It was one of the biggest hits of 1979 – What a Fool Believes – and went on to win the Grammy for Song of the Year – one of the very few non-disco hits that year. Yes, disco was the thing back then. It was a dark time in pop music. But using top-forty junk music to express fundamental existential issues – in that particular song, issues around hanging on to what never really was – can make you rich. It worked for the Doobie Brothers. And the song itself is rather catchy – even if the core notion is that what a fool believes is indeed the only thing he ever sees. Belief creates perception, not the other way around. And perception creates our sense of meaning. Heck, maybe the song is about epistemology. After all, there is that key line – “What seems to be is always better than nothing.” That adds motive to self-delusion. All of this life just can’t amount to nothing – so we create a something that should have been, to sidestep the existential meaninglessness of it all, staring us in the face. It’s that Camus thing about being scathingly honest and bravely facing the absurd. Sometime that just hurts too much. Other hits that year include Boogie Wonderland, My Sharona, Donna Summer singing about Bad Girls, Rod Stewart asking Da Ya Think I’m Sexy – and the Village People singing about the YMCA. Those avoided the question of perception and meaning.
But what seems to be is always better than nothing. And as this year ends everyone looks back, with nostalgia, or horror, or pride, or embarrassment – and tries to assess things. But nostalgia always wins, or it won this year, as Matt Zoller Seitz says we’re nostalgic for everything, as in 2011 we wanted to be anywhere but 2011:
“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present,” says a philosopher (Michael Sheen) in Woody Allen’s surprise hit “Midnight in Paris.” “The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking: the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one [that] one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
If nostalgia is indeed a flaw, it’s one that many 2011 films and TV programs shared. Some of the year’s most talked-about movies and shows gave themselves over to some form of nostalgia – unabashedly reveling in, and idealizing, not just an earlier time, but the artists and artistic styles that we associate with that time, and the rush of emotion that accompanies our fantasies of same. Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” – his top grossing movie ever – is Exhibit A. It’s an immensely likable reworking of his short story “A Twenties Memory” in which an Allen stand-in, screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson), magically gets to travel back to the time of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. But it’s merely the keynote address in a year of budget-busting, production-design-showcasing, time-tripping cinema and television, a year that invited viewers not merely to experience stories from another time but to slip into them with deep pleasure and savor their restorative power.
So Seitz lists his items – “Midnight in Paris,” “The Tree of Life,” “Super 8,” “The Artist,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Hugo” and “The War Horse” – all exercises in nostalgia of one sort or another. And it wasn’t just the movies:
Some of the highest-profile TV – successful and unsuccessful – had nostalgia on the brain, wallowing in luxurious sets, costumes, hairstyles, music and slang from the early- and mid-20th century – even as they repeatedly told and showed us that things weren’t so great Back Then, whenever Back Then was. The short list includes the glossy but unsuccessful network series “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am,” HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” and “Boardwalk Empire,” ReelzChannel’s “The Kennedys,” PBS’ “Downton Abbey” and “Brideshead Revisited” and “The Hours.”
And Seitz argues that there’s something basic and significant connecting all of this stiff, and he thinks the connection is more aesthetic than historical, about the need to escape the present. And it doesn’t seem to matter which particular past you choose:
It’s about tactility – a fear that the virtual world is displacing the real one, and a corresponding conviction that a cinematic or televised re-creation of the past — however stylized or “unreal” — can feel somehow more real than whatever we’re living through now.
To borrow a literary analogy, the texts of these productions were often overwhelmed by the illustrations; even as the plotlines showed us how cruel life could be, and how ignorant and venal the characters were, the viewer’s eye still feasted on those dresses! Those hats! Those cars! Those hissing vinyl records spinning on those elegant Victrolas! And of course the white beams of light slicing through cigarette-befogged darkness in movie theaters and casting black-and-white images up on big screens – images shots on honest-to-God film –
And Seitz goes on to dive deep into these films, if that’s your thing, but he circles back to the Woody Allen film:
“All men fear death,” says Ernest Hemingway in “Midnight in Paris.” “It’s a natural fear that consumes us all. We fear death because we feel that we haven’t loved well enough or loved at all, which ultimately are one and the same.” The film’s tone is rather jokey as he says this, but from the intensity in his eyes you can tell he’s not kidding – and if you read the words in plain black-and-white, divested of lush celluloid images and piquant music, it sure does feel like a line from a manifesto, or a lament.
