➡️ The Vintage Generation ➡️
After ten years of battle to take the city of Troy, Ulysses, the cunning warrior of the epic Greek literature, wandered lost at sea for ten more years, overcoming his doomed fate and the hostile wrath of the Gods because of the hope of returning to his homeland Ithaca. This venture made him the hero of homecoming, or nostos in ancient Greek. Nostos lies at the root of the word nostalgia, as first used by the young Alsatian doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688. When put next to the word algos, meaning pain, it becomes something unattainable, a memory, something that we keep longing for. Herein lies the frustration intrinsic to nostalgia: by implying the impossibility of a return (whether to a time, a place, or a person), it has already dealt with the irreversibility of the time passing, giving to the past an aura of myth.
Nowadays we are experiencing a collective admiration for the past. Scrolling through my social feeds I observe a rising fascination for everything that has a “vintage vibe”: from music and fashion, to design, lifestyle and of course politics. And it corresponds to a general attitude: the newly-opened shops and bars that are considered “cool” in the cities are the ones that perpetuate this nostalgic mood. A good proportion of the Europeans born between 1985 and 1995 (and to be honest, those with a certain level of social status and education) wear vintage clothes, are possibly interested in analogue photography - and yet use Instagram. They look for the limited, the handmade and the organic. It looks like a protest against anything mainstream and mass-produced, with the outcome of creating new kinds of elites.
We are witnessing the rising tension between a widespread democracy provided by the Internet and the will to recover some old values which our society is accused of having lost, trying to find a balance in a world that is technologically quickly moving forwards.
Why are we nostalgic about an epoch that we didn’t experience in first person and know only in part, from books and popular culture? It is true that those who lived in those times we long for were probably longing for a time before theirs and so on: a sort of never-ending circle just like the one shown in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Here’s why the “good old days” is a deceptive myth that claims to remedy the difficulties of the present with a past cleaned of its problems: the future is more uncertain and, thus, more scary than what looks already fixed and gone.
Moreover, the fear of time slipping through your fingers, promoted by the world’s speed in its continuous flux of information, advertisements and images, gives way to the necessity of looking for certainty. This may well be one of the reasons our generation is obsessed with taking photographs (and sharing) everything. Beyond narcissism, our selfies and everyday shots are an attempt to create permanence by documenting an immovable memory.
Susan Sontag already observed this peculiar role of photography in 1977: "It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia. [...] All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt."
Nostalgia is looking back at a suspended moment when everything could have gone differently. From this perspective, nostalgia leaves the guise of mere idealization and longing for the past and opens up new possibilities. It’s not far from the attitude of the Romantic intellectuals and the sentiment of sehnsucht they explored. In fact the Romantics not only looked back to the past ages, for instance reconsidering the Middle Ages and renaissancing them from being considered “dark”, they found new paths for the present. It is in this period of cultural and social uprising of the late 19th century that words like tradition, identity and nation became common, shaping the foundations of a very young Europe. Developing a national and individual awareness led to the constitution of Nations such as Germany and Italy, on the model of France and Great Britain, and the individual began to fulfil a central role in propelling society into modernity.
Viewed in this way, nostalgia ceases to be a passive moment of longing for the past. Going back to the root of the word, the impossibility of the return seems to naturally imply the necessity of moving forward: nostalgia may be the moment of suspension that can make us imagine new ways of seeing and being in our contemporary times. After all, Ulysses never came back as the same man who left: his nostos made him new.
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by giulia meloni