Go here to see Part I on the longing created by art
The question in my mind is not whether nostalgia exists in the works of artists such as The Tallest Man On Earth, but rather, what does nostalgia mean? It is both the belief that around the bend of the next gravel road there is a Garden of Eden and the willingness to trod such a path, the inborn compulsion to keep moving until we discover a resting place, a wound of desire that maims us and sends us limping off clutching a hole near the heart, a new Adam in search of his bride. Nostalgia aches for beauty but finds that the beloved is revealed only fleetingly and always retreats as if an unsolveable mystery. Like the dark bird, she disappears with a fell swoop and we are left only with memory and desire.
I’m just a dreamer but I’m hanging on
Though I am nothing big to offer
I watch the birds, how they dive in then gone
It’s like nothing in this world’s ever still
The human soul is made to last forever, and yet all around is change and decay. How can we possibly ever be at home here? Don’t settle into a comfortable, unexamined life. It is not silly to feel unsettled or excited about possibility, to step on the car brakes in the hopes that the next small town diner will have the perfect maple sausage, or to challenge yourself in encounters with great art. It is not childish to long for your true home.
Often, nostalgia is dismissed as being secondary to the actual, adult business of life. As such, art is similarly dismissed as an “extra.” Some may appreciate art and some may not, go ahead and take it or leave it as you please but it really has no necessity of its own. This is an incorrect evaluation of the value of art. In fact, art is fundamental to who we are and nostalgia is the sign of the rational soul of a human being. Without it, what are we doing here? Where have our dreams gone? We may be more comfortable leaving the challenge aside and settling in to a steady diet of reality television, bland magazine-curated interior design, and top 40 pop hits, but we are certainly less human for doing so.
Art does not point to an imagined beauty or that which is merely in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it mediates and participates in a very real beauty; this beauty is eternal and living, fairly destroying those who encounter it. This is the true meaning of nostalgia.
In 2002, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger gave a talk entitled “Contemplation of Beauty.” He begins with Plato, explaining,
Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.
Nostalgia drives us out of ourselves and sets us to the impossible task of grasping the world just beyond this one. We glimpse just enough of it through art that the search continues, and yet it is always veiled. This hurts. And yet, it is necessary!
If Icarus flies too close to the sun and burns his wings, well, that is sometimes the price of dreaming. The pain is a sign of human greatness and, even more, of a great God who is all Beauty. Art creates the thirst to know God more and to love him better. It cannot give all of the answers, for who can explain God? But the encounter is nevertheless genuine. It is God-shaped, beyond words, soul-expanding, and once you experience it you are addicted. Whatever it is that we are longing for remains an enigma, inexpressible, nameless, and yet it is nuptial bliss itself.
Ratzinger cautions that, by praising nostalgia, we are not unhinging from reality and promoting a fantasy,
True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality…
The rationality he has in mind is not based on scientific deduction, but this does not mean that art and nostalgia aren’t reasonable. To limit ourselves to deductions is to limit ourselves to this earthly life, to material objects, and only admit as rational that which can be experimentally repeated. Such a limitation is unreasonable, our experience says as much, as does our ability to love, conjure universal concepts, and appreciate beauty.
to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.
I agree that, if anything will rescue our nostalgia-impoverished society from empty functionality, it will be beauty. It does not make us irrational aesthetes to believe that beauty will save the world. It seems to me that there is a general doubt of truth and goodness afoot today. Truth is relative and goodness contingent, but beauty? Beauty is impossible to efface. Sure, there is lots of ugly art out there but most people seem to intuitively dislike it and, even if our aesthetic sensibilities are malformed, there is still the persistent belief that some things are beautiful and this is desirable.
Ratzinger reminisces on how this has affected him,
For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”
This love of beauty is the reason I have hope. Each virtue participates in all of the other virtues, so we know that the longing to seek out beauty eventually becomes a longing to seek out truth and goodness. Cardinal Ratzinger says, “This is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.” In other words, nostalgia is the most rational activity in which we engage! Exposure to beauty inspires us not only in the realm of aesthetics but also to know truth and goodness. Compared to the challenge of art, any appeal to comfortable distraction is irrational.
Okay, there is too much to say and I am getting out of control. Tomorrow, Part III in which comedian Louis CK explains the problem with distraction and we finally discuss where it is towards which nostalgia directs us.
In the meantime, enjoy this Bach Cantata; rumor has it this is one that Cardinal Ratzinger heard that night. It is okay to feel nostalgic while you do so.