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The politics of nostalgia, and where it gets us

When I watched The Great Gatsby (the 1974 version, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow), I was overcome by a nostalgia which seemed natural, although I (obviously) didn’t live through the Jazz Age. I had similar feelings while reading Wodehouse or Narayan’s Malgudi stories. It didn’t make any sense then.

Later I realised this wasn’t uncommon. In fact there is even a word for it. Anemoia, defined as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.”

Nostalgia implies, if not a time of perfection, then a time when one was happier, in imagination or reality. Those of us deeply affected by the ‘new’ normal during the pandemic have already begun feeling nostalgic for the recent past, despite the struggles and challenges so much a part of everyday life that seemed to overwhelm us then.

Nostalgia is an emotional crutch, and the truth or otherwise of the feeling – it is always a feeling, seldom the result of analysis – is immaterial. Our hearts and minds eliminate the bad and exaggerate the good. It is both a defence mechanism and an abstract construct we can escape into.

More importantly, nostalgia is a crucial tool in the politician’s belt. The worst deal in this currency, harping back to a past that never existed, to a pristine antiquity that is manufactured to suit a time and place. The lies gain by repetition.

Remember we invented the flying machine. Don’t forget there was organ transplant in India long before it was re-discovered anywhere else. Let us build a temple and establish Ram Rajya once again. Make America great again. The implication is: we may not be great right now, but we were once, and if you listen to me and follow what I say we can be great again. Put me in charge – temporarily, I assure you – of your current happiness, and I guarantee you future greatness, which means more happiness. That is the politician’s promise.

The majority of the voters fall for what Marquez has called the ‘charitable deceptions of nostalgia’.

In a recent article on the subject of nostalgia, Felipe de Brigard, a philosopher at Duke’s University said, “The politics of nostalgia doesn’t capitalise on people’s memories of particular past events they might have experienced. Instead, it makes use of propaganda in order to provide people with the right episodic materials to conjure up imaginations of possible scenarios that most likely never happened.”

Politicians don’t have to be specific, merely suggest. Most use a combination of the two.

When you ask questions about how dictators come to power, or a democratic people make compromises, here’s your answer. What they are promising is not a great future but a return to the past when according to them, things were better, especially since they were untouched by such ‘modern’ concepts as science, equality, empowerment of women and religious tolerance.

Getting nostalgic while watching a movie or reading a book may be useful, even necessary. Nostalgia imposed from above is dangerous, but realisation tends to dawn too late.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 8:59:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-politics-of-nostalgia-and-where-it-gets-us/article32248403.ece

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