As a small child, it didn’t occur to me that the porcelain Mao Zedong bust in my grandparents’ living room was, to put it lightly, weird; I simply accepted it as part of the anachronism that permeated their obscure town in northwestern China. Growing up among the hypermodern landscape of 2000’s Beijing, the overt commemoration of the earliest generation of Communist Party rule was a rare sight, and in between school and home, my life was routinely naïve and late-stage-capitalist. On the other hand, from following instructions to tie a red scarf around my neck in Grade 1 to dimly swearing the Young Pioneers’ oath, I acquired a distinctly childish yet strangely self-contained political awareness. What I grasped from the assemblies, textbooks, and documentaries about martyrs was a strange contrast: that expressions like my grandparents’ bust were a little outdated and provincial, yet resoundingly correct. The central contradiction here, of course, is that the famines and intergenerational trauma that ripped gaping wounds in my grandparents’ lives were made by the bust’s very likeness.
Adolescence arrived and I began to read resentment from the lips of my parents’ generation, those late eighties’ students whose anger bled out on city squares in front of Western cameras. The country of their birth became a contradictory place for them after those days, and when they sat me down one night to tell me we’re moving away, in a sense I wasn’t surprised. Faced with curious Canadian classmates as the new kid, I realized that it was impossible to translate my subconsciously politicized childhood into English. More fundamentally, I couldn’t interpret it myself: how can a belief be both irrational and reaffirmed by its own surroundings? Why do people cling to the past as if it heals?
In more recent months, insulated from the past through time and geography, I’ve found some space for looking back, and have been attempting to frame memories of the bust and its associated emotional politics as a kind of nostalgia. Accessible and legible, nostalgia is nevertheless a value judgement posing as non-fiction.
Theorists of cultural studies are overwhelmingly negative towards nostalgia for this reason: Fredric Jameson’s critique of ‘nostalgia film’ centres on its reduction of historical consciousness into consumerist objectification. In her classic investigation of myth and memory, the late scholar Svetlana Boym defined nostalgia pointedly as ‘a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed’: it is thoroughly fiction, a ‘romance with one’s own fantasy’ that demands no factual basis from the narrative it yearns to reinforce. Of course, the fictitious nature of nostalgia does not make it any less powerful, and to identify that is not to exonerate its emboldening of ignorance and colonialism. Indeed, it is imperative that we recognize the danger and damage of nostalgic belief. The Confederate statues that dot the American South are embodiments of a certain group’s shared memory under nostalgia’s distortion: fuelled by the desire to give the mythological ‘Lost Cause’ permanence, they were not erected as monuments to the past, but rather as steps towards a ‘white supremacist future’. The old Confederate men in William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ remember the past with an almost religious conviction, as if recalling ‘a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches’; in declaring that ‘Memory believes before knowing remembers,’ Faulkner underscores the critical relationship between recollections and belief. When nostalgia supersedes knowledge, its control over the mind imitates ideology more than it does history.
Boym looks to nostalgia’s ancient Greek roots to unpack its contradiction: nóstos (‘return home’) and álgos (‘longing’). The ‘longing’ in nostalgia unites us, but the respective ‘homes’ we identify are the ideologically charged part of nostalgia that interacts with the structures of power in our respective societies. If 43% of British people think positively of the Empire (according to one survey; the reproducibility of statistics like these are disputable and another article in itself), then one may reach the verdict that a significant portion of this country chooses imperial domination as the imaginary homeland of its longing. This conclusion’s sinister implications about the UK’s collective psyche certainly draw eyeballs but are after all a generalization: though the good ol’ days of conquest are subtly (and sometimes overtly) glorified in curricula and popular media, the realities of the British Empire, with its dangerous seafaring, opium monopolies, and crimes against entire peoples, probably do not inspire warm fuzzies in the hearts of average citizens. Nostalgia is not based on actual history but rather sourced from the imagination. In quietly longing for a feel-good version of the past, modern Britain is more likely to be nostalgic for the fiction of stable prosperity and superiority than the realities of imperialism itself. However, though the homeland of this longing rests more with the instability of the perceived present than with any historical reality, the effect is the same: in allowing the narrative of a whitewashed and comfortable collective longing to overpower challenging issues of oppression and complicity, nostalgia, when morphed into unexamined belief, conflates the imagination with reality and empowers increasingly polarizing ideology.
Nostalgia is not too bothered with accurate chronology or consistent temporality: as T. S. Eliot so aptly put in ‘Little Gidding’,
…, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
‘Little Gidding’ recalls a 17th-century Anglican community in Huntingdonshire and conjures the biblical image of Pentecostal fire to reflect on redemption within time. While the exact spirituality of the poem may be less available to us as a general framework for understanding nostalgia, the focus on individual subjectivity in Eliot’s ‘secluded chapel’ does remind us of memory’s inherent humanity. Though removing fictions from history is past due, repeatedly centring the conversation on admonishing nostalgia can be condescending and self-defeating; at its worst, it becomes a caricature of academic snobbery. Nishant Shahani points out observantly that Jameson himself, in critiquing nostalgia, longs ironically for the ‘traditional subject’ of ‘real history’ within the postmodern literature he studies. There’s simply no point in pretending anyone can be somehow above nostalgia: the self-reflexive, storytelling impulse that compels us to make tales of our pasts is inescapable. The sense of control nostalgia gives us is central to comprehending ourselves: if we’re still able to reduce our pasts to digestible, rosy images, then our identities remain cohesive and functional. Moreover, nostalgia perceives its version of the past as irrecoverable, allowing us to covertly surrender some responsibility for our lives and lament losses we aren’t prepared to reclaim. To me, this interpretation came somewhat close to decoding my grandparents’ aberrant, embodied nostalgia of distortion: by packaging their trauma and complex histories into a comprehensible and socially acceptable expression of loyalty, they preserve themselves. In unconsciously repackaging memories into nostalgia, the reduction becomes a survival mechanism.
