Review and Response to “The Future of Nostalgia” by Svetlana Boym
Posted On May 20, 2023
This is not a new book. It was published in 2001. And in 2015 the author passed away. But I found this book to be timely none the less. After all, the author was dealing with a topic that is timeless – nostalgia.
Boym’s main focus is to look at nostalgia through the lens of the post Cold War world, looking at specific cities and how they transitioned into the post-Cold War era and their use and dealing with nostalgia – sometimes helpful and sometimes not.
While the looks at individual cities and cultures was very interesting and a window into those places at an interesting time in history, I want to focus m attention on the overall idea of nostalgia, which I think is more helpful and timely. I’m thinking about how the idea of nostalgia applies to the church and society – both of which seem to have bouts of nostalgia among a significant percentage of their members. It’s with this in mind that we dive in.
Boys gets to the heart of the matter on the subject right on the first page of the Introduction writing, “Nostalgia (from nostos – return home, and algae – longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” (pg. xiii). This definition is wonderful and captures the essence of nostalgia and recognizes the variety that comes with nostalgia. The core of it is that it is a yearning of a person for something that doesn’t exist, but they have convinced themselves that it did or continues to exist somewhere. It is a selective form of memory – intentionally remembering something the way a person wants to remember it, while conveniently ignoring, forgetting, or wiping away the unpleasant parts of reality.
In order for nostalgia to work, Boym tells us that “The alluring object of nostalgia is notoriously elusive.” (Pg. xiv). That’s because nostalgia deals with fantasy and creativity, not reality. Contact with reality destroys the imagined fantasy. In this way, nostalgia thrives on never actually arriving at its destination so that the dream world can continue to exist.
One of the main points that Boym makes is about why nostalgia exists with some people. It has to do with change and how people deal with it. She writes, “Somehow progress didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it. Similarly, globalization encouraged stronger local attachments. In counterpoint to our fascination with cyberspace and the virtual global village, there is a no less global epidemic of nostalgia, an affective yearning for community with a collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world. Nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals.” (Pg. xiv). Remember, this was written in 2001. Here we are in 2023, and this paragraph sounds like a perfect description of what we are experiencing in society and the church – an epidemic of nostalgia.
But this shouldn’t be surprising. Our society, the church, and the world has been in the midst of major culture shift and change for at least three decades now, in my estimation. This is part of the reason why we have people who seem to be inhabiting different universes or worlds within our church, society, and culture – worlds and universes that are in conflict, that speak different languages (meaning that they may be using the same words, but have far different meanings to those words), have opposing values, alternative facts and truths, and are not understandable to those in opposing worlds.
Boym goes on – “In a broader sense, nostalgia is rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to resist time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.” (pg. xv). Bam. There is it. Nostalgia is a rebellion against reality and the laws of nature. In a theological understanding, it is setting oneself as the arbiter of reality and attempting to bend everything else to one’s desired memory of the past, regardless of the truth of that past. Boym writes, “The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home with the imaginary one. In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill.” (pg. xvi). If that doesn’t describe America in 2023 in some circles, I don’t know what does. And when it comes to the church, there are many encounters with people who are willing to burn the church down (not in a literal sense of fire, but in causing cultural destruction of the institution and organization) in order to get their way, to return to something that is impossible to do, rather than be open change and adaption to reality. The question is why?
Boym writes, “Outbreaks of nostalgia often follow revolutions;” (pg. xvi) It comes down to this, whether we are talking about specific revolutions or not, nostalgia is a response to change. It is a response grounded in loss of control and order for a person or group of people. And that comes with fear. But it is more than that – it is a perceived loss of identity too. An identity attached to something that is changing. Maybe an ideal or value. Maybe a symbol. Maybe a preferred memory. Nostalgia is also a sign that mourning and the grief process need to happen. People need to mourn what was and face that loss. When people refuse to deal with loss, one of the ways they respond is with nostalgia. Or as Boym states, “Nostalgia tantalizes us with its fundamental ambivalence; it is about the repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial.” (pg. xvii).
Boym shifts gears as she moves into the early chapters of the book. She gives some history about nostalgia. Nostalgia was first identified in Swiss mercenary soldiers who had been away from home for a long period of time. It was treated as an actual sickness with remedies that included travel to the Swiss Alps and drinking. And while this may be its origins, nostalgia has spread beyond soldiers to the general public.
