Where the firelight or lamplight glowed

The rapid nightfall of mid-December had quite beset the little village as they approached it on soft feet over a first thin fall of powdery snow.  Little was visible but squares of a dusky orange-red on either side of the street, where the firelight or lamplight of each cottage overflowed through the casements into the dark world without.  Most of the low latticed windows were innocent of blinds, and to the lookers-in from outside, the inmates, gathered round the tea-table, absorbed in handiwork, or talking with laughter and gesture, had each that happy grace … which goes with perfect unconsciousness of observation.  Moving at will from one theatre to another, the two spectators, so far from home themselves, had something of wistfulness in their eyes as they watched a cat being stroked, a sleepy child picked up and huddled off to bed, or a tired man stretch and knock out his pipe on the end of a smouldering log.

But it was from one little window, with its blind drawn down, a mere blank transparency on the night, that the sense of home and the little curtained world within walls — the larger stressful world of outside Nature shut out and forgotten — most pulsated. Close against the white blind hung a bird-cage, clearly silhouetted, every wire, perch, and appurtenance distinct and recognisable, even to yesterday’s dull-edged lump of sugar.  On the middle perch the fluffy occupant, head tucked well into feathers, seemed so near to them as to be easily stroked, had they tried; even the delicate tips of his plumped-out plumage pencilled plainly on the illuminated screen.  As they looked, the sleepy little fellow stirred uneasily, woke, shook himself, and raised his head.  They could see the gape of his tiny beak as he yawned in a bored sort of way, looked round, and then settled his head into his back again, while the ruffled feathers gradually subsided into perfect stillness. Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as from a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way.

When I think of The Wind in the Willows, my favorite book from childhood to the present, I think of this scene, with the Water Rat and the Mole trudging home to their Riverside residence after a day’s romping through the snowy pastures, gazing into the villagers’ quaint living rooms.  Kenneth Grahame renders the frosted windows cinematically, as if the two animals and the reader alike are glimpsing a new cozy, familial scene through each pane that one hopes won’t be disturbed and will never end.  It seems fitting that, of all the whimsical and pastoral magic of this book, I would recall this passage time and time again.

I do not know how I came to own The Wind in the Willows.  I think I had picked it up because the illustrations charmed me; Ernest Shepard drew similar images for Winnie-the-Pooh which I also loved as a very little girl.  As I remember, I read the book for the first time in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a small seaside resort town, entirely full of art galleries, inns, and boutiques around Ocean Avenue that dipped, steeply, until it ended at the shore, cypress-lined.  My mother, my sister, and I always visit Carmel for our Thanksgiving holiday; apparently, we have done it forever.  I curled up on my chair (it’s mine because I always sit in that same spot)—it’s wooden, with a grey cushion on the bottom, tucked between a planter and the foot of the staircase leading up to the second floor of the Plaza—and read there, waiting for the Cheese Shop to open (10 am, sharp) for what I called my second breakfast.  I do not remember my thoughts of the book.  However, I have brought it with me to Carmel, every November, for upwards of ten years.  Now, the pages are yellowed and ever so slightly frayed at the corners from wear; the spine is broken and creased severely in several places—recently, my father has carefully taped it in the hopes the cover won’t completely fall off.  To buy another copy would be impossible.  When I open up the book and stick my nose into the seam to inhale its scent, I can hear the seagulls, see the Christmas trees put up too early in the Plaza, hear the soft jazz tinkling; I see the waves crashing on the empty beach before the sun has yet completely risen; I feel the contentment of a sort of home, a familiarity.  That is how I have come to know the term nostalgia.

Nostalgia, specifically what we might call modern nostalgia—by which we attempt to recreate the happy memories and experiences of our past—animates my habitual experiences with this novel.  It is why I read it year after year, pausing every so often in this pursuit to smell the pages, to revivify those memories of holidays past, blissfully content.  Yet, like any child, there must have been unhappy moments in that part of my life, too.  They do not factor into my nostalgic memory, the little vignettes I piece together even as I read this passage of the Rat and the Mole making their way home, only to stop and watch a little caged bird awaken from slumber, for when I read this passage, I think of my family’s Christmas Eve tradition of driving through the neighborhoods and looking at all of the holiday decorations on those peaceful homes.  This is crucial to modern nostalgia: we exert agency over our memories and create these narratives of the past that can be returned to, again and again.  Yet, it is in this way of crafting memory that we force ourselves to overlook, to forget, the traumas of our past in exchange for these ultra-happy scenes.  Is to return to our nostalgic memories just a balm that we apply to our tattered selves as a soothing mechanism, and of no practical use in the world outside of our own thoughts?  

