In response to my post from the other day titled ‘The Land of Boiled 7Up’, the chip monk writes:
Help me understand your view of nostalgia. Nostalgia as *product* is of course both troubling and gross. But nostalgia in and of itself is, it seems to me, an important element in our remembering ourselves and identifying ourselves to and with one another. It is not the *only* element of course, as that would just be sentimentality, which is largely inexcusable (although again, not wholly), but an important one nonetheless. And it’s both sad, or maybe more accurately, filled with longing, while being simultaneously pleasurable (or funny), and thus it’s a strong feature of Irish literature generally. But it’s not an Irish phenomenon.
But supposing the phrase “You know you’re Irish if boiled 7Up is the cure for every illness” was something that was said to you in the pub as opposed to something printed on a shirt on sale in a multinational. I guess you wouldn’t laugh because you don’t know what this ‘meme’ is referring to. I’d laugh, though, because whenever I was sick as a child (colds and/or tummy upsets, measles, chicken pox), my mother boiled 7up and gave it to me to drink. It was supposed to be an easy to digest source of energy. It was never a replacement for medical care. I think back on this fondly.
Anyway this isn’t about the specific ‘meme’ itself (that comment has been all over facebook, twitter and retro Irish forums). I have noticed here and in one or two other places what *seems* to be a disgust for nostalgia. There’s a dig back there at the Irish Mammies phenomenon too (now, also, a product). Is the disgust or disdain or whatever directed at the co-opting of shared remembering for exploitative purposes? Or is it how it consciously or unconsciously ‘others’ those who are not ‘Irish’? Or is it that you think it clouds criticism of ‘Irishness’? I’m just interested in your thoughts on this.
I was thinking about nostalgia the other day, in particular the ‘-algia‘ bit. That bit is rooted in the idea of pain, as in neuralgia. So what do we mean when we talk about nostalgia – are we talking about an activity, or are we talking about an effect we feel? Or to put it another way, is nostalgia deliberate, or is it involuntary? There is a Facebook page I look at every now and again. It’s a collection of photos, regularly updated with new ones, that show images of people and places from my home town in the 1970s. They could be of people posing in group photos at dinner dances, or sports events, or demonstrating in the streets. Visitors to the page help identify the faces in the photos, which in many cases belong to people who are now a long time dead.
Looking in on this, and knowing others are doing the same, the effect can be very potent: it awakens long dormant feelings and memories that remind you of where you come from, and how the people and places shaped those feelings. It needn’t be the face of someone you knew well, or even at all, but the way they are standing with their arms folded, or the way they are trying to put on a suitable face for the camera that has made its way into their life.
But if it gives you a sense of where you come from and who made you, it also, at the same time, comes with a feeling of being uprooted: you are looking in on a world to which you know you can’t return. You might not cry, but you may feel a stinging sensation, which in my experience is like the feeling of what happens when you have just been hit in the face full smack with a football and the sting has just started to recede.
Not only is it a world of which you are no longer part: it may be that the person looking on the images can no longer recognise herself in that world. That world has gone, but might it also be that the person you once were has gone too? Or if not gone, fading away to nothing? A couple of weeks ago the cartoonist El Roto -whose images I will never tire of using on this site- produced this. The man in it is saying: I was afraid I hid myself so well that I have never been able to find myself again. Is this where moments of nostalgia get their power – by restoring us with a sense of who we once were, and, as a consequence, a sense of who we still are? What is the relation between nostalgia and fear?
A few weeks back I was at a funeral for a friend of mine. He was the same age as me. We were walking down through the streets of the town behind his coffin and I could not help remembering the times we had walked together up and down the same streets, usually on a night out. In one of the streets there used to be a row of houses where the families of people I know used to live. They were listed buildings. Then, around 20 years ago, the developer -an ironic name- demolished them, and with them, the possibility of all kind of memories. The plot of land stood there for 20 years as he wasn’t allowed to build on it.
I don’t know what kind of transactions have taken place in the interim, but now, the land is up for sale again. And lining the street there is now a row of Potemkin shop fronts, showing anonymous scenes of bustling smalltown commerce to whet the appetites of potential investors. I am guessing identical scenes line streets the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Sometimes memory -collective memory- does not stand a chance against Progress, or Development, or other names for getting rich.
But other times, this kind of memory -and nostalgia- can be the ally of accumulation. Think about the Keep Calm and Carry On images, redolent of British postwar society and its sense of purpose, that proliferated in recent years as that society’s National Health Service was being dismembered and its welfare state stripped away. Images such as these -and the memories they stimulate- convey a sense that ‘we’ are all in this together. When, in the cold light of day, we are not. Is Ireland any different?
The chip monk notes that nostalgia features strongly in Irish literature. But I think there is a distinction to be drawn between the exploration of nostalgia in Ulysses and, for example, the contemporary nostalgia of Bloomsday. There is another one to be drawn between nostalgia that happens within Ireland on the one hand, and nostalgia about Ireland that happens outside it. And then there is nostalgia as a personal, individual experience, and nostalgia as a collective one.
The political culture of the Irish State has always been about being all in this together. The lived reality, however, has been different. Not everyone was condemned to emigrate. Not everyone was terrorised by the State’s disciplinary institutions. Not everyone was denied a decent standard of healthcare and education and housing. But a great many were – and are.
Living elsewhere, Irish people see things with a different complexion. Irish nostalgia in Britain can be a way for people to cement friendships and communities in circumstances not of their choosing, in places, that whilst superficially familiar, can also make you feel like you are not from round there, not really. In such situations, you can hardly blame people for finding common reasons for laughter in what kind of things happened in a place they recognise as home.
It’s different in Ireland, though. I don’t think there is anything wrong with nostalgia in general. It can be debilitating in certain circumstances. For instance, sometimes it might be easier to share pictures of your favourite dead socialist icon, with all the memories they evoke, than articulate a political project with others in your own terms. It can lead to private withdrawal rather than collective affirmation. It depends. But I do see something wrong with nostalgia, when what is considered most important, about the things the nostalgia relates to, and what makes them worthy of common attention, is that they are Irish.
There is no virtue in being Irish. In Ireland, discerning what is Irish and what is not, or who is Irish or who is not, can not be easily separated from what the State does in Ireland. According to the Irish State, being born in Ireland does not make you an Irish citizen – it depends on who your parents are. The question of what is Irish and what is not can not be easily separated from its political culture, which demands loyalty to this State. And so, for instance, to talk about ‘Irish Mammies’ in Ireland inevitably suggests that there is only one kind of mother in Ireland -the Irish one- and hence other women who do not conform to these daft characteristics are either not mothers or not Irish, or neither. What happens in Ireland, then, when the question of what is Irish and what is not is thrust before people who feel a sense of fear and foreboding, that they are being uprooted from the world they know, by malevolent forces of one shape or another?