False Nostalgia

You can visit Hagley Park, West Midlands England. Once you reach the large 18th-century house of the Lyttelton families, you will find an impressive and exotic sight once you get through the trees.

You will see what appears to be the remains of a Gothic castle. Although there are four towers at the corners, only one remains, with its battlements intact and an intersecting staircase turret. They are now reduced to one- or two stories tall and have been connected by a wall that has fallen. Only two windows remain, and they are impressive with their Gothic arches. There is an above-ground pointed doorway, and three shield reliefs.

It is a place of wonder and contemplation. This is an area of memory and history. It is a place of history and memory. You begin to wonder about ancient memories.

No. The ruin was constructed just like this in the mid–18th century. It was intended to make it seem like a magical place where an impressive castle once existed. But, the decay of nature and some heroic (or barbaric!) acts made this a decrepit ruin. It is a selective, artificial version of history—very much like the politics of nostalgia that are in vogue today. The sentiment they tap into is a strong one, the longing to return to simpler times. Asking if their lives are better today or worse 50 years back, the British answer 31 percent, the Americans 41 percent, and the French 46 percent.

It isn’t new to nostalgia. Hagley Park’s fake castle wasn’t unusual in its time. Building ruins from scratch—”ruin follies”—was at the height of fashion for the European aristocracy in the 18th century. To commemorate the past, they built crumbling castles or abbeys. Edward Hussey III from Scotney Castle, Kent made a new home by taking down his previous house and making it look like a ruin. In the late 18th century, another aristocrat built an extravagant six-story tower in Désert de Retz in France, made to look like the remaining column of a colossal temple. A ruinous Gothic chapel was built right beside the tower.

This was part of an overall reaction to the Enlightenment’s ideals of progress and reason. Romanticism was the name given to this reaction. Romanticism glorified history, nature, and nation and made the nostalgia for childhood and the home country a pathology instead of a movement. It was sometimes a way of creating continuity, which made it easy to adapt to rapid changes in life. Witold Rybczynski wrote that this modern phenomenon reflects the desire to have routines and tradition in an environment that is constantly changing and innovative.

Nationalism and Nostalgia

Johannes Hofer (1688), a Swiss doctor, coined the phrase nostalgia. This was Johannes Hofer’s term for the longing and fervent desire to go home by students, soldiers, and servants in foreign lands. You are not. Nostalgia’s FutureSvetlana Boysm, an expert in comparative literature, points out that by the turn of the 18th Century, scholars from various national traditions claimed that bittersweet homesickness was a term that existed only in their language. Germans had heimwehFrench people were a lot more tolerant than the Americans. maladie du pays, Russians had toskaAnd the Polish people were able to do so. Teknota. Others emerging countries also said that they were the only ones who understood the meaning of this sad and beautiful feeling of longing. Boym says he is struck “by the fact all of these untranslatable terms are actually synonyms. And all have the desire to be untranslatable, the yearning for uniqueness.

This was when intellectuals and governments began to create national identities to resist and rebuild from the Napoleonic Wars. The folk songs they praised as a pure expression of the people’s traditional sentiments were rewritten with new lyrics because the old ones were just a little bit too authentic—far too vulgar and not sufficiently patriotic. The authorities also established national languages by systematizing local dialects and making them mandatory for everyone in the educational system. Many oral traditions were lost and linguistic borders became more rigid. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation lasted from 1806, to 1806. Only one quarter of the people spoke German. German, even in Prussia which was the strongest to support poets and writers to form a common German identity, was only one of six languages. Prussia became a “Slav country” during the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel referred to Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, and other Slavs as “Germanized Slavs.” Hegel described Brandenburg and Mecklenburg as “Germanized Slavs” in his book. The Myth of NationsPatrick J. Geary, a historian, claimed that in 1900, less than half of French-speaking people in France spoke French as their first language, despite having centuries-old borders and long linguistic traditions. Other people spoke other Romance languages, dialects and some Celtic or Germanic languages.

The kings and poets created fake nations, just as the aristocrats made fake ruins. It was not only out of love, some saw the potential to create an ideological collective. Even though ethnicities and ruins are fake, we still have feelings for them. Evolutionary psychology shows that people can form strong bonds with others by sharing trivial similarities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the concept of common destiny and history unites people. And while the history of ethnic nationalism is, as former U.S. diplomat Dan Fried has pointed out, like cheap alcohol—first it makes you drunk, then it makes you blind, then it kills you—civic forms of nationalism have inspired fights for freedom and inclusion of immigrants and minority groups too.

Psychologists believe that nostalgia is natural and even necessary. When all of the solid appears to be melting away, it helps us anchor our identity in something that will last. All things change, but it is important to have a sense stability and predictability. We lose control when things move too quickly. This may be why we feel a longing to return to the past during rapid transitions such as aging, maturing and migration.

