Cloaking the Past in Nostalgia

On June 12, 1987, President Reagan gave a speech that will always be remembered.  "Mr. Gorbachev," he challenged, "TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!!"  Audible to those on both sides of the great barrier dividing East from West, these historic remarks resonated from the great Brandenburg Gate in Berlin- a key point in the system of high walls and barbed wire which symbolized the Iron Curtain.  A gauntlet had been thrown.  Two years later, on November 9, 1989, the wall fell, and for the first time those who had been trapped in the East tasted freedom.  No longer trapped by their communist oppressors, the former East Germans streamed to the West during those first few weeks.  It was a reunification of a divided people, a miracle in our times.

Looking back on those dark days before the walls came tumbling down, how do you think many of the East Germans remember those years of oppression? You might be surprised…

Damals war alles besser…:

Walking the cobblestone streets of the former East Germany in the shadow of dilapidated old buildings, and through the jungle of boxy, angular "neubau" apartments (the Utopian architectural ideal of communist East Germany) as a missionary approximately five years after that grand November day, I often could hardly believe my ears.  When we would knock on people’s doors, they would often answer with a reproachful, yet distantly fond look.  If they invited us in, they might get a far-off look in their eyes, wag their finger a bit in our direction, beginning their reflective speech with the word "damals"- "back then." 

"Damals. . .," they would cluck nostalgically, "damals, vor der Wende, war alles besser.  Damals hatten wir keine Angst vor Verbrechern.  Damals hatten wir keine Betrueger draussen vor der Tuer.  Damals hatten wir keine Arbeitslosigkeit, wie wir sie heute haben.  Damals. . ."

[Back then. . ., back then, before the wall came down, everything was better.  Back then we had no fear of criminals.  Back then we had no con men knocking on our doors (probably a mild jab at us missionaries...).  Back then we had no unemployment the way we have now.  Back then...]

I could hardly believe my ears.  In my mind, I screamed back at this incomprehensible wahnsinn (madness): "Back then, the criminal you had to fear was your own government.  Back then, the con-men outside your door were your Stasi (East German Secret Police) affiliated neighbors.  Back then, you had a mind-numbing factory job far beneath your potential.  Back then…"

Ein Schlechtes Gedaechtnis und Reiche Errinerungen:

Further reflection has now brought me to better understand what I often heard said but could not believe.  Our past is our past, no matter what happened then.  Often we tend, for better or for worse, to cloak the past in nostalgia.  The past transforms into something mystic, mysterious, and wonderful.  Often, hidden behind the veil of nostalgia, it may seem better than what we now have before us.

One book I really enjoyed dealt with the author’s nostalgic memories of life behind the Berlin Wall.  In Am Kurzeren Ende der Sonnenallee,the fictional main character Micha reflects on life as it was "damals."  The book is humorous and projects nostalgic feelings in that humorous vein from the first page to the last. 

There is the memory of an uncle from the West who often visited (before dying of cancer supposedly caught from the asbestos in Micha’s "Ossie" apartment) and "smuggled" across useless things to which the East Germans already had access, such as coffee.  There is Micha’s father, a living room pundit if ever there was one, whose response to every perceived injustice in the East (such as the neighbors having a telephone but not him) is "ICH SCHREIBE ‘NE EINGABE!!" [I'm going to lodge a complaint], which of course he never does.  Micha’s mother subscribes to the ND (an "official" East German newspaper) but never reads it, just to look good for her Stasi neighbor (assumed to be Stasi because he has a telephone but Micha’s family doesn’t) and calls Micha "Mischa" because it sounds more Russian.  Even the grim memory of a best friend getting shot when the officials thought he was trying to "cross over" the Berlin wall (the friend didn’t die, because the bullet was miraculously deflected by a John Lennon record the friend was hiding- but the loss of the record was a real tragedy… :) ) is overshadowed by the memory of hanging out with friends and listening to "verboten" music.

The last passage poignantly describes how a soft veil of nostalgia gently covers everything that was previously painful to bear in East Germany, and in life generally, and concludes that our allowing this to happen is one of the keys to happiness:

Wer wirklich bewahren will, was geschehen ist, der darf sich nicht den Erinnerungen hingeben.  Die menschliche Erinnerung ist ein viel zu wohliger Vorgang, um das Vergangene nur festzuhalten; sie ist das Gegenteil von dem, was sie zu sein vorgibt.  Denn die Erinnerung kann mehr, viel mehr: Sie vollbringt beharrlich das Wunder, einen Frieden mit der Vergangenheit zu schliessen, in dem sich jeder Groll verfluechtigt und der weiche Schleier der Nostalgie ueber alles legt, was mal scharf und schneidend empfunden wurde.

