Nos­tal­gia is on the rise in Europe – and it needn’t be a bad thing

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Ju­lian Bag­gini

There’s a lot of truth in the old joke that nos­tal­gia ain’t what it used to be. The word it­self has a sense that has been largely lost. Its orig­i­nal 17th-cen­tury coinage was as a kind of men­tal ill­ness, a home­sick­ness suf­fered by sol­diers on for­eign cam­paigns. Only lately did it morph into a warm, in­dul­gent en­joy­ment of how things used to be.

Now nos­tal­gia seems to be chang­ing once again, turn­ing into a dif­fer­ent kind of pathol­ogy, one that in­fects not in­di­vid­u­als but so­ci­ety. Ber­tels­mann Stiftung, a Ger­man foun­da­tion, has con­ducted a poll in Europe’s five largest na­tions and found that two thirds of Euro­peans be­lieve that the world used to be a bet­ter place. These nos­tal­gic Euro­peans are gen­er­ally more rightwing and much more crit­i­cal of im­mi­gra­tion. The re­port claims that their dis­con­tent is be­ing ex­ploited by pop­ulists to “fuel dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and dis­trust of main­stream po­lit­i­cal elites”.

Nos­tal­gia should not be­come the prop­erty of re­ac­tionary xeno­phobes. Iron­i­cally, it’s a feel­ing with more po­ten­tial than has yet been re­alised.

The best kind of nos­tal­gia com­bines warm feel­ings to­wards what once was with sad­ness that it is, and can be, no more. To fo­cus only on the bit­ter or the sweet in this is un­bal­anced. To only lament is to fail to ap­pre­ci­ate the good­ness that once was; to only en­joy is to deny the ir­re­triev­abil­ity of the past.

The kind of nos­tal­gia that Ber­tels­mann Stiftung de­plores fails to main­tain this del­i­cate ten­sion. Pop­ulist pol­i­tics tells peo­ple that their sad­ness is not nec­es­sary be­cause the present can be as the past once was. The steel towns can be brought back to life, the streets can be largely free of those with dif­fer­ent ac­cents or skin colours, pen­sions can con­tinue to be paid as they once were, even as the pro­por­tion of peo­ple above work­ing age soars. The past is not ir­re­triev­able, it is sim­ply be­ing kept out of reach by root­less, mer­ce­nary elites who found it got in their way.

Re­main­ers are not im­mune to this kind of nos­tal­gia. Those who think all we need is a se­cond ref­er­en­dum and we’ll get back all we have lost fail to ap­pre­ci­ate the fun­da­men­tal changes that made the Brexit vote pos­si­ble. An EU with a fu­ture can­not be an EU un­changed from its past. Nor can the kind of do­mes­tic pol­i­tics that cre­ated dis­dain for “West­min­ster elites” re­main busi­ness as usual with­out stir­ring re­bel­lion.

A bet­ter kind of re­flec­tive nos­tal­gia, how­ever, can en­able a lament for the past to help us build a dif­fer­ent fu­ture. This re­quires us to dis­tin­guish what can­not be re­vived from what lies beaten but breath­ing.

For ex­am­ple, those of us who are al­ready be­gin­ning to feel nos­tal­gic when we pass though the pass­port lane for EU cit­i­zens need to re­mem­ber that the in­sti­tu­tion has al­ways been deeply flawed. What made it still pre­cious was its role in bring­ing the his­tor­i­cally bel­li­cose na­tions of Europe closer to­gether. Why not feel nos­tal­gic if the emo­tions that stirs in turn stir us to try to get hearts and minds back fo­cused on that in­valu­able goal of con­ti­nen­tal co­op­er­a­tion?

Peo­ple who have fought for a bet­ter fu­ture al­ways have to con­vince oth­ers that how things are is not how they al­ways must be. One of the most pow­er­ful ways of prov­ing this point is to show that things were dif­fer­ent, and can be so again. Take the prob­lem of our di­vided so­ci­ety and our in­creas­ingly po­larised pol­i­tics. There can be no re­turn to the post­war con­sen­sus or a two-party sys­tem based on neat class lines. In­deed, good rid­dance to both, which are well past their best-by dates. But the ci­vil­ity of po­lit­i­cal de­bate and the un­der­stand­ing that who­ever forms a govern­ment gov­erns for all are not be­yond sal­va­tion. We can be nos­tal­gic for those with­out want­ing to turn back the clock.

That’s why it’s wrong to dis­miss nos­tal­gia as point­less, in­sist­ing that the present is bet­ter in ev­ery way or that only the fu­ture mat­ters. The fu­ture is as ephemeral as the past, which it soon be­comes with fright­en­ing speed any­way. A per­son only ca­pa­ble of look­ing for­ward is as de­fec­tive as one who can only look back. The idea that we should do nei­ther but sim­ply live in the mo­ment is naive: hu­man re­la­tion­ships and sol­i­dar­ity de­pend on us hav­ing shared pasts and fu­tures.

We live in time, where past, present and fu­ture all have a sig­nif­i­cance. When nos­tal­gia is tem­pered by an ac­cep­tance that change is un­avoid­able, it can help us both to ap­pre­ci­ate what we once had and see more clearly what could still be. Used wisely, nos­tal­gia doesn’t trap us in the past but helps point us to a bet­ter to­mor­row.

• Ju­lian Bag­gini, a Bri­tish philoso­pher and au­thor, runs the web­site Mi­crophi­los­o­phy

‘Pop­ulist pol­i­tics says that the present can be as the past once was: the steel towns can bebrought back to life, the streets can be largely free of those with dif­fer­ent ac­cents or skincolours ... ’ Pho­to­graph: David An­gel/Alamy

‘Those who think all we need is a se­cond ref­er­en­dum and we’ll get back all we have lostfail to ap­pre­ci­ate the fun­da­men­tal changesthat made the Brexit vote pos­si­ble.’ Pho­to­graph: RMV/REX/Shut­ter­stock

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