Recalling the good times of the past can help people going through difficult times. Nostalgia can be a way to help dementia patients feel more connected. It is best to avoid opium or leeches. Or execution. This was what a Russian general tried to threaten nostalgic soldiers with in the War of the Polish Succession (1733). A glass of wine, your childhood music, and your family’s photo albums are all good options.

James Madison University, religion professor Alan Jay Levinovitz says it’s important to distinguish between personal, historical and collective nostalgia. Personal nostalgia can be defined as first-person memories that contribute to your identity and past. If personal nostalgia is about what life was like for you in the past, historical nostalgia is a generalization about what the past was like, often in the form of a longing for an enchanted, simple world—the good old days. Collective nostalgia can be described as an emotional attachment to collective cultural identities. Similar to personal nostalgia, collective nostalgia can also be an emotional source of strength for people who are going through hard times. Insight (or illusion), that your country or people have been through something can inspire and help. However, it can also be easily misused by political parties who assert they have the ability to restore what is lost.

That is a false promise, because we can’t go back—and even if we could, we wouldn’t find what we were looking for. This was not the case and would in no way be able solve our current problems. It is possible to see what it was like in the olden days.

As things change, so do they.

A wonderful podcast episode. For Tomorrow, Build host Jason Feifer explored nostalgia throughout history. To make America great again you need to think back to when America was great. Most people answered the question in the 1950s. He then asked historians of the 1950s if people still believed they lived in the golden age. No. There were concerns about class and race, as well as the effects of TV and the real danger of nuclear annihilation. People were concerned about the rapid changes in family life, especially with new cultures emerging and students who are overwhelmingly consumer-oriented. American sociologists cautioned that the rise of individualism would cause family disintegration.

There must have been some exceptions. Just to give an example, it must have been extraordinary being an autoworker at Detroit. This is a group that has become incredibly popular in the current labor market nostalgia. It was, or wasn’t it?

Clark began an oral history project with historian Daniel Clark to learn how autoworkers experienced the 1950s. He fully anticipated hearing stories of a lost Eden. Clark said that it was unlikely anyone, black or white, remembers the 1950s as an era of stable employment, higher wages and better benefits.

Clark received information about economic volatility and precarious work, as well as recurring unemployment. Detroit was home to one-tenth the U.S.’s total unemployment in 1952. If you’re only temporarily called into work and then quickly dismissed, impressive hourly earnings don’t tell much about your annual income. Clark talked to many workers who said they needed to work second jobs (cab driver/trash hauler, janitor/cotton picker, mover company worker, and golf caddy) in order to make ends meet.

Clark explained that “Autoworkers became behind in their installment plans and were forced to repossess the cars they purchased. They also found it hard to make ends meet with rents and mortgages.” The market was priced out for most of the autoworkers (especially those who have families), and the new cars they created.

The reason we have a rosy picture of Detroit from the 1950s comes down to the fact that people who were able to keep a job for a longer period in these fields earned significantly more than the rest of us, since the nation was so poor at the time. This is especially true for those who were employed in the 1953 mini-boom. The narrative about our lost era in manufacturing rests on one American city, and a year after World War II when Europe’s industrial infrastructure collapsed.

How much were these few lucky people paid? Autoworkers Union managed to increase the hourly wages to approximately $1.30. That’s roughly equivalent to $17 today. It is also the starting average wage Amazon started paying warehouse workers in May 2021.

Many people from the 1950s referred to the 1920s as the best times. But back in the 1920s, people worried about how rapid technological change was threatening our sanity—radio and recorded music gave us too much speed and choice. The automobile would also ruin morals for the youth. The In The New York TimesYou could also read the headline that scientists have concluded “american life too fast.” John Watson, a famous psychologist for children, warned that the American family will soon end due to rising divorce rates. People romanticized the tranquility of life in the 1800s. As they saw the changes in family life, many began to imagine the Victorian family. They believed that mothers and fathers were real, while fathers and mothers were true, and children should respect their elders.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rapid urbanization, railroads and the telegraph were threatening traditional ways of living and communities. People are concerned about neurasthenia which is a rapidly-emerging disease that could be caused by unnatural life pace. It can manifest itself as anxiety, headaches and insomnia.

Victorian middle class managed the changes of that era. They were the first to appreciate the antiques, and they covered their walls in portraits of their ancestors. The historian John Gillis has shown that their fear of urbanization and of work outside the household led them to invent the notion of a traditional family life that has been lost—a time that was simpler, less problematic, more rooted in place and tradition. The people believed that life was simpler before the Industrial Revolution. Many Americans longed for a quieter and happier life before the Civil War.