Glueckliche Menschen haben ein schlechtes Gedaechtnis und reiche Erinnerungen.

In English:

Those who truly desire to preserve what has occurred must not abandon themselves to recollections.  The human recollection is a much too comforting device to truly hold on to the past; it is the opposite of that which it purports to be.  For recollection is capable of more, much more: it persistently brings to pass the miracle of making peace with the past, such that every grudge melts away and the soft veil of nostalgia covers everything previously keenly and piercingly felt.

Happy people have a bad memory and rich recollections.

Cloaking the Past in Nostalgia:

The assertion here is that, in order to be happy, we abandon ourselves to recollections which don’t truly represent the past, but a veil of nostalgia that cloaks the past.  Is this true? Does this really happen? When we are asked by the Lord to forgive others, are we really being asked to focus on recollection instead of memory, among other things?  Or maybe this is a natural tendency which needs to be stopped in its tracks.  I remember my Mission President always warning me to not look back on my mission as the "best" two years of my life.  He told me that if that ever were to happen later on in life, then chances were that at that future time I might be doing something wrong to not be even happier as a married man with children than I was as a missionary.  Was he telling me not to cloak the memory of the mission with undue nostalgia?

Do you bloggers out there tend to do this?

I know I have.  One of the reasons I moved to Texas was because of the recollections I had of it from growing up here.  I can’t help but see Texas as a place full of many wonders, an almost magical place where my formative years happened.  It is a place literally cloaked with nostalgia.  Perhaps that nostalgia prevents me from seeing Texas for what it "really" is- a "flat, featureless, boring, scorched wasteland," as my wife seems to see it.  Maybe it is.   

This tenet certainly seemed true to the Germans I met on my mission.  Only five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the magical transformation of recollection had already taken place.  East Germany had become a land full of cozy quaintnesses that were now lacking.  Or perhaps that is what it was.

Does it really matter how it *really* was, as long as it is remembered well? Is that really a key to happiness- the ability to rely on recollection more than on real memory?

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7 Responses to Cloaking the Past in Nostalgia

  1. john f. says:

    Excellent post Jordan. Sonnenallee was a delight to read. I think it was you who sent it to me. I sat down and read the entire book in one afternoon–which is a rare luxury for me. In keeping with the point of your post, it was wonderfully nostalgic for me to read.

    As you know, Goodbye Lenin is a movie in this vein as well. That movie depicts the effort to actively recreate the East in its nostalgic rather than actual form after the wall has come down and Germany has been unified. It is funny and poignantly moving.

    Also, it is interesting to contrast Sonnenallee with Die Neuen Leiden des Jungen W. by Ulrich Plenzdorf. Sonnenallee encapsulates the nostalgia of looking back at the experience of East Germany. Plenzdorf’s book was written in 1972, during the thick of the communist dictatorship in the East. The book contains many a veiled criticism of the regime.

  2. Adam Greenwood says:

    Food for thought. It seems to me an unqualified good that we love our past, no matter how unpleasant (just as its an unqualified good to love people, no matter how unpleasant). So is it worth a little illusion to bring about that love? Hard to say. A certain kind of Ostalgie is probably harmless, unless it leads to a revived totalitarianism. But it could be dangerous. Your illusions about Texas seem extremely harmless, even positive, like having illusions about your wife.

  3. Jordan says:

    I think the nostalgic covering is definitely an unqualified good that can help us cope and go on with our lives. However, to the extent that it causes us to deny certain aspects of our past that have affected our personalities (such as abuse, etc), it could be harmful.

    Now, Adam, my “illusions” about Texas are *hardly* illusions. All hail the mighty state! So wonderful so great! God bless you Texas, and keep you brave and strong!

    Now- what exactly do you mean by “having illusions about your wife”? I’m not sure I get what you are trying to say…

  4. Jordan says:

    John:

    Yes- it is quite interesting to read and watch the comical, nostalgic approaches to life in the DDR (German Democratic Republic) in Sonnenallee (both the book and the film version) and in Goodbye Lenin.

    I finally watched all of Goodbye Lenin and found it quite sad, but funny and very moving. Great movie!

  5. Adam Greenwood says:

    View your wife through rose-colored glasses. That’s my advice.

  6. Jordan says:

    Good point, Adam. But with my wife, you don’t even *need* the rose-colored glasses! ;)

  7. Adam Greenwood says:

    What would your wife think if she knew you thought she needed to be seen out of focus? Tsk, tsk.

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