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  • David Savill

Research: The challenge of nostalgia in the creative process

The Cold War is back. Both in academic circles and popular culture. The popularity of Tom Robb Smith’s Child 44, (given a big budget Hollywood treatment this year), has not a little to do with the spending power of a generation who are both nostalgic and curious about the geo-political environment which shaped them.

The same generation is now employed in Higher Education, and producing titles like The New Cold War, and The Fall of the Soviet Union (in academia, the Soviet Union has 'fallen', many, many times).

In my own years making films with the BBC, Peter Molloy’s excellent The Lost World of Communism, was a commission predicated partly on the knowledge that a television viewing audience of a certain age, would respond to the memories invoked.

But as storytellers, do we have a responsibility to ensure recent history is not lost to the ill-effects of nostalgia? What are those effects? And how do we counter them?

To anyone under thirty, the Cold War is an exotic piece of history.

To the digital generation, the cars and haircuts of the BBC’s new series, ‘The Game’, are something to both marvel at and covet. (The same haircuts, in fact, are very much alive in the classrooms of teenagers today).

To anyone under thirty, it would be easy to sell the lie that life was more exciting as a result of the cold war—the world as James Bond, and not John Le Carre.

To those in their thirties, the Austin Maxi’s on the BBC’s unwashed streets, trundling inbetween White Hall buildings blackened with CGI to remind us of how dirty things were before the 1990’s, are the cars from which we looked onto the lunatic, adult world. The memory of a bogeyman with a Russian accent is almost as comforting as the smell of those fake leather seats. Much more comforting than the sound of an Arab voice.

To those over forty, the cold war is a very vivid piece of a personal past, and a way of thinking about the world which was rudely interrupted by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course, no-one in their right minds loved the cold war, but something about the way in which it suddenly ended, can make the cold war feel like something stolen from us. It is perhaps this sense of something taken away, which deepens the nostalgia.

On first consideration, this nostalgia might appear to be the luxury of a western observer who was relatively untroubled by gulags, food shortages and terror. But a longing for the conditions of the Soviet Union is strong among many Russians, (and even a few central europeans who have always grieved for the end of the Soviet Union). Would Russians nostalgic for the Soviet Union accept the cold war and all the ills of communism as a condition for the Union’s return?

Is this desire to think through the connections between past and present, and decide a direction for the future, part of the function of nostalgia?

Some contemporary critics think Putin’s present day strategies are in part driven by a nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Nostalgia as a longing for lost power. But psychologists have also described the soldier’s 'nostalgia' for battle. What could possible be the purpose of that? I can understand nostalgia as a wish fulfilment. But how could the return of personal trauma, of a threat to our lives, be psychologically packaged as something good for us?

Nostalgia is in equal measure, attractive and dangerous to the novelist writing anything about those living with Europe’s current failures of policy on the old ‘Eastern front’. If nostalgia's psychical function is to return what was good in the past, nostalgia is surely so bad at this task, it is almost redundant. Having encouraged us to look through rose-tinted spectacles, nostalgia can often leave us feeling so desperate about the state of our present, it leads to nothing but depression.

Whatever the purposes of nostalgia, if you are interested as I am in novels that help us to think through our political moment in time, beware the distorting effects of nostalgia. Don’t give in to its warm glow when you write.

Shouldn’t it be this simple?

Well no. I don't think so. It could be as complex as the fact that we can experience a feeling of nostalgia for eras we never lived in, and for traumas that were no good for us at all. Nostalgia is a chimerical thing.

The creative problem begins with this. My own writing feeds on nostalgia. I can’t seem to get going on a story unless I locate my characters in a past I have physically experienced. It is not that I don't conceptualise, and quite often use in my writing, places I have never visited and people I have never known. But—I can’t seem to find the creative energy to invent them, unless I start by exploring the difficult, nostalgic feelings I have for my own past.

If I am not alert, this personal nostalgia can bleed easily into the thoughts and actions of an entire community of characters, and before I know it, my fictional world is tainted, unbelievable, unsatisfying.As a novelist then, what I must do, is think critically about nostalgia.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that Satre’s Nostalgia, was a formative novel for me. The existentialists tended to emphasise the pain at the root of the word coined by physician Johannes Hofer in the 1680’s: nostos, homecoming / algos, pain.

With its semantic routes in medicine, nostalgia has been called the sickness of the past, and between the 17th and 19th centuries, the word described something akin to a psychopathological disorder.

In a wonderful paper exploring the historical ‘disease of nostalgia’, Michael S.Roth, describes how nostalgia in the 18th century became particularly associated with Swiss soldiers. One Swiss milking song was so likely to cause nostalgic feeling, (and so weaken and depress the soldier’s listening), playing it could be punished by death. Reading the casebooks of the past, Roth concludes that what we now readily call ‘nostalgic feeling’, was once perceived to be the route of much depression, and the cause of people's withdrawal from the world.

In the light of this, it is interesting we now have the phrase, ‘nostalgia industry’, along with the idea that nostalgia is something we desire.The term nostalgia industry might be used lightly in the pejorative dismissal of cheap mementos, but in storytelling, much Hollywood product is premised on the function of nostalgia. The people financing hits like 16 Again, Big or Freaky Friday, figure on doubling their audience because they know generation-swap stories appeal as much to the teenager as the adult longing nostalgically for youth.

Clearly, Hollywood believes nostalgia is a positive experience which people seek out. A means of escape. And in the race among creators of a certain age to return to their youth, cold war nostalgia competes with mafia nostalgia, drug scene nostalgia, disco nostalgia and much more besides. What part did nostalgia play in the creation and execution of Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas? How will JJ Abraham’s make use of nostalgia in the new Star Wars episodes released later this year?

But consider nostalgia a painful experience. Consider it a question, and not an answer, and perhaps it can become a critical, productive energy, instead of a regressive, palliative one. I think novelists can embrace nostalgia, and work with it, not just to produce sentimental escapist fantasies (which also has its uses!), but to produce questioning, surprising work, and to produce questioning surprising conversations with history. We can't efface nostalgia because it is a quality of all remembering, but we can take it on.

I can be critical of my own creative process. If nostalgia begins as a longing for the past, for what kind of past am I longing?This is something we can all ask ourselves.

When I examine my choices of subject, there seems to be a particular quality of experience involved. My own nostalgia is sparked not by memories that are easily recovered, (the memories I carry around in the present jumble of my imagination), but the memories harder to find. My nostalgia thrives on those memories which, like the cold war between 1989 and 1991, seem suddenly on the brink of disappearing.

I long for the town whose name I can’t remember, visited on that day whose date is unknown with those people who only appear as faces, and who were in my life for reasons I can’t quite recall. My nostalgia then, appears to function like some kind of psychical reclamation agency, and the first drafts of my work need to be treated only as findings, the starting point for something I can transform beyond my self.

Thinking like this, I am not looking to memorialise what is certain and bestow upon it the comfort of something resolved. I am trying to explore uncertainty. This, I think, is a more fitting starting point for the medium of the novel.

To render a consciousness, and a lost world believable, and then to make it useful to the present, my nostalgia must be tempered with research - with the remembering of others and with the analysis of history. In this way, the process of fictionalising the recent past, is a journey out of self, with its necessarily limited perception, and into the other.

For a fascinating range of views on the problem of nostalgia and writing, visit the World Literatures pages of the Writers Centre in Norwich, featuring talks and videos in a conference on the subject.

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