The dark side of nos­tal­gia

From ‘Ready Player One’ to ‘Stranger Things’, retro ref­er­ences are ev­ery­where today. But might our ob­ses­sion with the past have neg­a­tive con­se­quences? Ed Power re­ports

Irish Independent - - Culture & Features -

If you fancy a su­per-sized serv­ing of nos­tal­gia, Steven Spiel­berg’s Ready Player One is the retro romp you’ve been wait­ing for.

Eight­ies block­busters, old video games, comic books and cult science fic­tion are ri­fled with glee by the di­rec­tor’s $175m adap­ta­tion of the 2011 Ernest Cline best­seller.

Spiel­berg even plunges down a cin­e­matic hall of mir­rors via winks to­wards his own cre­ations such as Back to the Fu­ture (which he ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced) and 1993’s Juras­sic Park, al­luded to with an early cameo by a ram­pag­ing T-Rex.

Ahead of its re­lease on Thurs­day, an­tic­i­pa­tion for the film is ap­proach­ing fever pitch. Af­ter years with­out a sig­nif­i­cant hit — his 2016 adap­ta­tion of Roald Dahl’s The BFG was a stone-cold flop — Ready Player One looks set to re­store 71-year-old Spiel­berg to his right­ful po­si­tion as pop­corn en­ter­tain­ment’s once and fu­ture king.

The big sur­prise is that any of this could be con­sid­ered shock­ing. In Hol­ly­wood and else­where, noth­ing sells nowa­days like nos­tal­gia. Net­flix’s big­gest smash, Stranger Things, is an un­abashed love let­ter to 80s geek cul­ture, with ref­er­ences to

Dun­geons and Dragons, Ghost­busters and vin­tage synth-pop (all of which re­ceive a hat tip in

Ready Player One).

The suc­cess of Dis­ney’s re­booted Star Wars movies sim­i­larly speaks to the al­lure of pop cul­ture touch­stones from a gen­er­a­tion ago.

Where the orig­i­nal Star Wars films were aimed at kids, these new se­quels are pitched un­abashedly at mid­dle aged mul­ti­plex go­ers whose child­hood un­folded in the shadow of Luke Sky­walker (in­evitably Ready

Player One con­tains its own Easter

eggs).

The screen isn’t the only place colonised by nos­tal­gia. Rock ’n’ roll is still try­ing to slip free of the head­lock of punk and grunge, with 90s indie rock the cur­rent sound deemed ripe for re­ju­ve­na­tion (a come­back al­bum by post-grunge out­fit The Breed­ers is among the year’s most ap­prov­ingly re­viewed).

More darkly, it can be ar­gued that Brexit is rooted in a yearn­ing among a cer­tain de­mo­graphic in the UK for a time when the world was more straight­for­ward: Blighty ruled the waves, for­eign­ers — the up­pity Ir­ish among them — knew their place. In a sim­i­lar vein, what could be more nos­tal­gic than Don­ald Trump’s bat­tle-cry of ‘Make Amer­ica Great Again’?

The con­nec­tion be­tween right wing pol­i­tics and nos­tal­gia is sup­ported by re­search from Utrecht Uni­ver­sity in the Nether­lands, in which par­tic­i­pants were asked ques­tions such as: “How of­ten do you long for the good old days of the coun­try?”

There was, it was dis­cov­ered, a cor­re­la­tion be­tween a long­ing for the past and a tendency to view im­mi­grants in a less pos­i­tive light.

“In the Nether­lands,” the au­thors of the study said, “the ex­tremeright wing is grow­ing more pop­u­lar, and they are us­ing the rhetoric of nos­tal­gia to at­tract vot­ers.”

Nos­tal­gia, it should be recog­nised, isn’t al­ways a neg­a­tive. Hold­ing on to an ide­alised vi­sion of the past can be an im­por­tant com­fort dur­ing dif­fi­cult times, psy­chol­o­gists have found. Nos­tal­gia can make a per­son more op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture, a

study in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial

Psy­chol­ogy es­tab­lished. It is one of the ways the mind copes with neg­a­tive men­tal states or “psy­cho­log­i­cal threats”. “Most of our days are of­ten filled with rou­tine ac­tiv­i­ties that aren’t par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant — shop­ping for gro­ceries, com­mut­ing to work and so forth,” said the au­thors of a sep­a­rate Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton re­port which found that look­ing back on the past could boost our mood and self-es­teem, and help im­bue our life with mean­ing. Nos­tal­gia, they con­tended, is a “fun­da­men­tal hu­man emo­tion. Nos­tal­gia is a way for us to tap into the past ex­pe­ri­ences that we have that are quite mean­ing­ful — to re­mind us that our lives are worth­while, that we are peo­ple of value, that we have good re­la­tion­ships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of pur­pose or mean­ing”.

“Nos­tal­gia can pro­vide hap­pi­ness,” agrees psy­chother­a­pist Tom Evans, “a trip down mem­ory lane, chew­ing on happy ear­lier-life mem­o­ries.”

Yet prob­lems can arise when our fond­ness for yes­ter­year metas­ta­sises into a re­luc­tance to en­gage with the present. Are we in­formed by our past or im­pris­oned by it?

“We’ll of­ten yearn for the ideal, when things were hap­pier, more sim­ple — when we didn’t have to make dif­fi­cult adult de­ci­sions or choices, or meet pain,” says Evans.

“Nos­tal­gia may op­er­ate as a psy­cho­log­i­cal de­fence against con­fronting adult chal­lenges. We can be risk averse or re­sis­tant to change. Nos­tal­gia may pro­vide the path of least re­sis­tance.

“It can be pre­sented as a ‘bet­ter idea’ to ei­ther keep things as they’ve al­ways been or go back to how things were rather than un­dergo change, po­ten­tially growth and the as­so­ci­ated grow­ing pains,” he ex­plains.

“Nos­tal­gia can fa­cil­i­tate de­nial, if child­hood was a hap­pier time than adult­hood, de­nial that life is real, that pain is real, that dif­fi­cult chal­lenges ex­ist. Whereas the fully func­tion­ing adult mind­set is not in de­nial and recog­nises that change brings pos­i­tives. We have a nice term in the ther­apy busi­ness, ‘post trau­matic growth’ — our fancy way of say­ing what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Nos­tal­gia can fa­cil­i­tate de­nial, de­nial that life is real, that pain is real, that dif­fi­cult chal­lenges ex­ist

Blast from the past: Ready Player One and Stranger Things (be­low) are heavy on nos­tal­gic ref­er­ences

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