Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia by Tobias Becker and The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym

Basic Books | Harvard

Review by Walter Cummins

Tobias Becker opens his new book with this epigraph from the Beatles’ song to explain the origin of his title: “Yesterday  / All my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they’re here to stay /  Oh, I believe in yesterday.” But before Paul McCartney came up with his melody and these lyrics, Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach in 1933 wrote a song called “Yesterdays” that starts with these Harbach lines: “Yesterdays / Yesterdays / Days I knew as happy sweet / Sequestered days / Olden days / Golden days …” In both songs, the past is a preferable time, one to be longed for as a redemption from the failings of the present. Or does it? Both Becker and Svetlana Boym have written studies to explore that question.

As Becker explains the derivation of the term nostalgia, it initially did refer to a place, the extreme homesickness that debilitated seventeenth-century Swiss soldiers craving their homeland. However, by the twentieth century, time had replaced place in the word’s implication, suggesting a fixation on recapturing the joys of prior years, times believed to be much more satisfactory than the immediate now.

Boym questions whether the past can be recaptured through nostalgia and whether it should be. She opens her book with a linguistic analysis of the word nostalgia, distinguishing two aspects: “Nostalgia (from nostos—return home, and algia—longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” Reflective nostalgia involves “longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.” At best it provides bittersweet consolation, as in the Beatles’ song. The other aspect, restorative nostalgia, is more troubling because it “characterizes national and nationalist revivals all over the world, which engage in the anti-modern mythmaking of history by means of a return to national symbols and myths.” It can breed monsters.

Boym manages to conflate both senses of nostalgia—place and time—through her examples of dilemmas confronted when restoring places of an architectural past and of expatriates pondering displacement from the homes of their personal pasts. Given her own circumstances, Bohm couldn’t help such a perspective because she too was an expatriate, born in St. Petersburg and ending up in Boston after a brief stay in Vienna. During her career of teaching  comparative literature at Harvard up to the time of her death in 2015, she made many trips back to Europe and studied writers and artists who shared her Russian origins.

Her 2001 book examines the political and ideological dilemmas faced by war-ravaged cities like St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Moscow in deciding whether or not to rebuild structures, questioning the roles any rebuilding might play as the reconstructed past informed those cities’ futures. In another section she considers how writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky and artist Ilya Kabakov addressed their relationships to their Russian pasts from their new homes in other lands.

Ultimately, Boym is skeptical of nostalgia. It can be manipulated by those in authority to falsify a cultural past with the goal of justifying present policies and actions. But even the personal consolations can be another form of deception: “One is nostalgic not for the past the way it was, but for the past the way it could have been.” For her, the future of nostalgia carries the danger of furthering the dislocations of the present.

Becker writes with the goal of rescuing the concept of nostalgia, arguing that the term and its implications have been misused when applied to social history, politics, and popular culture. Unlike Boym and her range of references, his analysis focuses on the United States and the United Kingdom, with occasional references to Germany. He considers the writings of a number of theoreticians to conclude that they consider nostalgia an “antonym to progress”:

The most common charge [against nostalgia] is that it distorts the past: by redesigning it “as a comfortable refuge,” it makes the past “better and simpler than the present.” For the historian Charles Maier, for instance, nostalgia is not at all the same as longing but a debased version of it at best: “Nostalgia is to longing as kitsch is to art,” he declares.

Becker’s chapter on politics concentrates on Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl, documenting that their actual policies contradict the accusations that they wallowed in nostalgia. In fact, they wanted a new future for their countries: “By dressing his politics in the clothes of the past, Reagan disguised just how radical they were.” Becker’s chapter on popular culture opposes the “critics of pop culture [who] use the term nostalgia mainly as an indictment.” Instead, he agrees with Jonathan Letham: “In this reading, retro and revivalism are nothing new but merely new manifestations of much older—eternal, as he says—cultural practices that, instead of undermining creativity, enable it. Culture never starts completely from scratch; every new generation continues to weave a cloth started in time immemorial.”

After constructing a convincing against the pejorative attitudes toward the concept of nostalgia, Becker calls for a more accurate and more constructive understanding: “… such research would need to distance itself from this ideological background and define exactly what it means by the term nostalgia, how it uses it, and how it relates to the existing research, acknowledging that people use and define nostalgia in different ways.”

Becker alludes to the emotional aspects of nostalgia without going into the implications for individuals who have deep attachments to their personal pasts and are not necessarily rejecting the future or concerned with political manipulations. McCarney’s “Yesterday” tells a story, like many Beatles songs. The persona of the singer doesn’t understand why his lover is gone and, therefore, longs for the happy yesterday of their relationship. In that sense, it’s another torch song of human lament for the failure of love. Some people crave a better time.