We have already discussed how art creates an unnamed longing for that which we do not have (and, as pointed out by a commenter, we ought to note that art is also created by the longing. Let’s think of it as a virtuous spiral created by both receiving and giving love that leads ever upward). Nostalgia is the sign of a human intellect that dreams and seeks to grasp greatness. Cardinal Ratzinger points out that nostalgia is not irrational but rather takes into account the whole human being and sets us on the path to reality. He also is quite clear that nostalgia is not saccharine; it wounds us gravely because it sets before us a reality which we fail to fully attain in this life. It unsettles and confuses, especially if we do not see clearly the path upon which we have been set.
The challenge of art is not always accepted. It is easier to be comfortably distracted. Anxiety never quite goes away, though, so we must normalize the distraction by gently (or not so gently) mocking those who refuse to conform. For instance, how many of you are considered odd because you read big, thick books? Or because you go to the Opera? God help a man if he wears a suit and tie on casual Friday at work! We are in the midst of a cult of formlessness that has as its central sacraments casualness and distraction. We have televisions in every room of the house, mobile phones under thumb at all times, lots of driving about and errands and shopping, schedules, vacations… It is odd, we are poorly dressed and our houses are not appointed with particularly high-quality furniture and yet we shop all the time! We love sports but instead of playing a game with our children or friends we spend all afternoon watching on the television! We are distracted so as not to feel guilty about life passing us by and part of the game of casualness is the refusal to believe that we can become more. We all settle into a life of comfortable mediocrity.
One need not be particularly religious to notice the phenomenon. Comedian Louis CK talks about hearing a Springsteen song while driving alone one night,
I started to get that sad feeling and reached for my phone, but I thought ‘don’t’ — just be sad, let it hit you like a truck. I pulled over and I just cried…it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic…I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.
He reaches for his phone, he explains, to text random friends so as not to feel alone and sad anymore, but then he makes a serious decision. He chooses nostalgia with all its attendant grief, he leans into the yearning and absence and, on the other side, meets happiness.
That is what is so odd about art and nostalgia; often it makes us very sad. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t allow for distractions, instead forcing an encounter with reality itself, who we are, what our purpose is, and to where we are going. Great art is the opposite of casual. It is a formal statement, naïve and earnest, challenging and striving to lift us out of everyday life. It causes us to pause and recollect. The sadness, though, is often the path to happiness. Whereas we often mistake pleasure for happiness, or lack of suffering with happiness, nostalgia points out a different definition for happiness. Nostalgia is proof that true happiness lies in the eternal nature of the human soul and the way we fit ourselves for the life after this one.
Cardinal Ratzinger offers a robust definition of beauty. Taking into account these moments of profound sadness and grief, he points to Our Lord, who is Beauty itself,
The experience of the beautiful has received new depth and new realism. The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns… in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes “to the very end”
It is particularly fitting that the beauty of God would be incarnate, taking on physical form like any other artwork does. The beauty of which we speak begins in the senses but expands beyond to the spiritual. This is to say, beauty is where earth meets heaven. God is not an idea. He is the one who assumes humanity and actually becomes beauty in the literal wounding of his side. The Crucifixion is nostalgia in its purest form. When we experience nostalgia, it is the longing of love. A lover sees beauty in the eyes of the beloved. Perhaps what we are missing so desperately as a culture at the present is a connection with the Dying God through whom divine love pervades the whole world, and because we have not looked into his eyes because it makes us sad to see him thus, beauty and nostalgia too are disappearing.
The icon of the crucified Christ sets us free from this deception that is so widespread today. However, it imposes a condition: that we let ourselves be wounded by him, and that we believe in the Love who can risk setting aside his external beauty to proclaim, in this way, the truth of the beautiful.
Will we allow ourselves to be wounded? Will we face reality and look true Beauty in the face? This is a journey that each of us must make individually, to be struck by the arrow of nostalgia and, instead of retreating from the encounter into pleasurable distractions, to see that it is the privilege of those who love greatly to be wounded and in the suffering comes the beauty of Christ himself to lift us up to our true home.