Family life before the Industrial Revolution was very different. Half of the children in a birth cohort died before the age of 15, and 27% of the survivors were without a father by that time. This was very similar to what happens today with divorces. Families sent their children off to become servants or apprentices in different households. Edmund Burke believed that the age of chivalry was over; the age of economists, sophisters and calculators had succeeded. The glory of Europe has been extinguished for all time after the French Revolution. Many Americans worried that the republic would lose its way after the Founders had established it.

Feifer, along with the other scholars Feifer interviewed, continued their search for the old days. They began to wander further back in the past, until reaching ancient Mesopotamia, which was 5,000 years ago. It didn’t take long for humans to start writing about the difficulties of modern life and what it was like in the past. It appears that the first society was also the most nostalgic.

Samuel Noah Kramer, a scholar, found Sumerians complaining in cuneiform text about their leaders and how merchants cheat them. Family life wasn’t the same as it was before. A clay tablet reflects on “the son who hated his mother and the younger brother that defied his father, who spoke back to him.” Kramer, who was nearly 4,000 years old, found Enmerkar’s story on the clay tablet. It is an expression of the belief that once there was a golden age, which brought peace and security.

There was once a time when there wasn’t a snake and there wasn’t a scorpion. 
It was not a hyena and it was not lion. 
It was not possible to find a wild dog or wolf. 
Fear and terror were not present 
Man had no rival.…
All the world is one, all people united. 
Enlil, in one tongue, gave thanks.

This means that if you think there are unique difficulties today with the rapid pace of modern life, corrupt rulers and unruly kids, then don’t believe your thoughts. The same thought has been held by every generation. Each generation interprets its struggles with human relationships and their difficulty as an indication that things are worse than they were in a more peaceful time.

Nostalgic Reasons to Get Nostalgic

Another reason for historical nostalgia is the knowledge that these difficulties were overcome, which makes them seem much smaller. We wouldn’t have been here otherwise. We can’t be sure that we will ever be able solve all the current problems. However, this has been the problem of every generation. That is why we often look back at simpler times.

While we know that the radio doesn’t kill young people, the question is whether the smartphones will. Although we are aware that smallpox was defeated and polio ended, what we don’t know is whether Ebola or coronavirus will. While we are certain that our planet did not explode in the Cold War, it is impossible to know if this will happen again. We can also forget how much our ancestors endured when faced with some of the greatest difficulties they could think of.

One reason we do this is because of our tendency to confuse historical nostalgia with personal nostalgia. What was the best time? It was the briefest time in human history that you were alive, and more important, when you were young. While I cannot say much about you personally, I know that this is the most commonly answered question when people ask me. This is supported by polls. According to a British study, people who are in their 30s believe that life is better today than it was in the 1990s. The ’80s is preferred by Brits over 60, while those in their 50s and older prefer it. An American poll revealed that Americans who were born in the 1930s and 1940s thought America’s best decade was the 50s, but those who were born in the 1960s and 1970s preferred the 80s. Interesting that the great nostalgic television shows of the 1970s and 1980s are still popular. Happy Days was set in a glamorous version of the ’50s. We got another iconic nostalgic TV series a few decades later. Stranger ThingsNow, we look back fondly at the music and fashion of the 1980s when all were watching. Happy Days.)

This is why there’s a lot of nostalgia around the West right now. It is the big, influential boomer generation that is now retiring. A surprising number of them believe they were young in those good times. Life is full of excitement when you’re young. There are always new opportunities. Although we may dream big, it is possible to feel secure knowing that our parents will take good care of us. As we get older, all of us learn the terrible truths about the world. As we get older, more responsibility is taken on and so are our children. We are now required to be aware of every type of danger and social problem. As we age, our hopes and dreams become less realistic, and physical limitations begin to set in. Things that once looked exciting and new are replaced with things that are strange or unsettling by those who are younger.

Sometimes it’s tempting to think we can recall more recent experiences. However, this isn’t true. Research has shown that we retain more memories in our adolescence than any other time period. When we look back at our lives, it is this period where we often go. We might have this “reminiscence bump” because that was a period when we started forming our identity and experienced many firsts—first love, first job, first time we went to a Depeche Mode concert. You can see the influence of this period in our memories of our lives.

These memories, although strong, are not always reliable. The lists of good and bad things that schoolchildren have accumulated over the summer break are nearly equal. The good list grows and the negative ones shrinks as the exercise continues for several months. The good stuff has surpassed the bad. Their summer is no longer a part of their memories. They only remember the idealized version. That makes it difficult to imagine a better present.

Beware of parents, politicians and populists who insist that the past was better and suggest that we try to replicate that world. While some things are better, we must investigate them and take lessons from their mistakes. However, trusting your gut instinct is giving in to our memories.

While nostalgia can be a normal human psychological trait, it is not an underlying philosophy.