Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Novelty and Nostalgia

What is it about us that takes comfort and pleasure in nostalgia? Everyone nods their head in church when I bring up something like learning to drive a stick shift. We connect with one another through shared recollection. Our recollections are both novel and shared. My story is somewhat unique in its components, but it is essentially common. You can imagine what that experience must have been like for me because you too had a similar experience. I can really drone on about some concept or some idea or principle in church in a sermon, but if I can authenticate for the listeners that concept in a concrete example that they have experienced, they can tie the concept to things about that recollection.
This is in the ether for me because I recently ran a few errands and decided to keep the radio on the pop station that Lara listens to on her commute rather than immediately switching to NPR (aren't I a bore?) because she'd been singing a song to herself about 10 mill
ion fireflies--could the radio really be playing a song about getting 10,000 hugs from 10 million lightning bugs? If it isn't on SiriusXM 40's on 4 or on my Pandora Dub station, I probably don't hear it.
It turns out the radio is playing some such song, and it was a sweet sounding song with lyrics that are simple and strange, and hinting at some deeper rumblings. (I read something about the artist being primarily inspired and driven to make music by a persistent insomnia. "Please take me away from here.") I pictured my son Wesley liking it, and I liked it too (though when I sang it to him later that day, he said flatly--"I don't like that song." He highly prefers Johnny Cash's Orange Blossom Special or Bob Dylan's Santa Fe--which until Wesley's train obsession
((why he likes the song)) I had always assumed was about the town, not the train).

Fireflies video The video is a phantasmagoria of nostalgic toys and light up items, and I can't decide if it is overly nostalgic or not, but perhaps you can put in your vote. The sheer volume and speed of which I was shown things from my own past in the video (such as a light up globe or a "Spell and Say" or a hot air balloon lamp, etc.) gave me a dip into my childhood by showing me images of many things with which I played. The effect is heightened in the video, because the singer remains unlit at a keyboard instead of getting any "face-time" whatsoever. It is like a music video for a child's toy-room. It got me thinking about nostalgia, and how we use it to "sell something." I use it to sell an idea. Artists use it to sell their ideas or their works, Commerce uses it to sell a product.
I don't think it is only my generation that has a special penchant for nostalgic "retro" stuff, but it certainly is prevalent in my generation. The video is one example. The "retro" Mustang, Camero, Challenger, and other new muscle cars is another, this kind of thing is another: There are hundreds of examples. We want to combine the old with the new. We familiarize ourselves with the new by linking it to something from the past. Or, perhaps we just like that feeling of "Oh yeah, I remember....!" How many facebook surveys have to do with our favorite toys or our favorite old cartoons or our favorite whatever it is. Is a certain extent of this connecting to products of our shared history due to the fact that my generation doesn't really have a galvanizing event that we all connect to in childhood or formative years? Instead we all remember products that shaped our play and our collective "identity?" (i.e. Lite Brites, Rainbow Brights, He-Man, etc.) I was telling Wesley about McGruff the Crime Dog and O.G. Readmore this evening. Why would I do such a thing? Is it just me, or does my whole generation (I was born in 1978) have an unusually soft spot for nostalgia?
Is it possible to be engaged by the completely novel? Perhaps that's what it's like to encounter God. The school of the Via Negativa found illumination in the notion that God is completely novel, and nothing in the world can ultimately describe God. Instead of holding up what God is in our prayer and discernment, we can only ultimately understand what God is not. A pitfall of nostalgia is that it can be hollow for some. While I may really get excited about football or dinosaurs, they could mean nothing to you. God is free from nostalgia. Nostalgia works because it is extremely personal. We get sucked into our past experience of life (not a bad thing) and it hits a soft spot with us. Though God, like the advertiser or the artist, has a desire to connect with each person through their sense of nostalgia, it is a carrot to pull us into a relationship that is completely novel. That's one way that I think of Process Theology. God is involved in our past and our identity and our nostalgia for the past, but God is drawing us toward a relationship with the rest of the world, with ourselves, and with God, that is completely novel. Process Theologians love this word, "novel." I think they like it because it speaks to the idea that God is fundamentally creative and fundamentally connected to creation. God takes the collective potential of the universe and instills a possible novel and creative outcome in our soul. If we follow this impulse toward the novel and creative, we follow God's "will." This relationship with God may involve nostalgia, but it may be completely novel. It involves "going out on a limb."
What do you think? It's not that our parents or grandparents or great great grandparents don't pine away for nostalgia (how many times have you heard it said "in the good ole' days."), but perhaps our generation is the first to have a product driven nostalgia (as showcased in the video.) Is nostalgia binding or freeing? Is the novel divorced from nostalgia, or shaped by it?

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