What are we looking for when we look to the past? This is a question I find myself dealing with nearly every time I sit down to write a poem. My poetry is often image driven, and my image-repertoire is heavily nostalgic, homesick, and filled with objects and people from places I once thought of as home. Places I would return to if such a thing were possible. Of course, it is not possible. I will never again walk out of my first “Lesbian & Gay Film” class, twenty years old and suddenly braver, enamored of the way the streetlights hit the rain-soaked brick paths crisscrossing the college green. And thank goodness for that, as the exhilaration experienced in that brief moment depended in large part on how it contrasted with far less positive experiences of regrettably longer duration.
And yet I return, constantly, to memories like these and their attendant images, to thoughts of myself in moments of intense, if complicated, happiness. I write this post from the memory of a time and place (the early 2000s in a small town called Athens, no doubt named by men nostalgic for a place that had never been their home), and I think about how that place fostered a sense of finally being ‘at home’ with myself. It was where I was introduced to queer theory and, as it happens, to my partner. The images I associate with that place have taken on a nostalgic tint not because of their inherent beauty but because of what they represent: a fleeting sense of comfort in a difficult time. If a poem I write from these images stays at the level of rain and streetlights and warm feelings, without acknowledging issues (chief among them a culture of homophobia) that informed my experience, it becomes nostalgic in the worst way. In adopting an uncomplicated nostalgic stance, I deny the historically specific social and cultural circumstances that shaped the moment in question.
Frederic Jameson was right then, in a sense, when he described nostalgia as a sickness that is itself a symptom of an even greater illness: a cultural obsession with the image and the loss of historicity. But the appeal of nostalgia is undeniable, and, for me, often integral to my writing process. Nostalgia is a sickness, to be sure, but one that has the potential to be useful. In seducing us to look back, nostalgia also affords us an opportunity to question what we are looking for. What are we missing in the present that we imagine to be located in the past, under a veneer of rain darkened streets on a spring evening? How can understanding this sense of lack aid us in making new maps of the present or in charting a course for future action? Perhaps it is worthwhile to consider how nostalgia’s seductive power can be a critical first step toward producing something new. My blog posts this year will examine nostalgia from this angle, testing its efficacy as a critical and positive tool, and engaging with work by Frederic Jameson, Judith Butler, and others. To respond to my opening question of what we are looking for when we look to the past, my tentative hypothesis is this: maybe we are looking for a home in the inhospitable present.