Look again at the passage from The Wind in the Willows.  Desire works on two levels for the Rat and the Mole in their position distinctly outside of the domestic tableau: they long to inhabit the comfort within the cottages but they also wish to return to their own home on the Riverbank.  A narrative is crafted about the interior life of each domestic world that we long to be a part of.  I think that to yearn for a lost home is, to a certain extent, a universal phenomenon because this longing pertains to the pain of growing up.  The home that is lost because time continues to pass is one’s childhood.  The villagers the Rat and the Mole gaze upon possess a “happy grace … which goes with perfect unconsciousness of observation.”  Even if we do not long for a sense of home as childhood—perhaps because it is too traumatic to recall—at the very least (and perhaps more so for those who have experienced severe trauma) we long to regain this “unconsciousness.” 

The scene’s beauty lies in the tranquil contentment we feel looking into each little familial theater and imagining that the actors within are at peace.  There is an essential distance between the animals and the villagers inside “where the firelight or lamplight of each cottage overflowed through the casements into the dark world without.”  Grahame juxtaposes the “dark world” and “the larger stressful world of outside Nature,” a place we the readers inhabit too, with the warmth of the cottage’s interior.  

“Implicit in the idea of protection there is the idea of something to be protected against,” says the literary theorist Kenneth Burke.  “Threat ,” he says, “is the basis of beauty.” The Rat and the Mole, we take it, are not entirely safe because they are not tucked away in their parlor like the villagers they gaze upon.  Rather, they are in this dark, “larger stressful world of outside Nature.”  There is a haunting sense throughout this passage that its domestic, peaceful beauty is transient, epitomized by a “small sting of frozen sleet on the skin [that] woke them as from a dream.”  Yet, we also see this working not only for the creatures outside, but for the caged bird inside.  In other words, not even is one safe when existing within the safety and comfort of the home.  When the “sleepy little fellow stirred uneasily, woke, shook himself, and raised his head,” we become acutely aware just how fragile this scene is; we suspect it will be shattered.  But, nothing happens.  It is only a “bitter wind” that disturbs the peace of the moment, and the Rat and the Mole turn back and continue on their journey.   

This essay largely emerges from one impossible question: Why do we read?  I do not think it is incidental that my example of personal nostalgia is a moment of reading literature.  My cycle of returning to The Wind in the Willows every year seems to suggest that this novel acts a sort of portable home: I seek within its pages not just the beauty of Grahame’s prose but, along with it, a sense of comfort and contentment.  To read is to immerse oneself in the aesthetic beauty of language that keeps the “threat” of harsh reality at bay.

But what happens when the nostalgia we find in literature does not remain intact?  If, according to Burke, the basis of beauty is the threat of disturbance, is the basis of our nostalgia the threat of trauma suddenly shattering it?

The question emerges in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a novel that is explicitly devoted to not only the nostalgic recreation of her lost childhood home but also the same layered forms of aesthetic beauty that Burke proposes.  The deep traumas of Virginia’s past emerge through her novel. And I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the most nostalgic passages in To the Lighthouse are, simultaneously, some of the most beautiful.  But what does nostalgia achieve in Virginia’s novel—or, in fact, in any novel? Nostalgia has its limits, after all.  It is the lovely golden veneer that we apply to the world around us as a sort of self-soothing practice.  Perhaps, this is why nostalgic memory is so addictive: it is beautiful, comforting.  But nostalgia can fail. In deluding oneself with the idea one can physically return to a time that is lost, the unpleasant disruptions we have masked and silenced will begin to crack nostalgia’s veneer.  The mastery we exerted over nostalgic memory vanishes, replaced by what we might recognize as trauma.

The late Svetlana Boym makes a crucial demarcation between two types of nostalgias.  The one I‘ve been talking about is called reflective nostalgia, which is a phenomenon “more concerned with historical and individual time, with the irrevocability of the past and human finitude” that, in its longing for the return to the home in the past, perpetually defers the homecoming itself.  Boym says that actually reaching the postulated home “does not signify a recovery of identity; it does not end the journey in the virtual space of imagination.  A modern nostalgic can be homesick and sick of home, at once.”  In this way, reflective nostalgia can be never-ending and deeply pleasurable, perpetuating the sense of  longing because it is within longing that we find joy and satisfaction. 