Allen ultimately deflates the very nostalgia that his movie indulges; the film’s comic climax takes Gil and his girlfriend Adriana, a ’20s Frenchwoman, back to Paris during the Belle Époque era, the period that she worships as brazenly as Gil worships the Paris of her own time. “I’m from the ’20s, and I’m telling you the golden age is la Belle Époque,” she insists. But really: “Midnight in Paris” is not a hit because of the director’s clear-headed attitude about the blind worship of earlier, supposedly more interesting times. It’s a hit because of the clothes, the music, the cultural references and the comic star power of the Paris writers and artists we’ve read about in school. It’s a hit because it’s a warm bath in another era, and a blessed escape from this one.
It’s a trip to a place where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. It’s that Doobie Brothers song again. It’s what a fool believes.
But in this last year of Nostalgia in America, only half the country finds that Woody Allen movie, about the lure and the absurdity of nostalgia, resonates with them – and the problem is Paris. The other half of the country – the NASCAR side of things – has no use for anything French. They long for something else, and that seems to be the Old South. And their nostalgia is just as blind, as this year gave us Newt Gingrich defending the Republicans in South Carolina proudly flying the Confederate Flag over the state capital:
At an event in South Carolina yesterday, Newt Gingrich was asked by a town hall participant to offer his views regarding the state’s decision to fly the Confederate flag at the statehouse in Columbia. The woman’s question was met with a smattering of boos from the audience.
“I have a very strong opinion,” Gingrich said, prefacing his weak response. “It’s up to the people of South Carolina.” (He then qualified his answer by assuring that he is opposed to segregation and slavery.)
Gingrich elicited a rousing standing ovation and yells of approval from the audience.
Yes, he backtracked and then said he really is opposed to segregation and slavery, honest – but that’s not what got him the standing ovation. And of course Michele Bachmann famously said this:
The Minnesota Republican called slavery an “evil” and “scourge” and “stain on our history.”
“But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States,” Bachmann added, claiming “men like John Quincy Adams… would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.”
Isn’t it pretty to think so? Slavery was not abolished until 1865, when we ratified the Thirteenth Amendment and expressly forbade it. Of course, although he wasn’t one of the founders, John Quincy Adams had been a strong opponent of slavery, later – but he was just a kid back then, when his father and the other fathers were founding. Jefferson and many of the rest were slave-owners. And both these instances are pure nostalgia, hanging on to what never really was. We allowed slavery, and all the abuses and pain and death that came with it. That’s just the way it was. And nostalgia for those times is as odd as the nostalgia of Woody Allen’s Gil for the Paris of Hemingway and Stein and that crowd. But belief creates perception, not the other way around. And perception creates our sense of meaning. And the Old South was a wonderful place.
But Rick Perry does not support Confederate license plates – for what that’s worth. On the other hand, Peter Birkenhead, with his partner Gabbie, takes us on the tourist-tours of the major Southern Plantations, and that is amazing:
We did hear the word “servant” on the tour, two or three times, in the telling of what were meant to be amusing anecdotes about the idiosyncrasies of the servants’ owners. Our guide was dressed in an elaborate, sky-blue ball gown, and chirped about what fun it was for her to “go back in time and live like Scarlett O’Hara for a day.”
As Gabbie read from the menu in her best Vivien Leigh, her eyes began to widen. She dropped the drawl and informed me that the Cabin had been serving busloads of visitors to Louisiana’s plantation country for more than 30 years on the strength of its reputation for authenticity, which the menu explained thusly: “Our goal is to preserve some of the local farming history, serve meals typical of the River Road tradition, and make your visit a relaxed and memorable one. The Cabin Restaurant began as one of the 10 original slave dwellings of the Monroe Plantation. Through the efforts, ideas, the love, sweat and patience of friends and family, you are able to enjoy a small sampling of Southern Louisiana history.”
