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Nostalgia, or Doping the Mind

If you’ve been to a few local art fairs in your time, you will have found yourself idly passing the little kiosks with paintings hanging up on a mesh screen or a wall, with a middle-aged artist sitting at her or his easel working on a new composition. The colors are predictable — solid reds, a blurry sort of green for trees and grass, some yellows splashed down a wall to suggest the golden hues of summertime, maybe some slashes of black to represent a running brook in the woods. You don’t stay long to talk to the artist; you’re not that interested in his or her ideas, or the sources of inspiration. And you pass on, maybe buy a snack from a food truck, chat a little with the guy behind the counter, and head for your car. So much for the local art fair. There was nothing there. 

Or was there? 

I once had to write a short essay on women poets of Texas. But I was in Kuala Lumpur at the time, and had no way of getting any of the poetry of these mainly obscure women. I only knew that their overriding obsession was with beauty – in the form of curtains blowing in the window, a stillness in the parlor after someone played a sad song, potted plants on the door step, the smell of bread as it cooled on a window sill. Ah summer, ah the frailty of youthful emotions, the intangible quality of a first kiss, the shudder of pure ecstasy in the simple act of holding hands with someone while you walked. But you’ve read your Hallmark Cards and taken in all you could stand of schmaltz and flabby lines of prose cut up to resemble poetry. I don’t know why I was recruited for the job of reporting on women writing poetry in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It wasn’t a time of innovation or sudden liberation into honest assessments of womanhood. But a friend of mine, a fellow poet, sent me an envelope stuffed with poems of the era and a few biographical sketches. It was enough. 

I read it all, pondered the phrases, the timid adherence to lyrical conventions, the trite endings. Nothing much to sink one’s teeth into, especially if you were a realist and demanded some twist of pain or honest revelation about the tiny world such women lived in. No such luck. Where were the stabs of insight you find on every page of Emily  Dickinson? Or the wit and sarcasm of Dorothy Parker, especially in her first book, Enough Rope? You have to get to the 50s before you hear the acid precision of a Sylvia Plath. 

So I wrote a bland little appreciation of the women who kept poetry alive in a dull period of Texas rural life. But I wasn’t satisfied. I had a few more days to waste before I mailed off my manuscript to the editors of a guide to women’s literature. I mulled over my own emotions and wondered if there were anything under the surface, some furetive double-speak women used to conceal their real feelings about domestic tedium and marital indifference. Then it hit me – the potted plants were suspicious looking. Who wants to write about mother-in-law tongues or fading tulips? But they weren’t writing about them, they were writing about themselves! They were the potted plants. As soon as I saw that, I began to see all sorts of other subliminal symbols of trapped life, of dark brooding about ironing, washing the kids clothes, about a husband who never laughed, about dimly lit living rooms. It all began to tumble out into the open. These women were fed up, longing for some other world that had crumbled into dust when they came of age. You can read my essay in the book that finally emerged, Texas Women Writers, which came out in 1997. 

But about those local art fairs? Were the artists painting in double-speak as well? Maybe not the same way, but close. The scenes depicted of barns and meadows and lazy cows grazing in the tranquity of late summer afternoons. People bought this sturf and hung it over the sofa. I know, I was in enough Vermont houses to see these tedious repetitions of the same longing for a departed world. I saw the same thing in Texas with paintings of cowboys and old western towns, of dirt Main Streets and saloons with a few sots lolling in rocking chairs on the gallery. You could find such longing everywhere in Amerca for small towns. You could find it in the very idea of shopping malls modeled on the fading memory of small towns with a few store fronts and the Ye Olde shoppes catering to people who just wanted to pretend a while with a milk shake or a “home-made” cookie before going home to nuke a pot pie or thaw out a frozen pizza. You can find it in small-town religion and church suppers. The word I am looking for is nostalgia, a term coined to explain what Greek soldiers posted too long in foreign countries felt when they pined for their white-washed villages back home.

The more tangled our contemporary lives become, the more we look back fondly on some fictionalized past. Nostalgia is the art of remembering a real world but without the pain of ilving in it. All the darkness is removed, the sharp edges, the thorns and nails that pierced you if you should enter into reality of that time. There’s no crying in that world, no sleepless nights, no throwing up in the bathroom after a night of hard drinking. You are in a fairy world of bright sunlight and aromatic gardens; your love life is as light as air and as tender as the petals of primroses. You’re sitting beside Wordsworth recollecting in tranquility. You are going to Innissfree with the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, to live alone in a bee-loud glade. You are innocent in that realm, the same realm that beckons the unwary to try drugs and to tumble down into an anodyne make-believe far from the events that shattered their illusions and left them panting with disbelief. In fact, nostalgia is like the first stage of recoiling from the hostility of alienation, of a system that left you dispossessed of agency. The stage beyond drugs is, in some cases, self-abuse and suicide, the dangerous cliff edges of modernity. 

The next time you amble through an art fair in your town, look closely at the world being fashioned out of broad strokes with a five-and-dime paint brush and some tubes of acrylic. It’s a diary of hunger for something that never existed but can be fantasized in one’s loneliness and laid out in all its crude abstractness for purchase for twenty dollars. It’s not Proust remembering his mother’s madeleines on cold, somber nights, but it springs from the same deep well of human injury. There is depth to such art, however poorly crafted, a cry for belonging by someone who has reached out into the void for a hand and not yet found it. If you sit in the attic some autumn day and read the pages of your childhood diary, you are one with the amateurs smearing yellow sunlight across a canvas and wanting to crawl into that flimsily constructed Disneyland to heal. After all, the master of nostalgia in Vermont was Norman Rockwell, whose paintings pull at the heart as you gaze into them.


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