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The Time-Binding of Nostalgia

by Sam Kelly (with an afterword by Athena)

It is my great pleasure to reprint an essay by my friend Sam Kelly (aka Eithin — Cymraeg for Gorse) who blogs at Cold Iron and Rowan-Wood. Sam was born to theatre folk and engineers, and brought up in the Essex woodlands and the Welsh mountains. Disability cut short a PhD in nanomaterials chemistry; he now lives in London, where he writes about fantastika and makes art.

I’ve been reading a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay recently (Under Heaven, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road, and The Lions of Al-Rassan) and have therefore naturally been thinking about identity, passion, and pride.

It’s a commonly accepted trope amongst many fantasy critics, scholars, and commenters that fantasy is, at its root, about nostalgia. I’ve never quite agreed with this, but I think that’s partly because nostalgia comes in several flavours. The word comes from the Greek nostos, a homecoming, and algos, pain, and was coined as a medical term in 1688 to describe Swiss mercenaries’ longing for the mountains of their home. (As a Welshman, I can relate to that! The Welsh word hiraeth is mostly untranslatable, but Heimweh does seem like a cultural analogue.)

In recent decades, however (and especially by the English) it’s been coopted to describe a kind of early 20th century idyll. You know the one—ploughmen, foaming nut-brown ale, small children waving at steam trains, The Countryside or The Beach two hours’ journey away, a distinct lack of brown people. It’s basically thinly disguised neo-mediaevalism, or rather neo-mediaevalism (in fantasy writers of a certain age, at least) is a proxy for their yearning for the kind of social certainty that supposedly existed in the recent past.

I feel compelled to point out here that that past (either of those pasts) never really existed, and the only way to pretend that they did is by wholesale erasure of the experiences and histories of women, the working classes, nonwhite people (there have always been nonwhite people in Britain, at least back to the Romans if not before) and Jews. Not to mention (and people rarely do mention) those who are more than one of those. It’s fairly safe to blame the Victorians for making up the mediaeval idyll. We’ve been reimagining recent history ever since, and it’s not as though revisionist history started in 1820 for that matter, but it was the Victorians who pioneered the mass production of History.

So that’s one way in which nostalgia is expressed in English-language fantasy fiction: the desire for an imagined past. That can be a joyful escapist wish, as with William Morris, or a heartfelt elegy for something that could never have been, as with Tolkien. In either version, the past (in the context of the novel, ie. the created world’s own imagined past) is seen explicitly as a good thing, a lost Golden Age.

There’s another version of nostalgia, however—nostalgia in its most etymologically strict sense, the pain of longing for a homecoming—and that is the one experienced by those whose home is contested, denied, erased. The interesting thing about that is that in the latter, the past-within-the-text is usually unpleasant, problematized, or generally Not Even Slightly Golden.

Athena’s afterword: There is a third group that experiences nostalgia – those who have left home (mostly) voluntarily and live as perpetual exiles, outsiders to both natal and adopted cultures, a shard of thick glass between our hearts and our words. For those who walk between worlds, home is what we carry in our heads. Even the worlds we remember never existed or no longer exist and we are feral orphans who press our faces against others’ lit windows. If we ever return home, it does not recognize us – and we are more like Angelopoulos’ Odysseus than Homer’s.

Black Swallow — a folksong of exile from Thrace, sung by Hrónis Aidhonídhis (“Son of the Nightingale”). Click on the title to listen:

My black swallow from afar,
my white dove from home,
you fly so high! Come lower
and open your wings,
so I can write to my mother,
my sisters — and my love.

And the lament of those left behind: the famous Tzivaéri mou (“My Treasure”) from the Dodecanese, sung by Dhómna Samíou.

Images: 1st, Oleg Yankovsky in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia; 2nd, Harvey Keitel in Theódoros Angelópoulos’ The Gaze of Odysseus.

8 Responses to “The Time-Binding of Nostalgia”

  1. Caliban says:

    I think part of the reason for emphasizing the nostalgia in fantasy is that, comparatively, nostalgia is absent from science fiction. (One could, I’m sure, find exceptions–I mean this comparison broadly.) Of course, science fiction often suffers from the opposite: the idea that in the future we’ll be both nobler and healthier (see especially Star Trek, the Original Series and the Next Generation), even though, much as you point out here, the same power structures will remain, with white guys giving orders and with people of color answering the phones, tending bars, and fixing things (see especially Star Trek…). I heard one wag label this as “postalgia.”

    Coincidentally–or perhaps not–Shweta Narayan (who both Athena and I know) has just posted some extensions to Dianna Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fairyland, emphasizing some of these points of erasure hidden as nostalgia and exoticism:

  2. Athena says:

    Nostalgia is hidden in SF in the guise of vanished civilizations — Norton (Forerunner stories), Rusch (Diver stories), McDevitt (Benedict stories) come to mind. There’s also being the remnant of the losing side in a war, exemplified by Firefly. And, of course, cyberpunk and its apocalyptic cousins don’t show a happier, healthier future.

