by Anthony Esolen
Review by Garret Meyer
As we were standing in the kitchen at a housewarming party, my family inquired with genuine curiosity into my cousin’s new job. He was an engineer for a defense contractor in the big city, so our imaginations far outran the facts he could divulge. The best he could do was lean on the remodeled countertop, smile at our suggestions, and use his words instead to rail against his change-resistant corporate culture. “The worst reason to keep doing something,” he complained, “is to say ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’” I could sense his genuine grievance against inertia. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” But I could not silence my unease. What about the countless homecomings which we were both anticipating and actively celebrating?
Anthony Esolen has written Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World as a response to this question. He begins with (and returns frequently to) a much-needed sed contra. Nostalgia is an easy target in an age where one can state the year alone as a moral argument. “It’s 2019,” and thus any love of the familiar past is either regrettable due to its offenses or impossible under the steel hand of progress.
Nostalgia addresses these charges in myriad ways. Esolen defends praise of the past with the platonic idea that it is better for one to receive evil than to choose it. This makes our ancestors’ sins not only unworthy of imitation in modern retrospect, but also harmful for our ancestors to have done to themselves. He pulls no punches when calling out the faults of bygone eras, with the peculiar institution of slavery and puritanism drawing his special attention. To avoid both repeating these faults and forsaking the cultural wheat mixed with chaff, Esolen stresses that the best analogy for the past’s influence on the present, or the home’s pull on the adventurer, is not carbon-copying, but begetting. This forms Esolen’s most prevalent and powerful defense of nostalgia. One considers the past not to re-enact it, but to continue from it. In fields such as music and literature, government and education, he laments the loss of connection modern man has with just two generations back, and he longs for the time when it was common to consult the wisdom of fifteen generations.
Esolen himself certainly is an exception to our backwards myopia. He draws stories from a deep well of Western literature. Dante, Homer, Shakespeare, and Scripture are his clear touchstones, but this list does not exhaust Esolen’s expansive index. He writes with penetrating insight into the universal emotions and motives expressed in fiction, with brief applications to current opponents of nostalgia such as feminism, progressivism, and secularism. In these forays, Esolen’s tone ranges from sharp to caustic. The love of the good in all people clearly motivates the entire work, but the isolated one-liners could be easily deployable as weapons. He spares not the rod on history’s or today’s fashions.
The book naturally progresses beyond a reactionary apologia to cast a positive vision for nostalgia. This is necessary because, as Esolen notes, “a blandly warm affection for the good things of the past is no match for the modern progressive’s ferocious drive to obliterate them.” It requires a firm love of organic goods to push back with any force against the current calls to change for change’s sake. At the book’s height, Esolen argues that “what we love, we want to endure.” This formula, when taken too far, could cement into a stasis that is temporarily enjoyable, but draining over time. To avoid this, Esolen paradoxically casts man as a pilgrim, with sights set on a love beyond what this world can offer. Nostalgia becomes not a lasting virtue, but a sign of health in the pilgrim who “understands the vow of stability [while] the restless wanderer hardly attains a place but he then wants to leave it.” Faith and hope pass away, with one thing remaining.
For the reader who thirsts for deep roots but finds them nowhere extolled, Esolen’s Nostalgia brings a relief. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is indeed a paltry defense of tradition, but only because there are more robust reasons to return to our earthly and heavenly homes.