Nostalgia as Arson

forest-fireA couple of months ago I spent a few weeks “reflecting” my way through Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, which suggested that both the political right and the political left were “stuck in the past” when trying to articulate Our Current Historical Moment.

Levin was recently interviewed by James K. A. Smith over at Comment Magazine.  It’s a good interview, as it digs in a little deeper into Our Current Historical Moment.  The question of nostalgia comes up early and often, though.  Turns out that nostalgia and revolution might be kissing cousins.

It’s interesting. I think what they have in common—this nostalgic framework and the revolutionary mindset—is that they’re both at their core escapist. They both want to solve the problems we have by essentially just burning down the environment in which they exist. I think they’re a little different in terms of what that escape would mean. There is a sense in which the nostalgic mindset is less ambitious, less radical exactly because it thinks of the ideal as something that’s remembered, so it could actually exist in the real world.

I think a revolutionary fervour, in a funny way—and Burke really saw this very clearly—it’s still about going back. It’s about going back all the way. I like to contrast Burke with Thomas Paine because Paine was incredibly explicit about this point. What revolution meant to him was to overthrow all of the artificial social constructions and return to a natural state—that it’s still there waiting for us to start over from.

So it’s a matter of “how far back” one wants to go in order to find correction for Our Current Historical Moment.

Alan Jacobs recently posted a humorous but true point about nostalgia.   Over at his blog, he writes

Whenever you suggest that history is a matter of losses as well as gains, whenever you call attention to what we’ve lost along the way, whether it’s something we deliberately set aside or something we just forgot to pack, a great chorus starts shouting “Nostalgia!” You may not even want to have packed it; you may think that we chose as well as we could have in the circumstances; but you need only hint that something of value, even of some tiny tiny value, that we once held we hold no longer, and it starts: “always the loud angry crowd, / Very angry and very loud,” crying: “Nostalgia!”

The lyric Jacobs quotes in from W. H. Auden’s “Law like love.”  You can read all of that post here.  And you can read the entire interview between Smith and Levin here.

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