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Literature Your Columns Contest A Nineteenth-century Writer and Actor in the Twentieth Century - What's Nostalgia All About, Alfie?

A Nineteenth-century Writer and Actor in the Twentieth Century - What's Nostalgia All About, Alfie? Hot

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Eric Hoffer (author of The True Believer and The Ordeal of Change) said, "In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."


Holy crap -- that's exactly what my education at The Browning School for Boys did to me; it equipped me beautifully to deal with a world that no longer existed by the time I graduated from college!  It made me a lover of nineteenth-century literature, as well as a very adept writer in the style of that time, including a comprehensive grasp of complicated vocabulary words, abstruse run-on sentences and strict poetic disciplines.  Precisely the sort of thing that had gone completely out of style by the time I was mature enough to attempt earning a living as a writer. 


And nobody explained it to me, nobody at all.  I had to become a learner in order to gradually figure out my own survival, and that process took many years.  Until I began to do that, I labored under the misapprehension that everyone else in the world was an uneducated Philistine.  That would have been true, had they been reacting to me in the nineteenth century.  But since I actually grew up in the second half of the twentieth century, I was the one who was out of touch with the cultural expectations of my own era.


To be fair, Browning was not the only influence on my misapprehension.  By nature a classicist, I fell in love with books about the great Actor-managers of the 1800s.  I thought that the ideal image of an actor was to be found in the examples of Edmund Kean and Edwin Booth.  Even my heroes who were still living reflected the pre-World War II ethos of the British Theatre -- Noel Coward, John Gielgud, young Laurence Olivier.  The first half of the twentieth century (when they were growing up) was more like the 1800s than the second half was, when I was growing up.  If I wasn't quite a hundred years behind the times, I never got more caught-up than fifty.  


And maybe that had something to do with my Dad.  I loved him and he loved me, but he was half a century old in 1947 when I was born.  He was deeply entrenched in the European cultural ethics of an earlier time.  It was understandable that a man of his age and upbringing would have problems adapting to the looser, more free-wheeling values of late 1900s America.  But his problems were communicated to me. 


As a result, it took me till Spring Quarter of my freshman year of college to begin enjoying the spiritual and sexual revolution of the 1960s; and even then, convinced though I was that my generation was doing something enlightened and natural, I found myself fighting a deep sense of guilt.  


It didn't help that Dad finally confessed to me, when I was 27, that he had sown many a wild oat himself.  That information came too late; why the hell couldn't he have told me when I was 18?  I could have benefited from his experience.  Instead, I felt constrained by what I thought was his condemnation!


And, now, it is actually the twenty-first century!  Now I understand that most popular writing is either in sound-bytes or involves action-adventures of war, gangland slayings or the supernatural -- areas in which I have little interest and no credentials.  And I understand that actors are fallible human beings who must prostitute their personal standards to get any sort of job at all, and even then may never have the luck to get employed.  But what good does it do me, now?  I'm 63.  I've gone on early retirement.


Nostalgia, I think, is more than missing a time when we had no responsibilities, or when the world seemed less complicated.  I think it has more to do with our expectations for the future!


There are times to which we would never want to return.  The times for which we feel nostalgic are those moments when we felt secure, happy and confident, and our future seemed to spread out before us in brilliant colors of promise and potential.  We were excited about what we were about to achieve.


But it didn't work out that way.  The future that seemed so promising was, instead, frustrating, disappointing and depressing.  Success kept passing us by; the jobs and accolades kept going to somebody else.  It wasn't fair, and we felt cheated.


I think that nostalgia is our way of asking for a "Do-over" -- a way to go back, start all over, and this time get it right.


I find this idea very interesting -- that nostalgia isn't so much a desire for the past, as a yearning to change the past.  If what we experienced after our teenage years had been happier and more satisfying, we would have a lifetime of fulfillment to look back on….and we would still be happily involved in a fulfilling, creative career today.  There would be neither time nor reason to sentimentally wish for an earlier moment in our lives. 


Nostalgia may not be the best sign of mental health.  It is more likely a symptom of depression. 

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