It does occur to me, however, that reading their actions in this way is somewhat patronising. It’s easily co-opted by that prejudiced generalisation of a brainwashed, monolithic PRC, where individuals must align their subjective experiences of the regime to one collective story of prosperity and success. Nostalgia will always express itself alongside a framework of power dynamics, and the kind of mental survival my grandparents’ attempt, especially considering the sheer physical and social distance between them and any political power, is of course most understandable when it’s read as submission.
However, this remains a simplification, and the more we delve into nostalgia’s relationship with marginalization, the less logical the story becomes. One could, for example, draw a comparison with the rise of period pieces in LGBTQ cinema: from Pride’s setting of the miners’ strikes and The Favourite reimagining Queen Anne’s court, to Moonlight’s portrayal of eighties Miami and popular biopics such as The Imitation Game and Milk, top-grossing queer films of the last decade have been looking further back than ever. Reflecting on ‘gay cinema and nostalgia’, film critic Ben Walters argues that this newborn interest in documentation is a response to the community’s general shift towards legal and social assimilation as well as commercialization; many self-identified queer people are experiencing more affirmation, but lack real-life intergenerational connections in the community. In other words, the contemporary queer experience is hungry for heritage. The framework of power gives us one side of the story: that of a community until recently denied basic dignity by much of society, asserting nostalgia as a form of resistance. Oppression deprives the marginalized ‘other’ of the right to memory: the erasure (and minor regional revivals) of indigenous-language place names in North America serve as clear examples of the omnipresent violence in the battle for nostalgia. This appetite for a collective past is a logical step for a community whose opponents cite the apparent fictitiousness of their identities to this day: when many in mainstream society still label their genders as ‘made-up’ and their sexualities as ‘phases’, pieces of historical evidence act as sources of validation.
Nostalgia, however, is not the truth. It performs truthfulness very well, but in its process of placing judgement tends to disguise the actual truth. Media scholars have recognized a trend of ‘fetishizing’ the pre-Stonewall era in LGBTQ cinema, and some argue that queer period films, in trying to walk that fine line between normativity and radicalism, succeed more in uplifting the contemporary audience than in achieving any new artistic or political ground. The past, additionally, is a safer place than the present. According to Walters, in searching the archives for inspiration queer filmmakers may be avoiding far more contentious contemporary issues such as the experiences of trans youth and sex workers. The newfound creative space of nostalgia, for a community, slowly acquiring a place in the spotlights, is both a blessing and a curse: if the right to collective memories, however fictional they are, is a fundamental part of equality and resistance, then does that imply a moral responsibility intrinsically attached to accessing, representing, and curating these memories? Are the works of historians necessarily an activist one, and might that place an undue onus on the discipline? The nostalgias that have existed before have been nationalistic, colonial, culpable; is the new generation now burdened with cleansing nostalgia of its sins, or should we discard nostalgia as a creative and academic medium altogether?
The Twitter account @sapphobot tweets snippets of Sappho every two hours, and its most-retweeted one (by a wide margin) goes:
someone will remember us
even in another time
I suspect the universal appeal to nostalgia is the main reason this particular Greek fragment resonates so strongly. Whether as a symbol of ancient queer femininity or a more general allure, the romantic imagination we attribute to Sappho of Lesbos stems from a desire to give the past some collective narrative that reaffirms our present. To put simply, if history isn’t a bangin’ good story, then we would have a far less natural interest in it. Gilad Padva, in his Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop Culture, defends nostalgia as a critical mean through which community itself is created: if critics demonize nostalgia and place it in a dichotomy against the ostensibly more ‘rational’ subject of history, then they must contend with the fact that it is the nostalgia that constitutes much heritage and folklore, in this particular case its irreplaceable role in the genesis of transgressive LGBTQ counterculture. Without making the past into a story worth recalling and reminiscing, personhood itself, especially our acquired means of interpersonal connection and belonging, comes under threat. But one still has to reckon with the question: what does it mean to live meaningfully, aware that the personal narrative on which your identity is based is largely constructed? None of the above theories, sadly, can fully parse the Mao bust for me. I found some satisfaction in analyses of conformity to power, but subversions and complications within socio-political frameworks made it clear that nostalgia isn’t only a model of systemic oppression. It is instead something of a conundrum: the intrinsic humanity of it makes it both universal and exclusionary, almost as if it is merely a reflection of our conflicting, irreconcilable desires. Nostalgia doesn’t describe what was; instead, for better or worse, it immerses the past with our presentist, unstable longings.
In the seventeenth century, Swiss doctors believed that nostalgia is a disease curable with opium and a trip to the Alps. Today we’re no longer so averse to the rosy lens of looking backwards, but everywhere there’s evidence of blind acceptance towards nostalgia and refusal to candidly confront its aftermath. The entry point to a new model of nostalgia, therefore, is honesty towards our individual and collective desires: I will never fully understand my grandparents’ psyche because we are, ultimately, such different people, but I’d imagine that the snow-white bust above their TV personifies some posttraumatic resolution they so wanted and are still in search of.