By Celeste Hoover
The beginning of this semester came all too quickly for me. Soon after the announcement of two weeks in online class, I found myself on a bleak, empty campus. The precaution was necessary, yet, with little open and very few students returning, I inevitably had lots of free time. In my endless scrolling through Netflix (and literally any other streaming platform that offers a student discount), I began a list of favorite movies to revisit: Beauty and the Beast, Harry Potter, Wall-E. The comfort of watching movies from my childhood lent a warm and fuzzy feeling to my cold, cold dorm room. With the stressful possibility of another year on Zoom, I found solace in looking back. I was not the only one. Since we first began to quarantine, decades-old movies, songs, and video games have surged in popularity as a source of comfort.
The desire to return to beloved memories is deeply ingrained within us. Our wish to revisit Hogwarts or Narnia is merely a continuation of a pattern that first began thousands of years ago. Many of humanity’s earliest stories, spanning from Classical mythology to Shinto legend, the Bible, are all connected by the same impulse. The modern popularity of nostalgia can at least be partly explained by analyzing these kindred myths and our changing perception of the ‘look back’.
The desire to turn to look upon a lost love can be found in myths around the world, but it is perhaps most famously recognized in the Greek tale of Orpheus. The young musician journeys to the Underworld in hopes of reuniting with his love, Eurydice. Hades agrees to let her follow Orpheus back into the realm of the living on one condition—that he does not look back. Orpheus has almost completed his journey when he ultimately disobeys and turns to look upon Eurydice, only to watch her ghost fade away as she is pulled back to the Underworld. Tragically romantic, even Virgil’s narrator pities Orpheus as “one to be forgiven, if the spirits knew how to forgive.” His mistake is a very human one. It does not come from a desire to rebel but from a ubiquitous and sympathetic emotion: grief. In the tale of Orpheus, we recognize our nostalgia for what was loved and our fear of what is still to be lost.
Similar to Orpheus in the Classical tradition is the tale of Lot in the book of Genesis. In this tale, God sends his angels to destroy Lot’s village, allowing only Lot and his family to flee under the strict instruction that they do not look back upon their home. Lot’s wife, however, does turn to see her home’s destruction and is transformed into a pillar of salt by God. Nancy Epton observes that Lot’s wife’s desire to look back is motivated by the same “quintessentially human qualities of nostalgia and disobedience” as Orpheus. Both risk a god’s wrath in their desperate looks back upon the memory of a cherished past. Though Lot’s wife has no name, no dialogue, and only a single verse (Genesis 19:26), her desire to gaze one last time upon her beloved home and community is incredibly moving. It’s not her lack of resolve that stays with us, but a sympathy for human temptation and emotion.
A poignant glance back unites these two stories from the Western canon, but it also can be found globally. In Japan, the Shinto legend of Izanagi closely parallels that of Orpheus. The creation god Izanagi falls in love with the goddess Izanami. When Izanami is killed, Izanagi disobeys her orders and turns to gaze upon her in the Underworld. He is horrified at what he sees and flees to his eventual destruction. Izanagi is part of the long list of characters to be overwhelmed by grief for something loved, forced to suffer in order to experience their love once more. In each of these myths, grief and nostalgia are intimately connected. It seems only love of what has yet to be lost can overcome the fear of death. Izanagi, Orpheus, and Lot’s wife are all victims of what is evidently a universal desire to look back.
The frustration of human fallibility is everywhere in these myths. We simultaneously scold the protagonist while recognizing our own predilection for a fond memory. As Epton writes, the “single command cannot be followed, not because of vice or vanity, but because of a basic, painfully recognizable wistfulness to embrace an unreachable past.” The desire is profound and noble, but also very human. Nostalgia and its allure, not its punishment, are what unites these stories. Though the myths outwardly condemn the desire to look back, it’s their tragic depiction of past attachment that appeals to us.
However, these uncannily similar stories share a practical origin. Ancient myths often took advantage of compelling tropes to justify the status quo. Prominent early 20th-century anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski writes that myths tended to advance the agendas of those in power. He dubbed the stories ‘charter myths’ that were intended to warn listeners against disobedience and ensure cultural conformity. Leaders of ancient civilization used myths like those of Orpheus, Lot’s wife, and Izanagi as an allegory for the importance of obeying superiors. Nostalgia, with its indulgence of the past, was not thought to benefit future community growth and was thus condemned. So why do we think of Izanagi as a tragic figure, not a criminal? Why do we pity, not scorn, Lot’s wife and her sin? Is nostalgia a vice or a benevolent rebellion?
In the more recent past, society and its intellectual leaders have tended towards vice. Nostalgia’s criminal reputation persisted well into the twentieth century; in 1914 Freud used the example of Orpheus to denounce nostalgia in his work ‘Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through.’ He invokes the story to illustrate the supposed harmful psychological effects of memory and recursivity in grief. Freud’s theories reinforce a traditional interpretation of the myth—indulging in nostalgia incurs punishment. However, one only has to look at these ancient stories to see that we will inevitably return to comforting memories, regardless of the consequences.
Modern philosophy has recognized the more humane element of the myth. New research demonstrates the increased importance of nostalgia in the healing process. The urge to look back provides a positive and constructive way to reconnect with our pasts, especially when we are faced with the tragedy and uncertainty of a pandemic. Harnessing that desire can be a therapeutic tool. Orpheus has found a resurgence in popular culture—blockbuster movies like Inception and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are based on this more humane interpretation of the myth. Our culture is beginning to recognize the benefits of nostalgia. If we were to rewrite Orpheus’ story today, knowing what we know now, looking back would probably be to his advantage.
The nostalgia of these myths can be seen in that same part of us that wants to curl up and watch our favorite childhood cartoon for the fortieth time. That’s not to say that a god warned you against it, or you’ll be turned into a pillar of salt if you do—merely that our return to nostalgia is the continuation of a trend that was first told thousands of years ago. The desire to look back on favorite memories, people, and experiences are at the core of stories that have been told to us for generations. We now know that nostalgia is a constructive force that unites us in the face of an uncertain future. And we only have to look back for proof.