Letter from a reader to Ciriaco Offeddu, writer, on nostalgia
Having lived among Chinese for a long time and having absorbed their customs, when I receive a gift I pronounce the formal thank you, in Cantonese do jeh, I bow slightly my head and I put the present away to open it later in private. Ciriaco Offeddu’s article “’Nostalgia’ by Juan José Morales” is a gift: http://beyondthirtynine.com/nostalgia-by-juan-jose-morales-2/
I wish to think I have something in common with Ciriaco Offeddu. He is a man of noble sentiments in the first place. He has a proverbial culture − something he does not want to acknowledge, for he knows the pursuit of art and wisdom is never ending, as he tells us in “Culture versus knowledge”, http://beyondthirtynine.com/culture-vs-knowledge-2/; and he truly represents the virtues of the gentleman, among them a triumphant modesty. Ciriaco is also a man with passion, and this is something he does not want to hide. “Passion does not detract from knowledge; on the contrary, it enhances it”, said the poet José Bergamín.
Moved and grateful by this present, I did not want to show my emotions in public: writing in answer I could not match his stature − he touches profound issues on life and literature with the mastery of a born writer and a deep thinker − and corresponding with a eulogy was unnecessary, for Ciriaco’s prose is a celebration of the written word.
Sharing his passion, finally, I have decided to follow the old European tradition in part, opening Ciriaco’s gift in his presence only in half, leaving for a better occasion his teachings on writing, writers and literature. Here I will expand on what we both wrote on nostalgia, hoping to be useful, and I do so by bringing the more enlightening views of my fellow readers. I extend to them my appreciation, for I am more a reader than a writer.
The response to my article on nostalgia has been overwhelming. It seems the topic, the word, the sentiment of nostalgia has touched each and everyone. Some have published their comments, remembering Hong Kong, Córdoba or Stefan Zweig. Many others have written to me separately. All have been inspiring.
Jesús Lafuente tells me “nostalgia is more of a time than a place.” Charis Chu reminds me − and I agree − that there is also nostalgia for the character, the temperament and the values of the past:
“For me, as I spent my life in the city I was born, there is no such thing to me as homesickness. But from time to time I feel nostalgic about the city that I used to live in − people treasured hard work: my parents worked hard to earn a living, young people studied hard to get into universities, the average Hong Kong people were not very rich but life seemed more solid. I feel very sad that nowadays the neighbourhoods are changing so quickly, leaving Hong Kong as shop A, B, C, D and no more. Young people still go to universities but they do not know why they are doing so, because after all, everyone is only interested in working in finance or real estate…”
And Pádraig Walsh, in the vein of the great literary tradition of Irish men of letters, explores the subtleties of nostalgia linking selectively past and present, also recalling the distinctive nostalgia of his motherland. I could not put it better:
“There is a strong sense of memory and sentiment in Irish culture − the potent brew that is at the heart of nostalgia. Give an Irishman the slightest opening, and he will open up stories of home in a tone of wistful longing. I am more reticent. I want to hold on the feeling. It’s personal. My restraint is not typical.
The Ireland of my memory never existed; at least, not in the way I now recall it. Time has encrusted life when I was young with a prism of golden honey. It is a sweet and pleasant place to spend time on occasion, and a welcome tonic from the stresses and strains of today. It can also be a honey trap. The good old days were much like today. Good times, bad times, many, if not more, stresses and strains. The magic of nostalgia is that it airbrushes the bad away.
The past, present and future is a continuum, with us walking on the path between. A glance back is a nice measure of the distance travelled and the experience of the journey. Our eyes remain mostly on the next steps. Otherwise, we will stumble and falter. We can hope for new moments. And ten years from now, we can be nostalgic for these next steps when we glance back from the inviting stagepost farther down the road.”
A university professor, writing from Washington, tells me that nostalgia is becoming an important subject in cultural studies. I have done some quick research and found a scholar who can bring us some light. Svetlana Boym, Harvard professor of Slavic languages and comparative literature; born in Russia, she emigrated to US before the Perestroika. I have curiosity for her book The Future of Nostalgia (New York, 2001), and I was lucky to find this paper adapted from her main work, a summary of her main ideas: http://www.iasc-culture.org/eNews/2007_10/9.2CBoym.pdf
Svetlana Boym’s opening words are intriguing: “The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary.” And she surprises me with the origin of the word. ‘Nostalgia’ was coined by the Swiss student Johannes Hofer in a medical dissertation in 1688; it comes then from medicine, not from poetry or politics.
Prof. Boym outlines her paper along three crucial points. First, nostalgia is not ‘antimodern’ but coeval with modernity. Second, nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time (my friend Jesús was right). And third, nostalgia is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well.
I cannot end these meditations on nostalgia without remembering fondly a poet and a people, part of my own heritage, about whom I would invite to read: Almutamid, the 11th century poet-king of Seville, banished by the usurper Almoravids, who wrote the most charged poems on nostalgia for a lost kingdom. And the Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, whose culture has been a 500-years testimony of nostalgia for their lost home.