Nostalgia: Sweet Remembrance or Pain of an Unhealed Wound?
If nostalgia is, like Don Draper of the AMC series Mad Men says, “The pain of an unhealed wound,” why does it feel like a warm, fuzzy trip down memory lane? Perhaps the answer lies in a Psychology Today article, in which the author asserts that people reminisce as a way of reaching for pleasant memories when dissatisfied with their present lives. (Marina Krakovsky, “Nostalgia: Sweet Remembrance,” May 2006). If that is the case then nostalgia is both – the pain and the cure for it.
The early ‘60s-set Mad Men gives us both. Beneath its veneer of glamour lies an ugly reality: The 60s was an era of blatant inequality, in the workplace and at home. Peggy Olson, Draper’s ad agency protégé, works harder and has better ideas than her male counterparts. Yet she’s paid less and asked to locate drinking glasses during a staff meeting. Women on the side are par-for-the-course for married-man Draper; yet wife Betty is admonished, somewhat violently, for harmlessly flirting. And let us not forget the institutional racism of the pre-Civil Rights 60s. The black elevator operator seems innately to know his place and never gives an opinion; and the Drapers’ maid, Carla – a grown woman with a family and concerns of her own – is labeled their “girl” and expected to drop everything to fill the crisis-level needs of their destructive lifestyle.
My novel, These Days, deals with both aspects of nostalgia, as well. My heroine, Becky Shelling, dreams of a long-gone time. It’s a dream she inherited from her father, an under-employed jazz musician who hearkens to a pre-jukebox era when “every hole-in-the-wall bar had a band.” Though he dotes on Becky, much of Ernie Shelling's time with his daughter is spent in collective escapism. They watch old movies, listen to old music, and visit showgirl Teri the Canary who, like them, hearkens to a better time. But it’s the ‘70s not the ‘40s. Bars that don’t rely on jukeboxes for entertainment feature DJs spinning Disco tunes. Thus, what Ernie really yearns for is a second chance, a return of opportunity. Like George Valentín in the Oscar-winning film The Artist, he longs for a time when technology had not yet destroyed his livelihood.
For 14-year old Becky, who doesn’t yet know the meaning of nostalgia, all this hearkening gives the impression that the world her father yearns for is possible. When Ernie disappears, this vision becomes all the more desired for its inaccessibility. Left with step-mom Arlene and step-sister Abbie – both of whom live according to present-day, struggle-ridden realities – Becky becomes mired in the illusion that it is only through reconnection with her father that she’ll realize her dreams.
Enter Lenny Moss. Smooth, charismatic and handsome like Becky’s dad, Lenny longs for a long-gone time, too. Yet Lenny is more than just a misplaced dreamer. He’s a powerful real-estate mogul; practical and in tune to the speculative opportunities of the city's crumbling core. His nostalgia is limited to a time when men ruled and women knew their place, and he’s only too willing to keep Becky in hers.