Nostalgia is one of the most powerful emotions in the human psyche, not least because change — so often for the worse — is one of the most powerful realities we all face. Some of this change, be it political, cultural, or religious, is specific to whatever era we live in. But much of it is quite literally perennial. The cycle of seasons and holidays, of months, of days of the week — even of hours of the day, as immortalised in the Divine Office — is the backdrop against which we live out our lives. The difference between these lives of ours and the eternally recurring observances in them is that the former are winding down. Birth, childhood, youth, middle age, senescence, and death are the way stations on the one-way trip toward the Four Last Things we are all taking, and from which — until Doomsday — there is no return (unless God allows us to come back briefly from Purgatory to ask for prayers and Masses, or we reach Heaven immediately and later appear on this Earth to help the faithful). No amount of money nor lack of it, nor of wisdom, honour, renown, nor their respective opposites can alter this reality. No matter how deeply or intensely we love, our families and friends, like ourselves, shall depart this world and each lasting relationship we have must end in death — theirs or ours. As Hebrews 13:14 puts it, “We have not here an abiding city.”
To this dark reality, there are several reactions. One may try to live as virtuous a life as possible, in order to secure a happy eternity; or he might say with the Epicureans, “eat, drink, and be happy, for to-morrow we die!” But just as both Saints and Sinners share human nature, so too do they share basic emotions. And one clear emotion, common to most of humanity when faced with the transitory nature of things and the horror of adverse change, is longing for the eternal, the unchanging — be it religion, literature, or sport. Another is to seek refuge in the past — that is, nostalgia.
On a recent trip with friends to New England, I drove through the town of Newton, Massachusetts. The houses of the section we were in, with their different styles and myriad of May flowers, evoked something in me. I could not figure out what it was until one of my companions said, “you can cut the nostalgia with a knife!” Indeed, you could have. To be sure, nostalgia is a potent force. In to-day’s fractured TV scene, it powers whole “Classic Television” networks like MeTV, COZI TV, and Antenna TV, which allow you to curl up in front of your set and enjoy your favourite programmes from whichever of the past seven decades was your own golden childhood and youth. Youtube allows you to find videos of the songs from “your” era, and there are always professional sports, cars, and old movies to send you back to that special time.
If you should like something a bit more live action to take you even further elsewhen, fear not! The Art Deco Societies, the Renaissance Faires and the Revels, or the Society for Creative Anachronism all await your pleasure. You might join a military re-enactment unit, take part in one of the few remaining Symphonic Outdoor Dramas, or join a Live Action Role-Playing group or volunteer at a Living History museum. Too frothy for you? Not to worry; you can take part in serious historical preservation of our built heritage, or else join societies dedicated to the study of such figures as Sir William Wallace, Owain Glendower, or Richard III. Too remote in time? You can join similar groups studying the life of such as Churchill, or chronicle the New Deal and all its works and pomps. There are the wide range of presidential homes and libraries you can throw yourself into, to live again the reign of whomever you consider to have been America’s brightest and best. If that is too far removed from you, you might qualify for one of the hereditary societies, and so be able to celebrate your worshipful fathers’ great contributions to our land.
Nor need nostalgia be purely personal; it can be political too. For Britons who miss the Conservative Party, there is the Monday Club; if they are Jacobites, they could join the Royal Stuart Society. The French have Legtimist, Orleanist, and Bonapartist heirs, and the Action Francaise and the Alliance Royale to name a few Monarchist groups. There are still Spanish Carlists and Portuguese Royalists, and the Habsburgs retain devotees in Austria, Hungary, Czechia, and the rest of their former Empire. Italy is awash with political nostalgia; Umberto II, the last King, still has many fans, as do his son and nephew, who are competing for the empty throne. There are those who would see a Catholic and United Italy, and those who would undo the Risorgimento — restoring the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (under either the Calabria or Castro branch of the Sovereign House), the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (with its own Habsburgs), the Duchies of Parma and Modena, the Lombard-Venetian Kingdom — even, to some degree, anyway, the Papal States. Germany is even more complex, since some of its Monarchists favour the united Empire, but Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover and all the other states retain their claimants. Russia’s heiress has her adherents; Poland has Monarchists, but no heir. The Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, and Albanian Royals live once more in their native lands, carry out official duties, and are awaiting events. Japan’s Nippon Kaigi would like to return to the prewar constitution — among other things, strengthening the position of the Emperor, restoring state patronage of Shinto, and regaining the right to wage war — and the current Prime Minister is a member. But don’t think such political nostalgia overseas is restricted to Monarchists. Far from it! Mussolini, de Gaulle, Petain, Schuman, Franco, Adenauer, Salazar, De Gasperi, the Perons, von Stauffenberg and his companions, Dollfuss, von Moltke, Hammarskjold, and Pinochet all have their advocates to-day, as do Mexico’s Sinarquistas and Brazil’s Integralistas. Some might gasp at my bracketing these folk together; but it is not whether they agreed among themselves or if this writer likes them or not. It is that they all lived quite a while ago, and yet retain impassioned adherents who believe that the views of their heroes would be of use to-day.
