante–all blend with details of places as they’re actually experienced. A particularly moving passage describes a young Esolen walking along the train trestle beyond the boundaries of his hometown. Which is all to say that he doesn’t quite argue his case like a barrister, but gives actual examples of beauty and wisdom worth preserving. His prose, erudite and jargonless, ascends the details of his evidence to reach wonderful crescendos:
So I assert that the conservative alone is capable of coming to terms with change and accepting it for what it is, neither making a god of it nor fearing its ravages. He grasps that change, if it is to be itself and not something else, must preserve its subject, and if it is to be good for man, it must be directed by God. Otherwise, man falls in idolatry of scientists, the state, the eructations of mass entertainment—something, anything—and the prone man goes nowhere. He makes an idol of change and stands in a stupor before it, impotent to resist. Such a person has no longing for home because he has cast into a dungeon his longing for anything at all. He has shut himself up in the prison of what he calls his liberty.
If Nostalgia can be said to have a weakness, it’s one that is an unavoidable shadow of its strength: in keeping such a wide berth from polemical argument, there’s a bit of preaching to the converted. On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to it. I mean, if Shakespeare and Milton can’t convince you of the transcendent immutability of truth and beauty, will Esolen be able to? But what ends up happening is that the best arguments of the opposition go unacknowledged and unanswered. Au currant social and political preoccupations are reduced to caricatures of themselves, and without the persuasive kill shot that can only be leveled against your enemy at his best, one is left wondering why, if the horrors of the modern world are so obvious, people seem to be leaning into it nonetheless. It’s a weakness that I’m sensitive to only because it’s one I’ve found in my own writing as well. But no book can be all things to all people, and perhaps the purpose of this book is less to persuade the unbeliever than give heart to the long-suffering faithful.
The bottom line is that this is an impressive book. Esolen is a learned man who wears his learning lightly, and that makes Nostalgia a joy to read. It’s also deceptively simple. Hiding just under the surface of his dappled prose is the truth of incarnation, of how a transcendent and eternal reality pierces the particulars of our lives.
I’m reminded of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s wonderful first book Meditations on Quixote, which anticipated Heidegger’s phenomenology and in prose that’s actually moving. He writes: “God is perspective and hierarchy; Satan’s sin was an error of perspective…. The intuition of higher values fertilizes our contact with the lesser ones, and love for what is near and small makes the sublime real and effective within our hearts. For the person for whom small things do not exist, the great is not great.” In other words, depth requires surface in order to express itself. Too often the politically obsessed err either too far left (the depth does not exist, only surface) or too far right (the surface is an unnecessary distraction), when wisdom, of course, requires both working in conjunction. And Esolen is extraordinarily talented at teaching how transcendent reality moves with and through the appearance of things, in time and place, in great literature and small hometowns. In Nostalgia, he might be singing to the choir, but his song is true.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.