I remember a time when I took for granted that I could eat at restaurants, lay around in the park, and visit my family. Weeks into lockdown, we’re all probably feeling at least a little bit nostalgic (specifically, for the heady days of January).
During lockdown, most Uni students have been at their family home. For many, this means returning to their childhood bedrooms, complete with all the books, games and films they used to enjoy, and all the time in the world in which to enjoy them. How many must have begun reading Harry Potter, watching Lord of the Rings, and playing their Nintendo Game Boy in the past few weeks?
I’ve kept myself occupied, among other things, by returning to the old PC games I used to play years ago. These included the original Empire Earth, released in 2001 – I’d forgotten how hypnotizing the soundtrack was – along with Caesar 3, Football Manager 2010, and, most of all, Rome: Total War. I felt so nostalgic about them that I preferred to return to these old favourites than try new games. You can keep your beautiful graphics, your enhanced gameplay features; I had unfinished business with the Carthaginians to attend to, after all. I wanted to add the latest chapter in the history of me and the games I used to play.
When a sports star wins, among the first things the commentator says is ‘this is their first win since…’ or ‘this is the nth win of their career’: we care deeply about stories, about records, and about histories. When Federer spectacularly won the 2017 Australian Open against Nadal, the occasion was all the greater for the histories the two players shared. This was the latest chapter to add to the rest. Nostalgia was at work altering our perception of what was happening in the present, making some things seem incomparably more important.
But why do we long for things in the past? And why do we do it more when we feel anxious and uncertain?
It must be that we think things in the past were better than in the present. Perhaps because they are memories – we know how they begin, how they end, how we felt. We can even alter and improve them. In a time of great uncertainty, memories have a longed-for completeness about them.
Nostalgia is often a dark force in literary works. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian Flyte is said to be ‘in love with his own childhood’, the personification of nostalgia. This was not meant as a compliment. Sebastian, walking around Oxford clutching his teddy bear, finds himself incapable of living successfully as an adult, years of indulgence turning to substance abuse. Charles Ryder looks back with nostalgia at 1920s England from the ‘40s, and is trapped by longing for the past, until the workings of divine grace help him escape at the end of the book.
Despite its sometimes-dark presentation in literature, nostalgia can be positive. Think of computer games and sporting events: nostalgia is such a draw in culture as it uniquely ties us to the joys of our past, and brings them into the present.