Boym talks about institutional nostalgia in which she says, “the stronger the loss, the more it is overcompensated with commemorations, the starker the distance from the past, and the more it is prone to idealizations.” (pg. 17). This is certainly true here in America, which is odd given our relatively short history.
Boym writes, “…pop nostalgia is often a disease of war buffs, not war veterans who prefer to fight staged battles on their own terms. Civil War battlefields have been turned into nostalgic sites where history might be buried but the “experience of battle” can be thoroughly recreated.” (Pg. 37). Think of the fights over Confederate statues, the teaching of history, etc.
Boym then turns her attention to types of nostalgia, breaking it into two tendencies. “Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in the algia, in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgics; they believe that their project is about truth. This kind of nostalgia characterizes national and nationalistic revivals all over the world, which engage in the anti modern myth making of history by means of a return to national symbols and myths and, occasionally, through swapping conspiracy theories. Restorative nostalgia manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments of the the past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.” (pg. 41). Wow. That paragraph is a stinging description of America in 2023 in our political landscape and to a lesser degree our churches. Again, remember, Boym published this book back at the turn of the 21st century, over two decades ago. But humanity hasn’t really changed much in hundreds of years.
Her assessment can be seen in the white Christian Nationalism that has gained traction with its appeals to myths about the founding of the nation, adopted conspiracy theories, and a desire to return to a mythic time in the past when the nation was great, with the definition of greatness left abstract, rather than factual history as it has been recorded.
Or as Boym wrote over two decades ago, well before the current rise of what is currently going on in America, “Restorative nostalgia knows two main narrative plots – the restoration of origins and the conspiracy theory, characteristic of the most extreme cases of contemporary nationalism fed on right-wing popular culture. The conspiratorial worldview reflects a nostalgia for a transcendental cosmology and a simple premodern conception of good and evil. The conspiratorial worldview is based on a single transhistorical plot, a Manichaean battle of good and evil and the inevitable scapegoating of the mythical enemy. Ambivalence, the complexity of history and the specificity of modern circumstances is thus erased, and modern history is seen as a fulfillment of ancient prophecy. ‘Home,’ imagine extremist conspiracy theory adherents, is forever under siege, requiring defense against the plotting enemy.” (pg. 43). This is where we are in America. This is what we are dealing with. This is a description of QAnon, but also of more mainstream figures who want to Make America Great Again, stop “wokeism,” ban books, scapegoat LGBTQ+ people in a variety of ways, block the teaching of history that is uncomfortable because it talks about the sin of slavery and racism among other things, along with other attempts at controlling education, and asserts controls over women.
Boym writes, “Home is not made of individual memories but of collective projections and ‘rational delusions.’ Paranoiac reconstruction of home is predicated on the fantasy of persecution. This is not simply ‘forgetting of reality’ but a psychotic substitution of actual experiences with a dark conspiratorial vision: the creation of a delusionary homeland. Tradition in this way is to be restored with a nearly apocalyptic vengeance… ‘We” for whatever reason feel insecure in the modern world and find a scapegoat for our misfortunes, somebody different from us whom we don’t like. We project our dislike on them and begin to believe that they dislike us and wish to persecute us. ‘They’ conspire against ‘our’ homecoming, hence ‘we’ have to conspire against ‘them’ in order to restore ‘our’ imagined community. This way, conspiracy theory can come to substitute for the conspiracy itself.” (pg. 43).
That may be one of the best descriptions of how conspiracy theories operate. Again, one can look at America in 2023 and see this play out in multiple ways. One example, Drag Queens are scapegoated as being a danger to children and a set of “traditional” values, while mass shootings (which actually cause harm and death) is completely ignored because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the conspiracy and because the people causing the mass shootings don’t fit the description of who is scapegoated and who is threatening the delusional mythic homeland. That’s one example among several that are real life descriptions of what Boym wrote in 2001.
The last thing I would like to highlight is one more feature of the tendencies of nostalgia. “Nostalgia of the first type (Restoration) gravitates towards collective pictoral symbols and oral culture. Nostalgia of the second type (Reflection) is more oriented toward an individual narrative that savors details and memorial signs, perpetually deferring homecoming itself. If restorative nostalgia ends up reconstructing emblems and rituals of home and homeland in an attempt to conquer and spatialize time, reflective nostalgia cherishes shattered fragments of memory and temporalizes space. Restorative nostalgia takes itself dead seriously. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, can be ironic and humorous.” (Pg. 49).
