Oscar-nominated director Woody Allen, rock-king Bruce Springsteen, and Forties Big Band singer Helen O’Connell all have something important in common. They each remind us there are no “better times” in which we may believe we should have been born. Nostalgia is a lovely addiction — from which I happily suffer — but it often clouds the facts.
Allen shows us this in “Midnight in Paris.” Springsteen belts it out in his moving-on lyrics. O’Connell sardonically told a Big Band admiring reporter: “Gee, if I had known I was living in an era I might have taken it more seriously.”
Chances are we are nostalgic for other times and places mostly because they seem — now from a comfortable distance — to be more rock-sure-certain about things. Their actual incertitude has been distilled out and reprocessed by our eager memories. Homer did it in his tales of the Trojan wars. Twain did it in his stories of life on the old Mississippi. Uncle Harry does it every Thanksgiving dinner. And damn if I haven’t started doing it as well!
Nostalgia is a feel-good exercise in which we get the chance to play god for a little while. To re-create a drama and a cast that, yes, did once perform, but whose plot line we’ve enjoyed re-working. No harm in this so long as we live here and only visit there. Rather than the other way around.
If certitude is one of nostalgia’s lures, it’s easy to understand why in this our current age of uncertainty. Ironically it’s not ignorance but knowledge that’s done this. What with our relentless waves of research, we live in an on-the-other-hand time. It seems as if we simply can’t find a single researched conclusion that won’t be revised on us in the next few years by the next research.
Hanging on to this whirling waffling planet, sometimes by only an emotional thread, our instinct is to reach out to whatever looks safe, sure, familiar. I ask you — what’s any more familiar than the yesterdays we love to remember? And while fact-checking and fact-checkers have become a new cottage industry, the only fact they can’t seem to admit is this: Once you have all the facts about something, chances are you only have part of the truth to the story.
In this case — the truth that fiction is often far more fun than fact.
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