Nostalgia, I am told, is very bad. Or at the very least it is quixotic. Young people are nostalgic because they don’t know any better, mature adults, on the other hand, accept life as it is with all its gritty realism. To an extent I accept this argument; it can certainly be problematic to long for a golden era that never actually existed, to tilt at windmills or take up residence on Sunset Boulevard. Nostalgia has a dark side when it is unhinged from reality.
So why won’t nostalgia go away? Why do we return to it again and again as a form of artistic expression?
Recently, The Tallest Man On Earth, also known as musician Kristian Matsson, released his 4th album, Dark Bird Is Home. Like much of his work (and the work of other many other musical artists), it is overflowing with nostalgia.
Take a listen at your own risk, because this tune will do a slow burn into your mind and never leave:
(warning: one curse word at the end)
Dark Bird ruminates on memories of childhood, wild nights racing in the streets of the town, lost loves, and empty fields outside of town. Matsson references endless dreams, shadows, and the fear that life is passing him by. The sound of the music reinforces the lyrical theme. This record sounds like it was made 50 years ago. Today, when production is dominated by auto-tune and slick, mp3-ready sounds, Dark Bird lets the instruments breathe. If you listen closely, you can even hear the sound of the guitar strings rattling before the instrument begins to resonate. Often, this sound is either cleaned up or eliminated by moving the microphone away from the instrument. It makes for a cleaner sound but a less human one. With Dark Bird, there is no question that you are hearing the artistic output of a real, actual human being. This in itself seems quaint and nostalgic.
Dark Bird Is Home is already a phrase that creates a certain response, evoking thoughts of nocturnal restlessness longing for a domestic paradise long past.
And suddenly the day gets you down
But this is not the end, no this is fine
Still a tower’s in the valley
Still winds down the stream
Still we’re in the light of day
With our ghosts within
Which of us has not experienced a sudden, seemingly random moment of sheer anxiety? From nowhere it arrives and just as suddenly moves on. This is a natural, common experience, this nostalgic longing so intense that almost seems to hurt. There is no “Why”, the day just happens to get you down. The past creeps up and causes a moment of reckoning at the oddest moments, driving your car at night with music playing, waiting in line at the checkout, driving by the old school…
And there are many ways of sorrow
For just stepping out
Everyday a growlin’ storm
But they’re kind somehow
Fall in love but keep on falling
I held you for life
But letting go rope in hand
There’s just leaving now
Try as we might to make these memories permanent and forever inhabit halcyon days, life is a constant departure. We leave old friends and places and, even if we are to someday return, it is never the same (try walking around your old college campus sometime!). As Mattson opines in a song from an older album,
And nothing good out there won’t be old
Oh sometimes the blues is just a passing bird
Everywhere we have spent time is now haunted, remaining only in the human capacity for memory. We have ghosts within.
This shows up in art specifically because artists create out of a sense of nostalgia, the belief that somehow, someway, their contribution will connect with a primal longing in mankind for a lasting resting place. If we are always on the move, leaving people and places behind, art is a way of standing still for an uncounted moment, not to stay in the past forever but to commemorate the preciousness of passing things. Of course, there are other marked moments when this occurs. For instance, I was recently talking to my five-year old son about his younger brother’s birthday. He was proud to tell me that he, unlike his brother, will never be three years old again. Suddenly, the day got me down. I mourn lost time and past experiences that will never again be possible. These moments, however, are random, they simply happen, whereas creating nostalgia is one of the very purposes of art.
At the very least, nostalgia is a creative cause. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talks about nostalgia as “anxiety”. He writes,
Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit.
Dreams are shadowy, dark birds. They are present as a sign of possibility and longing, a searching grasp for a definite reality beyond this one, and yet they remain achingly frustrating because they are forever beyond our grasp. Kierkegaard refers to it as the “dizziness of freedom,” like looking into a great abyss and seeing endless possibility. If human beings are mere animals only made for this physical world, we would not dream, we would not create, and we would not suffer from nostalgia.
This is why art exists, to express the possibility and greatness of the human being. We are made to live in a world beyond this one and we stretch out to discover it. Aristotle defines poetry as the language of what might be and what should be. It cannot help but proceed by analogy, by dreaming, and by nostalgia.
But if we don’t have a firm grasp of what might be or what should be, if we dream impossible fantasies, then there is danger in nostalgia. It can become the unhinged romanticism that compels Lord Byron to Greece and Sebastian Flyte to Morocco. It leads you and me to do unwise things, like move to New York City to languish because it seems a fairy tale in the movies, take flight on an endless series of adventures in an endless search for what we do not have, leave family and friends behind in misbegotten wanderlust, always restless, always searching for a reality that will in the end prove to be nonexistent. Nostalgia out-of-control seeks the impossible, diagnoses the wound but rips it open further like a writhing animal, launches a ceaseless barrage of questions but provides no answers. Nostalgia is a sign of lack and insofar as it creates desire is a good. It sets us off on a great pilgrimage to find our destiny, but how we go about the journey can result in so many sad mistakes.
That said, I will gladly wallow in nostalgia for a million years before I willingly listen to music that concentrates only on “the moment”, physical pleasure, and thoughtlessness. It is one of the roles of art to bring nostalgia and desire to the forefront, to gaze wide eyed at the mysteries of human existence, create suffering and inhabit it.
No this is not the end and no final tears
That will lead to show
I thought that this would last for a million years
But now I need to go
Mattson seems to understand that we cannot grasp too tightly to passing moments in search of false realities, to hold on to that which is never meant to last. Sometimes the blues is a passing bird. Understanding that our lives are delineated by loss, however, doesn’t mean we make peace with it, and with an exasperated curse word, The Tallest Man On Earth retreats from the microphone.
(I have a lot more to say on this topic, but this essay is becoming long. Begging your patience, I will continue soon with some more thoughts on art and nostalgia.
In the meantime, I’ll be listening to this song while bicycling around the “gravel road/In Missouri light/Rolling to the way back when/Simple was alright”)