The Future of Nostalgia

May 11, 2012
future of nostalgia

by Svetlana Boym 
Basic Books, 404 pp., $22.00 

CHRISTOPHER BROWN - Riddles for Longing

“Somewhere on the frontier, the ghost of Dostoevsky meets the ghost of Mickey Mouse. Like the characters from The Possessed, they exchange wry smiles.” Thus concludes the first chapter of Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia, uniting in a hypothetical world two seemingly disparate figures, and yet both represent nations —the United States and Russia —built on modern foundations of transcending history and memory. As a professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard and a native of Russia, Boym is uniquely qualified to make such a comparison between her current home, the land of “eternal optimism,” and her homeland, a country of “eternal fatalism,” positing the two as her initial counterpoints of perspective in a fascinating, multidisciplinary study on nostalgia.

Though the book was first published in 2001, it seems a pertinent time to re-examine Boym’s work now that the first decade of the twenty-first century has come to a close. Perhaps that characteristic eternal optimism has begun to wear thin, and if Russians have never quite forgiven America for not living up to the America that they dreamed of in Russia, then Americans themselves seem to be growing increasingly jaded about the possibility of attaining the “American Dream,” and proportionally nostalgic for the days when it still loomed as realistic. In a sense, that future of nostalgic longing and progressive thinking, tied to the relationship between personal and collective memory, that stands at the center of Boym’s inquiry has become the present, the now of nostalgic longing, and it would be interesting to examine just how things have changed, or how they remain the same.
In the study, Boym alternates between critical reflection and storytelling in the attempt to solve the riddles in which nostalgia speaks, and as a native of Russia, she is adamant about giving a voice to the Eastern European, who has suffered an unfair history of turbulence and who carries a tangible burden of nostalgia, but whose personal voice is too often overlooked. If the Russian exiles and immigrants who live or lived in the United States were reluctant to speak on their own behalf, then Boym has decided to present their case for them. Moreover, she has done so in an accessible way, building both a serious study and an engaging historical story that could attract more than just the standard academic reader. Splitting her work into three parts, each of which is then further subdivided into independent yet interrelated case studies, one could realistically review each part as a book within a book, and this structure is both a strength and a point of difficulty. While it allows one to focus on an individual section or chapter of interest without necessarily needing to refer to others, it also at times makes it a bit difficult to maintain the comparative thread and sort out the diverse types of nostalgia presented, unless perhaps through actually mapping these out. Nonetheless, the sectioning of the study pertains to Boym’s interdisciplinary approach, providing the reader a glimpse into the subject through the mediums of art, architecture, literature, and even pop culture. At the very least, she has indicated useful places to look for anyone especially curious about, for example, the Royal Palace in Berlin, or about any of the case studies.
Boym begins the study by tracing the history of the word nostalgia. This pseudo-Greek combination of nostos—the return home—and algia—longing—, was first coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688 as a disease of wartime suffered by unhappy soldiers who longed to return home. Modern nostalgia, however, is much more related to the mourning for an impossible mythical return, for the “loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values.” Boym then goes on to distinguish between the two main types of nostalgia: reflective, which dwells in the algia, in the dreams of a different place and time; and restorative, which, emphasizing the nostos and not recognizing itself as being nostalgic, attempts complete reconstructions of monuments of the past in the search for, or supposed recreation of, truth. Restorative nostalgia is about national past and future, and includes projects such as the Sistine Chapel restoration, which spatialize time. Reflective nostalgia is about individual and cultural memory, and in cultivating shattered fragments of the past and in producing art and literature based on the algia, temporalizes space.
Part two takes the reader on a journey through four cities in their post-Soviet conditions–Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Prague–and explores various physical spaces within each. According to Boym, “Places are contexts for remembrances and debates about the future, not symbols of memory or nostalgia,” and in her personal accounts of visiting each place, she discusses their unique ways of dealing with the traces of a Soviet past, from the megalomaniacal attempts by Moscow to eliminate all Soviet traces and rediscover a mythic past, to the humorous irony with which St. Petersburg views cultural memory and nostalgia, to the open embodiment of the East-West dialectic in Berlin. The fourth city, Prague, city of Kafka, is a central figure in “Europa’s Eros,” a city in which every clock strikes at the same time and yet each suggests a different idea of time. This second part of the book is particularly useful for a reader interested in art and architecture and could provide an interesting perspective and background knowledge for visiting any of the mentioned sites. Though perhaps not thorough enough for one who may focus his or her studies on one of these cities or on architecture, the case studies nevertheless give a fascinating glimpse into the way that these places’ citizens view their own spot in history and how they deal with their collective and individual memories of the past.
The third and final part of the book reverses the directionality of the gaze from the nostalgia of those in these post-Soviet cities to the nostalgia of exiles and emigrants who, in most cases, never returned home. In this part, Boym initially discusses her unique concept of “diasporic intimacy,” experienced by those who are still haunted by images of exile and yet who enjoy furtive pleasures in their new countries. She then advances case studies of three famous writers and artists, none of whom ever returned to Russia but each of whom expressed their nostalgia through their art in different ways. The first is Vladimir Nabokov, a writer whose “narrative allowed him to play out the journey through fictional characters, to explore different forks of fate and different nostalgic intonations.” For the second, Joseph Brodsky, “nostalgia takes the shape of a maze composed of many visible and invisible cities,” as he “projects the condition of exile on everything he loves and identifies with.” Finally, Boym includes Ilya Kabakov, whose “Toilet” has become a symbol of his nostalgia, an island of Sovietness even in a Western museum. This section could be useful to a literature or art student interested in one of these individuals, but once again, the case studies are just long enough to serve Boym’s examples of nostalgia but not thorough enough to use as an authoritative source on the three. This is not the intention of Boym though, and her approach not only serves to appeal to a much broader audience, but also can stimulate interest for a reader who has never heard of the writers and artists. To dwell too much on this criticism is to miss the larger overall point of the work, which artfully weaves in the various examples and case studies in order to present diverse expressions and repressions of nostalgia, or even antidotal coping mechanisms to nostalgia.
In the conclusion, Boym addresses the issue of nostalgia in the modern, global culture, a world where technology bridges distances and times, eliminating perhaps that temporal lag that the nostalgic once made use of to be nostalgic. Even still, nostalgia has accompanied modernization in each new stage, and with the advent of greater and greater technology, which has made the time and space of the world smaller and smaller, contemporary nostalgia is not so much about past as about a vanishing present.
Ultimately, the current book as a whole is a bit too long to read in one continuous sitting, and each section really deserves to be digested individually. But once one has had the time to reintegrate each part into the whole and to reflect upon its entirety, the wonderful accomplishment of Boym, from her engaging and not overly obscure use of language, to her case studies, to her personal recollections and perspectives, truly shines through. If, as she suggests, “nostalgia speaks in riddles and puzzles, so one must face them in order not to become its next victim —or its next victimizer,” —then she has certainly provided a comprehensive foundation for facing these puzzles, armed with more knowledge than when one began, but just enough to not feel overwhelmed.