The love, sweat and patience of actual participants in the “local farming history,” the original builders and tenants of the Cabin, were not dwelt upon or mentioned in the menu’s text, but their contribution to the restaurant’s ambience was subtly alluded to. As the waiter brought our food I read: “In the grand dining room, the roof is supported by four massive beams … placed so that the room resembles a Garconnier (the visiting bachelor’s quarters on a river road plantation.)”
And we put our menus down. I’ve enjoyed almost every spoonful of gumbo I’ve had over the years, whether in expensive restaurants, coffee shops or train stations, but I might have had my last one contemplating the events witnessed by the roof beams of a “visiting bachelor’s quarters” on a 19th-century sugar plantation.
It seems they don’t get it, just as some folks don’t get Paris, but it’s more than that:
When the Civil War ended, there were no truth and reconciliation commissions formed to process memories, no Nuremberg Trials to enable reflection, no Great Emancipator to free the future from the past – only ghosts and the ravenous politics of memory. The need for national reckoning was quickly subordinated to the political imperative of reunification, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, forgetting became more valuable than remembering.
Southern apologists earned sudden fortunes in a gold rush of nostalgic forgetting. Within a year of the war’s end, a Virginia journalist named Edward Pollard published a novel called “The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates,” a breathless, self-pitying fantasy, and the first of many to recast the conflict as a tragedy of fraternal strife and regional repression, to blame the Confederate defeat on the overwhelming resources and underhanded tactics of the North, exalt the Confederacy’s most ruthless generals as paragons of honor, revel in stories of freed people run amok, wallow in tearful, postwar family reunions, and pine for the “Golden Age” of hoop- skirts and happy-go-lucky chattel. It depicted slavery as a benign if not beneficial institution, and relegated further discussion on the topic to the offstage realm of “touchy” subjects, where, for perpetual Northern fear of offending delicate Southern sensibilities, it has languished ever since.
So no one talks about slavery, and an industry was born:
The scores of histories and plantation novels that followed Pollard’s, many produced by members of what came to be known as the Dunning School (after its founder, Columbia history professor William Archer Dunning), an influential movement of celebrity, revisionist scholars – a sort of mutton-chopped Heritage Foundation – helped concoct a broad, new Southern culture of perpetual grievance and nostalgia for a re-imagined, antebellum idyll. The primary focus of most Dunning School stories was not the war itself, but Reconstruction, a period that Claude Bowers, an early-20th-century successor to Pollard (and given to similarly Glenn Beckian flights of tearful, dissociative rage) called “The Tragic Era.” It was a decade, as he saw it, marked by unrestrained Yankee corruption and sadism, which punished the South for secession and forced black suffrage on an already politically neutered white population. Bowers’ books demonized “fanatic” abolitionists and Ulysses S. Grant, exalted the Ku Klux Klan and Andrew Johnson, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
By 1932, and the publication of “Gone With the Wind” – the ultimate Lost Cause novel and still the most popular book in America, after the Bible – Lost Cause literature succeeded in sacrificing the very meaning of the Civil War to the demands of myth-making. The 1939 movie sealed the deal. The culture of forgetting had become a national religion.
And here we are today, with the new movies:
Seventy years later, movies like “The Help” – the latest in a long line of tributes to the unsung white heroes of black history, and a gauzy rendering of the civil rights era as a triumph of the human spirit over mean people – have taken up where “Gone With the Wind” left off. A direct descendant of Lost Cause culture, modern nostalgia is souvenir nostalgia, a taxidermical, preservation-fetish that isolates parts from wholes, pulls symbols out of context, and shrinks cultural memories to the size of a 9/11 commemorative coin. (Never Forget!) It’s woven into every corner of the culture, high and low, North and South, as pervasive as sleep. And it is a black hole of memory, the place where memory goes to die.
But Birkenhead argues that our culture of forgetting is a real problem.