And so it is here in our own country, where such political nostalgia is also rampant — and never more than now. The Federalist Society and the Constitution Party would like to return to the foundational documents (the American Solidarity Party would add Catholic Social teaching to them); the League of the South and the Abbeville Institute wish to resurrect the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. There remain fans of Huey Long and Fr. Charles Coughlin, while the Orange Order in the USA and the Ancient Order of Hibernians continue to filter our political present through the Irish past. Nor are the politics of nostalgia confined to American Conservatives — it really is a reincarnation of the New Deal that the modern left consciously or otherwise longs for. Similarly, the AFL-CIO, the Grange, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the NAACP are all fueled by dreams of their respective glorious pasts — pasts which featured successes through appeals to common principles rarely held to-day, at least by those in power. There is also non-partisan political nostalgia to enjoy: the Elks, the American Legion, the VFW, the Knights of Columbus, and so many others promote loyalty and patriotism — also, to the country of my childhood, of those principles mentioned above, not the land consecrated to Roe V. Wade that we all inhabit, and whose masters finally broke the will of the Boy Scout leadership. Don’t get me wrong; I do not disapprove of the nostalgia generated by all of the above organisations, and I am proud to belong to a few of them. But the fact remains that they all look to some aspect of the past to make sense of the present and generate hope for the future — rather than accepting what we have (such as it is) on its own terms.
Whatever its object and ideology, political nostalgia sees in the work of past figures or movements solutions to to-day’s problems. They may or may not be correct, but usually such nostalgia remains the property of a dedicated few, while politics stumble along in whatever groove the great and the powerful wish them to. In culture and the arts, however, “revivals” tend to be rather more successful, and have more influence on day-to-day life. On the New-England trip earlier referenced, my path took me through the towns of Deerfield and Stockbridge, MA (the latter featuring the uber-nostalgic Norman Rockwell Museum), and Litchfield, CT — prime examples of the “Colonial Revival Movement,” that gripped the country in varying degrees from the American Centennial of 1876 to World War II, and echoes even to-day. In addition to the current layout of those towns, it brought us such reconstructions as Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, and a host of other “living history museums” — to say nothing of innumerable “ye olde” bars and taverns, either real or imitation. It was at once an architectural style and a social movement, the latter countering the perceived corruption and disruption of the “Gilded Age” with the supposed virtue and patriotism of the colonial and revolutionary eras. The basic notion also spawned a number of regional “revival” styles: Dutch, French, Spanish, Mission, Monterey, and Santa Fe — to say nothing of that revival named for Queen Anne, who so far as I can see had no more to do with it than she did with Blackbeard’s ship (though American Catholics should always be grateful to her memory for her intervention on our behalf in Maryland).
But the Colonial and accompanying Revivals were only the most recent and American versions of another perennial trend in human history. Through the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, the Colonial Revival was connected with the Gothic Revival that emerged from Romanticism’s revolt against the dead but revolution-bloodied hand of the Neo-Classical Enlightenment. Not just in architecture and aesthetics, but in life as well, it posed the seeming unity and peace of the Middle Ages against the horrors the Continent had just witnessed and which (correctly, as it turned out) were asleep but not dead. The three Englishmen, Augustus Pugin, John Ruskin (with his Guild of St. George), and William Morris, called upon their countrymen to return to the ways of their fathers; this message also came to America, where Ralph Adams Cram was its foremost practitioner. In its wake were such allied movements as the Pre-Raphaelites, the Celtic Revival, and Merry England; on the Continent were many varieties of Romantic Nationalism, calling upon the members of various long suppressed nationalities to regain the glory of their ancestors — often this was accompanied by the compiling of or even invention of national epics, ranging from the Mabinogion to the Kalevala.
Yet the Neo-Classicism of the Enlightenment was, in the minds of its practitioners, an attempt to push past the bloodshed of the religious wars following the Protestant revolt and the supposed Mediæval barbarism to the order and harmony of the Greeks and Romans. It, too, was a revival, in much the same spirit as that of the Renaissance and the Humanists — who, however, remained committed to Catholicism; their enemy was the horror and disorder brought on by the Black Plague and the civil wars in England, France, Germany, and Italy, to say nothing of the Great Schism. What all of these attempts at Revival had in common — as do the ideas of the political nostalgics touched upon earlier — is the notion of the Golden Age. Could we simply do this or that in the manner of whichever paragons we choose, the golden age would return, and the King in the Mountain (be he Arthur, Charlemagne, or someone else) would waken ushering in a new Camelot — or at least, that is what our unexamined emotions might tell us.
There is another use of Revival, and that is specifically amongst American Evangelicals. Historically, this can refer specifically to three “Great Awakenings” — the first in the early 18th, the second in the late 18th and early 19th, and the third in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; these produced such famous figures as Jonathan Edwards, Dwight Moody, and Billy Graham. But in, with, and under these events there is the “spirit of revival” — an uplifting of fervour among Christians that will result in conversions of those outside the flock. I recently found myself at a luncheon, wherein I was placed at a tableful of evangelical ministers. They were discussing the prospects of such a revival in the area we were in. All nodded sagely that they thought it was possible. At first glance, such goings-on may be seen as utterly unconnected with the kinds of revival we have been looking at. But they are not. For what Evangelicals are seeking in their unhistorical way is a revival of the early Church. Their lack of history not only make it hard for them to see what that early Church was like, but often causes them to quarrel over the nature of pristine Christianity — as, for example, whether the first Christians had the Gift of Tongues in the sense that Pentecostals mean it. Nevertheless, it does represent an attempt to return to a golden age, of sorts.
