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The Friday Fillip: Nostalgia

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?

That white stuff from yesteryear is in your memory, of course. And only there. There could hardly be a better metaphor for all things ephemeral and fleeting than former snow. The interesting question, though, is how we feel about such impermanence. On the one hand, “les neiges” are now water under the bridge, done and dusted, yesterday’s news, or, to return to our metaphor, Schnee von gestern (yesterday’s snow) as the Germans might say. We screw up the lunch bag, toss it into the bin, and move on.

Or do we? Some of us instead of letting go feel a sense of loss and a longing to return to the past — or for the past to return to us, which might not be the same thing. We call this nostalgia; although properly, I suppose, it should be “nostalgia for the past,” because the word is a made-up term from borrowed Greek (nóstos – homecoming + álgos – ache) meaning literally “homesickness.” And there’s a whole lot of nostalgia going round right now.

Of course, at this time of year we work our emotions up to a fine frenzy, which, because feelings have no clocks, connects us quite directly with white Christmases of the past, complete with sleigh bells and presents wrapped under the tree, etc. etc. But seasonal nostalgia apart, I find it curious how much the past is nowadays made into something to venerate or at least to affect to prefer. We glaze the memory with a saccharine filter a lot of the time.

I recently came across a perfect illustration of such a hankering after what’s binned and gone. It’s a website to which people send requests for help in tracking down recipes for dishes they remember fondly. The site, hungrybrowser.com, is run by an Uncle Phaedrus, “consulting detective and finder of lost recipes.” It’s been running since 2000, which is kind of nostalgic all on its own; and the design, or rather the lack of it, drops it squarely into the web’s early days, which is powerfully nostalgic. Too, there’s the choice of a pseudonym that dates back to Plato. For all that, it’s refreshing to see Phaedrus admit to striking out as much as he does; there’s no energetic forcing of success here of the kind you might find in some websites today. The recipes sought tend to hail from a time when Woolworth’s lived and Horn and Hardart made sticky buns. Which doesn’t make them bad, of course — just gone.

That’s straight-out nostalgia for the past. But now we’re seeing a fake nostalgia as well — and I mean actually seeing. A number of smart phone camera apps have sprung up to let you turn your very modern pixel snap into the simulacrum of a faded paper print from a Kodak Brownie. All the faults of a photo such as the one below, which actually dates from 1958, are now regarded as desirable:

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There are lots of theories around as to why, pictorially at least, we’re unhappy with the perfection of the present, ranging from the view that our notion of authenticity is slow in catching up with technology, and still uses paper as the touchstone, to the argument that young people who use smart phones and these “aging” apps, in the words of Will Self, “have so little by way of personal history that they polish it up and make it shine like a treasured heirloom.”

Perhaps because, like Will, I’ve got a considerable stock of personal past, I’m more interested in the novel things that photography can do. There’s a stunning example of that, placed on the web by the Guardian, in this huge — and I mean huge: 2 billion pixels — panoramic photograph of Mount Everest and surroundings. This is full screen territory if ever there was such a thing. The detail is amazing.

Now this ties in with my beginning, of course, because of the snow in the Himalayas photo. But I can do better than that. The reason the very word nostalgia got invented in 1688 was as a diagnosis for a homesickness suffered by Swiss mercenaries fighting in France who missed their mountains. We’ve learned to say Schadenfreude. Perhaps it’s time to learn Schweizerheimweh as well.

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