Don’t get me wrong – I like nostalgia, I miss nostalgia – the kind that involves remembering, anyway, mostly private, typically accidental – not always rosy. When my great-uncle told stories about flying bomber missions over Germany, he didn’t merely recall events – experiences that he had a complicated affection for – he wondered about them. His eyes grew pained and befuddled; his chest rose and fell with a fullness no amount of time could diminish. He wasn’t running from himself to an imagined past, he was finding himself in his story, sorting it out, trying to see it clearly.
Of course childhood nostalgia – the kind of remembering you do when remembering is new, when memories are full and dramatic because they’re few and weightless – is different. Mourning hamsters. Idealizing grandparents. Chronicling summers like they’re centuries. When I had twelve years to look back on, they were eons…
But the past I remembered then wasn’t even my own. I sported a ridiculous ’50s trench coat and well-thumbed copies of “On the Road” in the ’80s the way 20-year-olds in ancient Rome probably carried Euripides in their vintage Greek togas. When you’re young, nostalgia isn’t about the past, but the future. It’s a train in the distance, a sound from the old days hinting at the new. When your own past is too frightening to look at, and the future is terrifyingly unknown, you fake your way through the present. I spent my days wanting something I couldn’t name, and because I didn’t have memories to attach to that yearning, I yearned for a time before me. I conjured a past and missed it and bought an overcoat I prayed I’d grow into.
So something like that is going on here:
The same pattern has repeated itself many times, from Morning in America to WMD, from the Swift Boaters to the Tea Party. The decade following the Civil War amounted to a tragic, missed opportunity for the South to engage in a different kind of remembering. Even a little grown-up nostalgia could have gone a good, long way. The illness implied in its suffix, the sickness of the heart that a powerful longing produces, can be as necessary and cleansing as a storm. But of course that’s what the Lost Causers were afraid of, are afraid of still, and have always been quick to nip in the bud.
And now we have tourist traps:
When I asked Angela da Silva, a professor of black history at Lindenwood University, and owner of the St. Louis-based National Black Tourism Network, for her thoughts, she said, “Jesus coming down off the cross couldn’t get me to stay in some gentrified slave cabin with a Jacuzzi in it. The misery and pain that happened in those cabins … This is about shame. People who own these places want the history to go away. But it won’t go away. And until we as black people insist on the story being told no one has any incentive to change their business model.”
Da Silva grew up just a few miles from the Baker plantation in Missouri, where her family worked as slaves from 1837 until the end of the war. She learned almost nothing in school about slavery, she says, but her grandmother told her stories that she remembers to this day. As she spoke about sleeping in the same bed with her grandmother until she was 10 – and waking up in the middle of the night to ask questions about her ancestors and life on the plantation, her voice softened, and she cleared her throat. I could hear her slow, full breathing over the phone.
But slavery is rarely mentioned on any private plantation tour:
Proprietors typically insist that innovative architecture and interesting design justify their focus on the “Big Houses,” but that argument can be awfully hard to fathom. Leaving aside obvious exceptions like Monticello, surely the most notable thing about most plantations is not who lived there, who designed them or what they look like. A beautiful home, made beautiful by slaves, is not important for its beauty. To elevate aesthetic elements over history in the public presentation of slave estates is to demote people once inventoried like candlesticks to a status even lower than that of things. It’s an obscenity.
So Birkenhead is not big on nostalgia:
If it’s true that we’re all breathing Caesar’s breath – that because of the finite amount of perpetually moving molecules on Earth, one or two that he breathed are in each of our exhalations – then we don’t need to dress up in his clothes to connect ourselves to the past, we’re already wearing them. The past is with us always, but we need to live with it, open our eyes and poke around in it, take it all in: the good, the bad and the mythic, if we want to stay connected to the ever-changing present.
But maybe we don’t want to do that. This year that is ending was bathed in nostalgia of all sorts, or marinated in it, or pickled in it – a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present. We just don’t like the present all. Nostalgia is, of course, denial. But what seems to be is always better than nothing. You know the song.