And that last part is the key. Restorative nostalgia is dangerous due to its collective nature and seriousness that it takes upon itself through symbols and culture. It is about identity at its core. And we should be very careful when we are dealing with this kind of nostalgia because we’re dealing with something very dangerous. As Boym writes, “Mourning is connected to the loss of a loved one or the loss of some abstraction, such as a homeland, liberty or an ideal. Mourning passes with the elapsing of time needed for the ‘work of grief.’ In mourning ‘deference to reality gains the day,’ even if its ‘behest cannot at once be obeyed.’ In melancholia the loss is not clearly defined and is more unconscious. Melancholia doesn’t pass with the labor of grief and has less connection to the outside world. It can lead to self-knowledge or to continuous narcissistic self-flagellation. ‘The complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, draining the ego until it is utterly depleted.’ Reflective nostalgia has elements of both mourning and melancholia. White its loss is never completely recalled, it has some connection to the loss of collective frameworks of memory. Reflective nostalgia is a form of deep mourning that performs a labor of grief through pondering pain and through play that points to the future.” (Pg. 55). She goes on to describe a specific example of restorative nostalgia, rather than define it in terms of mourning. And concludes with this sentence, “As for the labor of grief, it could take a lifetime to complete.” (pg. 55)
Boym’s book is helpful in our understanding of world and, I think, what is happening in America today.
But it is also helpful for those of us in churches. There is an epidemic of nostalgia not only in society, but also in our churches, in Christianity in the America. In many ways, there are large segments of the church in America that have blurred the lines between the church and society – hence the prevalence of conspiracy theories within our churches. And there is a great deal of nostalgia in our churches with certain populations as well. It shows up in a desire to go back to some mythical time in the church – the time when the pews were full and everything was good. A time when everyone got along all the time. A time when the laws eliminated any competition for churches on Sunday morning, expectations that everyone would go to church was the norm, and there were no sports competing for time. Church was the primary social outlet for people, there was an established order, and it was a time when the culture favored and centered the church. It was also a time when the church didn’t dare speak up about injustice in society because of its privileged place, but rather actively worked at either ignoring an unjust status quo or worked to maintain the order because of its place in society. And that culture and that existence of the church has been dying for some time now. And there are people who are having trouble mourning this loss. For those who knew this – it was the norm. Set aside judgement about it. If this was what you experienced as normal and then things changed, it will have an effect on you.
During my time supply preaching over the last several months, I have come to encounter two groups of people among so many others that have stuck out to me. One group are the nostalgics, as Boym would call them. They take church very seriously, partly because church has been part of how they define who they are, their identity. And from them I hear loss of what was. It doesn’t matter if it was good or bad because this is really about a loss of identity. They express a desire to go back to the way it was. We need to help these people mourn their loss. And it’s a collective loss, not just individual. Because the church was more than just individual expression of faith – it was community. We need to help people go through the stages of grief so that they can be open to the new possibilities that exist. We need to be intentional about this. It won’t happen on its own as we have seen for the last couple of decades.
The other group I encounter are the hopefuls – they don’t have a similar experience with church. Their identity comes from elsewhere. They never experiences full pews. They only know the church as it used to be the center of the culture, but it hasn’t been that way for a long time now. And more. They haven’t experienced the loss of much with the church. They are more likely to associate church with abuse that is being exposed and eradicated than the church being a safe place. They only know what they experience now – it’s their norm. They are hopeful for the future and the possibilities that exist. It doesn’t make sense for them to go back to something that for them never actually existed. This group wants a vision of where we are headed and how they participate.
And when we look at society in general, I think these two groups are in our society as well. While Boym’s discussion about narrative is helpful for us to understand it and those suffering from it, let’s not stop there. Just as we need to help nostalgics in church to mourn the past – either real or imagined, we should do the same with those in our society too. Mourn and go through the process of grief of what was in intentional ways, so that they can be open to new possibilities. If we don’t, we all suffer. And for those who have hope – present a vision and an invitation of how they can participate and contribute. We’ll be better for it if we do these things.