Restorative nostalgia, on the other hand, “knows two main narrative plots—the restoration of origins” as in the rebuilding of monuments of the past, “and the conspiracy theory, characteristic of the most extreme cases of contemporary nationalism fed on right-wing popular culture.”  What lurks on the edge of restorative nostalgia is not the same trauma we saw reconfigured in narrative space but, rather, a mythical enemy that is created as an evil force perpetually laying siege to the home.  Latent in Boym’s definition is the idea that the home needs to be restored, not only because it was fundamentally better than the present but also because it needs to be protected against what or who this “right-wing popular culture” views as different. 

There is not a week that goes by in which I do not hear mention of the word “nostalgia” on various news and media outlets. In fact, I first became aware of this political conception of nostalgia the summer before I attended my first class as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in June of 2016.  I was spending about two weeks in Ireland and Northern Ireland and on my last morning in the northern town of Bushmills, I woke up curious if Britain had voted to exit the European Union, hoping to distance itself from the migration and economic crises affecting the entire continent. 

They had.  Brexit was happening. 

The headlines that morning shocked me.  In effect, I understood Brexit as the country’s desire to seal its borders against the threat of the outside world impinging upon their restoration of Britain as it used to be.  The idea that a country’s identity and culture could rely so heavily on the desire to restore the monuments of the past does not just, of course, belong to the British.  Not six months after Britain’s referendum, Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States with his (nostalgic) campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again.”  One can get a sense of Trump’s political goals through his trademark phrase: restore a country for a specific group of people who long for the home to be returned to them as it once was.  “White nostalgia” has since become a popular term to describe the uneasiness felt by the group empowered through much of the modern world: whites, especially males.  We see this white nostalgia not only sweeping America, but all over Europe with the rise of nationalist and populist governments that take the view that their countries need to be protected against the outside forces that threaten to disrupt their everyday life.  To “make America great again” requires a restoration of the past where the white majority remains the all-powerful class.

Both the restorative and reflective forms give the nostalgic a sense of the past as golden—it is in how one translates it to the present that a distinction emerges.   I focus on the reflective type because it possesses critical potential: for interpreting the past, the present, and the future.  In The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal writes, “The ultimate uncertainty of the past makes us all the more anxious to validate that things were as reputed.  To gain assurance that yesterday was as substantial as today we saturate ourselves with bygone reliquary details, reaffirming memory and history in tangible form.” Perhaps, this is why reflective nostalgics might find the home of their memories in literature, which so frequently tangibly represents the same beauty we find in our golden-hued memory.

The veneer of nostalgia is bound to crack when we lean too heavily on what memory can provide for us, but this does not mean it is a delusion.  To rely too much on nostalgia as a mask to the traumas of the past is to subvert its purpose, both within memory or, as a matter of fact, within literature.  Rather, we should think about nostalgic memory as not only the means “to preserve the past” but as a way “to adapt it so as to enrich and manipulate the present.” Take, for example, Virginia Woolf: in reconstructing her childhood and the ghosts of her parents within To the Lighthouse, she was able to exorcise those traumas so as to no longer be haunted by, or tethered to, them.  While she might still long to return to the happy unconsciousness of childhood, the threat of trauma disturbing her golden veneer of nostalgia has already burst through. The protective, nostalgic shield can remain intact only after she has received and overcome the trauma of the past. 

Restorative nostalgia is bound to fail because it aims not to enrich the present but to replace it with the past.  Modern nostalgia as can be found in narrative space is not looking to replace the present moment but, more precisely, is looking to “the past as we know it … [as] a product of the present.”  This way, we seek a more cohesive understanding of time, therein finding a home in which we can belong, undisturbed by time’s relentless passing.  Thus, to combat the dangers that clearly lurk on the borders of nostalgia, we must realize that nostalgia can and must be a way of looking-forward in order not to restore the past but, rather, to come to terms with an encroaching future. ▩

Skyler R. Marshall is a writer and book collector from the Bay Area, currently working in Alaska. This essay was adapted from her undergraduate thesis.

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