Nostalgia and Yearning

"Along the Coast" Andrew Wyeth, 1950

“Along the Coast” Andrew Wyeth, 1950

Nostalgia and Yearning

For most of my life, I’ve lived under a low-hanging cloud of yearning. The Germans call it Sehnsucht. It’s romantic longing for a fog-enshrouded, mystery-enfolded, beckoning future.

It’s the kind of longing depicted in the movie, “Wuthering Heights,” based on Emily Brontë’s novel. The other night, I watched a rerun on Turner Classics, starring the young Lawrence Olivier as open-shirted, untamed Heathcliff, and Merle Oberon making her debut as the ill-fated Cathy.

 “Cathy! My wild Cathy!” cries Heathcliff, as he stands silhouetted against the wind-swept moors.

“I am Heathcliff!” says Cathy, alight with the fateful realization that their two souls have fused as if, together, they made one soul.

Emily Brontë was a nineteenth-century Romantic, and those novelists, poets, and adoring readers, took their Sehnsucht a bit far. Starting with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther – they took it all the way to a suicide cult – so disvalued was the day-to-day ordinariness of the present, when young romantics compared it to the idealized future for which they longed.

Jerry suggested to me that the other face of longing might be nostalgia – the same emotion turned backward toward the past. In nostalgia, one would be yearning for the lost Once Upon a Time, when one was safe and whole, when one did not have to hide, when one could turn a true and open face to the world.

Jerry’s comment reminded me of the large role nostalgia has played in my life. From my earliest years, up to the time when I left New York, I lived near the Metropolitan Museum. In seasons gone by, its rooms were relatively empty and happily unimproved by curators’ ideas about what brings people to museums. In my case, the draw was certainly not the beautiful art.

Art objects and any kind of stuff from the same era were left jumbled together. It was time travel! Nobody cared which part was “art.” Egyptian wall paintings could be visited alongside a simulated open grave containing a (probably simulated) mummy. There was a tomb you could walk into as far as a false door permitted. The false door at the end of the tomb’s interior hall was always a surprise. At the time when I was reading Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, I would linger among all these relics and long to be back (with Joseph?) in that time in ancient Egypt.

Why? What did it mean to me?

At a later period, I was reading Green Darkness by Anya Seton. She was probably the best writer of well-researched historical romances. With the device of reincarnation, Seton links the doomed lovers of Tudor times to their second appearance in a stately home in contemporary England. While I was reading Green Darkness, I would haunt the Tudor rooms of the Met, longing – simply longing – to be back there!

Real emotions, but twined around a seeming fiction.

What did it mean to me?

A third museum scene. The Carnegie Museum on 91st and Fifth held an exhibit of Native American art and artifacts. The highlight of the exhibit (for me at least) was a typee, lit from within. I don’t remember whether the typee included a simulated Indian family inside, but it was easy to picture such a grouping. In any case, I would stand in front of the typee, straining in spirit to live within its world. Inexpressibly straining. Again, why?

As a young woman, I had been disappointed in love. So at least some of these yearnings can be understood in psychological terms, as displacements. But a Lakota typee? A Tudor four-poster bed in which a certain historical personage was reputed to have been murdered? A gilt-inlaid Egyptian mummy?

Why? For what was I longing?

I have had a purported past life regression, at the time when I was exploring such things, but the scenes I saw under hypnosis did not feel particularly real and did not take me to ancient Egypt, Tudor times, or to a life as a plains Indian. The only personal experience of a past life that feels vivid to me is recent, was not induced under hypnosis, and involved perishing during the run-up to the Holocaust in the Germany of the 1930’s. Whether or not those sharp, peculiar impressions can be explained away in other terms, they certainly do not involve nostalgia! It’s not a time I want to visit or revisit. That’s for sure.

It’s curious. The first time I saw modern Israel, looking down from my seat on the El Al flight circling it, what came to mind were these words:

There it is AGAIN.

How nice!

They’ve put cities down this time!

Explain it how you will. Those were the exact words that – uninvited — took their seats in the forefront of my mind. The words carried no regret for something lost, no yearning and no nostalgia! On the contrary. The words had a matter of fact feel to them. They registered approval of the sky scrapers and other modern touches I could see from the air. I was seeing improvements recently made in the familiar but formerly dilapidated place where one used to live. The old home place had been newly fixed up, to its clear advantage!

How to explain nostalgia, yearning? One longs, I suppose, for one’s self in its wholeness. One adopts the happy illusion that one left one’s self some place, in the world of yesterday, or the world of tomorrow, where it could be retrieved if one could only travel in time, backward to the past or forward to the future.

By an alchemy I don’t fully comprehend, I’ve recently changed in this respect. I no longer yearn for the future. Nor do I long for the past.

Instead – and it’s a somewhat new thing for me –

by degrees and degrees,

I’m taking my place

in the large,

ever-new,

present world.

 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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