    What’s amazing about Star Trek is how middle class California seventies it really is. I mean even aliens have… nuclear families! The abject lapses of imagination in mainstream SF are quite revealing of the status quo mindset. You know I went over this in the last chapters of my book.

    Shweta’s post was interesting; as she points out in her introduction, writers from non-dominant groups have strengthened the homogenized perceptions by writing to spec. Not that I blame them: they have to sell their work, after all, and swimming against the tide is tiring.

  3. Caliban says:

    Well, as I said, one could find exceptions. Nonetheless: when I read SF stories about lost civilizations, it seems to me that often (not always) the stories themselves are not nostalgic. Characters in those stories may be nostalgic, but often the stories offer a subtle critique of that nostalgia.

    Firefly romanticizes being on the losing side of a way–but the most direct reference is the Confederacy losing the American Civil, and I doubt Joss Whedon means to be nostalgic about that. Even though Firefly pushed some of those buttons, such as Mal’s old-timey diction and fondness for suspenders, I didn’t see Firefly as really being nostalgic, but rather about people who are all displaced one way or another, and who must learn to adjust.

  4. Athena says:

    True, the Confederacy is an obvious direct reference in Firefly. However, if you ignore the Wild West veneer and adopt a non-American perspective, you can think of less problematic antecedents of civil wars that are closer to the situation in Firefly. After all, the casus belli was not slavery on the side of Mal’s people and he explicitly abhors and fights slavery. Also (as you say) Mal and Co long for homes that never were/are no more. They are exiles very much in the Flying Dutchman mould. So they fit both non-dominant nostalgia categories.

  5. Caliban says:

    Well, I’m sorry to be so argumentative about this. But I really don’t see the element of nostalgia in Firefly as being very strong. The only one who is really nostalgic for a golden past is Simon–he grew up a privileged, gifted child of wealthy parents and became a wealthy and skilled doctor, which he abandoned to rescue his sister.

    But now that I think back on it–and I just watched the series and the movie recently–none of the other characters have much nostalgia. We *never* hear about Mal’s past before the war. Nor Zoe or anyone else’s. Mal was formed and shaped by the war, but he clearly is not nostalgic for the war itself.

    I think Whedon is playing tricks on us–trying to push our buttons. By putting on old-timey clothes and diction, he allows us to think this is a kind of nostalgia. And clearly the characters all have losses. But, hell, most characters in most fiction have losses, or there wouldn’t be much tension. But, Simon aside, none of the characters express a longing for a time before the war. It’s not at all like Lord of the Rings, where characters *constantly* recall and reminsces about better times, about drinking an ale with friends, and so on. Indeed, it’s hinted at that Shepherd Book had a rather dark past, one he is happy to put behind him.

    They are all exiles, that is true. And in your “third way” you seem to define that as automatically meaning nostalgia. (Perhaps I misunderstand; being dense, I often do.) I find that kind of exile=nostalgia is definitely present in SF (I would call it loneliness, but that’s just me), but it’s very different from the nostalgia that much (not all) of fantasy is drenched in, where characters really do long to go back to a golden past.

    Again, my apologies for being so stubborn and dense…

  6. Athena says:

    It’s true that Whedon uses button-pushing shortcuts in Firefly. And I may be reading into it precisely because I’m primed for such buttons. Also, Firefly was brutally abbreviated. I have a feeling we would have seen glimpses of nostalgia had it been allowed to do the slow burn it obviously intended.

    Exiles are nostalgic for a lost golden time/place — except it’s often personal rather than collective, and as such does condemn its sufferers to the loneliness you describe.

    P. S. This is all by way of conversation. I don’t disagree with any of your points.

  7. Sam Kelly says:

    I’d disagree that SF is not nostalgic, really. It comes out in two ways. The stories aren’t nostalgic in the emotional sense, but SF so often characterises lost civilizations as more advanced than their protagonists’ – it’s the same idea of looking back to a Golden Age, and often their forward perspective is only aspirational in the sense of regaining or equalling the past.

    On the other hand, a lot of SF (and writers’ paradata about their SF) implicitly or explicitly invokes the Whig theory of progress, and anti-romanticizes the past in the process. I think we can usefully think of that as a modern tribe longing for a homeland of their own, dreaming and singing and telling stories of the golden day when the walls of the future fall down. This song (Youtube link) exemplifies what I mean.

  8. […] essay “The Time-Binding of Nostalgia” has been reprinted over at Starship Reckless, with added images and an afterword by Athena Andreadis, and with some interesting discussion in […]