When revolutions occur, those who fight them are often divided as to what they are fighting for; it is rarely simply a return to the status quo. Most often, theorists on the Counter-Revolutionary side ponder what went wrong — for something must have, or things would not have gone as they did. So it was for Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald in the wake of the French Revolution — and for Joseph Galloway with the American. It is rare that they get the chance to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. But if they manage to do so, Restoration rarely works, as we saw with Mary Tudor’s attempt to restore England to communion with Rome forever. In eerie emulation of each other, England’s Charles I and France’s Louis XVI were beheaded; their “reasonable” successors, Charles II and Louis XVIII were able to manage reigning alongside the forces that were to some degree responsible for their predecessors’ murder — they had to. But their successors, James II and Charles X were unable to, and were replaced by the more malleable William of Orange and Louis Philippe. Try as one might, in political life, what has broken cannot be simply fixed. Both of those periods in English and French history are called the “Restoration” — and it is that idea we must look at, for it is really “restoration” that both revival and nostalgia hope to bring about. What would happened should they succeed?
Alas, given moments in life and history are like dishes; they may be broken and repaired, but the break always remains, however well the pieces are glued together. Napoleon, having come to power as the incarnation of the revolution, decided that what was needed in Europe was restoration of the Carolingian Empire — he would be the new Charlemagne. But, for all that, he forced the then Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, to abdicate the Imperial throne, and tried to emulate Justinian in promulgating his own code of law, his Empire first fell short and then fell to pieces. Abraham Lincoln sought to restore the Union through launching the bloodiest conflict this country had ever been engaged in, and succeeded in reconquering the South. But he could not restore the United States as they had been — the States that produced as writers Irving, Hawthorne, Cooper, and Poe; as a poet, Longfellow; as a composer, Foster; as Statesmen, Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. Instead there was (rather than were) the United States as it would be until FDR — a unified country to be sure, with many benefits, but not the nation Abe had set out to restore. Emperor Meiji’s “restoration” in Japan looked very little like that country’s pre-Tokugawa past. Chiang Kai-Shek, after determining, as Napoleon had of France, that China had to regain some continuity with her religious and cultural past, ceased to be a revolutionary in 1928. A Methodist himself, he believed that some melding of Western technology, Christianity, and Confucian philosophy was necessary to save his country — then beset by both Moscow and Tokyo. When, in 1931, the Japanese offered the last Emperor of China, Pu-Yi, the rulership of Manchuria, Chiang offered the Emperor restoration of some of his former prerogatives. Pu-Yi did not believe Chiang — in no small part because he had not punished the soldiers who looted the Imperial tombs. So Pu-Yi presided over the disastrous “restoration” of Manchukuo, while Chiang attempted to create a form of Confucianism that could guide a state without an Emperor — the position that was so key to Confucian concepts. In the event, he lost the mainland in the Chinese Civil War, but was able to try out his notions on Taiwan, where they were quite successful. But for all that the Confucian Temples in Taipei and Tainan continue to be supported by the government, the Taiwan of to-day is far from what Chiang envisioned.
So what has this collection of failed fantasies to tell us? That nostalgia, revival, and restoration are pointless exercises in futility? By no means! Humanly speaking, they most often fail to accomplish their goal of returning to the Golden Age. But it is an attempt that must be made in the face of an arrogant “Modernity,” even though both what is called “Modern” and what opposes it are at once both mutable and perennial, as Orson Welles once elegantly explained. Beyond that, while they may not restore some fancied Camelot, they very often produce worthwhile things of their own, as the host of beautiful buildings worldwide created by the various architectural revivals show.
This, however, is all on the natural level. But a desire to restore the past can do more; it can, if a person is of good will, lead him to contemplate what transcends all ages. The yearning for the Latin Mass — if it is done purely because that’s what we had when I was a kid — is indeed an exercise in nostalgia. But if it is instead a desire to transcend the immediate, to enter into Communion with the Eternal and Unchanging Blessed Sacrament, as it was at the Last Supper and Calvary, and upon all the world’s altars, past, present, and to come — well, that is something different. For many of us, that first step made for nostalgia’s sake is a necessary one; we often can only approach the higher things through the medium of the lesser.
So, too, with all of the attempts at concretizing nostalgia we have looked at in this article. Even a devotee of Mussolini may discover Bl. Alfredo Shuster; or a Protestant seeking revival might just discover the Holy Ghost working in the Catholic Church. What the nostalgic’s search for the perfect past (his own or someone else’s) and the revivalist’s quest for a Golden Age really are are unconscious yearnings for Heaven, “the Land of the Living,” the “realms of Endless Day.” The Church’s footprints are all over every aspect of life, art, culture, and history, ready to lead the good-willed thence.