top of page
  • John Diamond-Nigh

Inventing nostalgia

Lynne has a fountain pen, perhaps the loveliest pen in the world. An esoteric detail, except that it was purchased on a rainy day on a stony street on a rapturous whim––in Florence. Lynne was her usual John Singer Sargent put-together self, except for the execrable pink three-dollar boots she had bought on the sidewalk to keep her feet dry. Now what can you do in boots like that but enter the poshest store on the street and buy a fairy tale pen? I borrow the pen from time to time. It writes, still, with the aching rain of that magical afternoon.

I like nostalgia. When I say so, friends gawk at me as if I’ve just stood up in a prayer meeting and thanked god for masturbation. Ce n’est pas comme il faut. Not done.

Enjoy this quote by Michael Snyder about young architects in Guadalajara.

How, in other words, do you restore enchantment to everyday life? It’s nostalgia not as a guiding principle but as a question, a boundary that generates an idea, a point of departure — or, perhaps, a wall to one day overcome.

The particular nostalgia Snyder speaks of is that of young architects for the great Mexican architect––and one of my favorites––Luis Barragán. Whom of course they must overcome.

A year or so ago, a lady in the audience took me to task for the vein of nostalgia in my poetry. By way of response, I wondered if anything is finished, sex or a sleigh ride or a first glimpse of the pyramids, before it has passed through the filter of nostalgia––that retrospective intensification, sometimes coming half a life later. Far from just a sentimental inflation or a gauzy birthday card sweetening, it’s the slow accretion of a patina, wrought by all the subsequent years of experience and the emotional drench they bestow.

In her memoir, The Years, the French writer Annie Ernaux asserts that her task as a writer is to compose a palimpsest, an almost geological layering from childhood to youth to adulthood to old age, taking aim at how, particularly with social media, we are destroying time. We live in the present, competitively, obsessively, angrily, erasingly. The past is a tomb of numberless abolitions. In Asheville, an obelisk comes down. In more trivial ways, our selfies and snapshots, far from being a charmed index of existence, are dumped by tomorrow in a vapid liturgy of dump, replace, dump.

So I get the anxiety. It’s just the dark fundamentalism of that anxiety that sucks. Can we invent a nostalgia that forswears such fundamentalism, but also confronts Ernaux’s manic now and its erasure of time. Nostalgia as a wall. An enchantment restored.

In graduate school, the point was not to enjoy a book; you had to grasp instead how it exemplified or encrypted some form of persecution. At some point I just said no. I could toil for justice, but also could erect, with any book, with any event, a boundary of nostalgia, an everyday enchantment that in turn I had to overcome.

Correction: Gees Bend is in Alabama, not in Georgia. Never start writing before you’ve had some coffee.

bottom of page