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Fires of the Past: Surrendering to the Warm Embrace of Nostalgia 

Tuesday, Nov 11 2014
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During an earlier San Francisco flirtation with a Gilded Age, a man named J.J. Morse delivered a lecture on immortality to the California Psychical Society. The Dec. 17, 1895, edition of the San Francisco Call reports that Morse gave it to them straight: "Of all the problems in the universe," he said, "the greatest problem is man." It seems that death is a real drag for the human race, and the only thing getting between us and immortality is, unfortunately, us.

The intervening century has not been kind to theories about the meaningfulness of existence, however, and so a certain backward-lookingness has just had to do. Nostalgia seems to be a defining trope of San Francisco: It embraces the trappings of childhood like no other. You see it in the clothes, in the pastimes, in the socioeconomic exigencies of egg-freezing. The culture of this city — and many others, to be sure, but definitely, definitely, San Francisco — is uniquely dedicated to keeping adulthood, and its certain demands, sealed on the other side of a glass wall. It's something to look at, to consider, but for the love of God, man, do not break that glass. Which is fine. It's not all the fault of these perpetual adolescents; there are bigger forces afoot, market forces and biological ones.

The Peter Pans and Logan's Runners are beset from all sides. They can't afford to take on adult roles so they embrace childhood ones. Nostalgia has been shown to run higher in young adulthood than in middle age (it comes back later, though. Don't worry). And unfortunately, that's where they get you. An October study in the Journal of Consumer Research reports that nostalgia has a strange lubricating effect on the wallet, in that "feeling nostalgic decreased people's desire for money" and "nostalgia's weakening of the desire for money was due to its capacity to foster social connectedness." Which essentially means "Nostalgia may be so commonly used in marketing because it encourages consumers to part with their money." San Francisco is a city encouraging this sort of hanging around in the past and charging you for the privilege, which prevents the leap into adulthood, which puts you right back in the child's seat. Not for nothing is the city full of transients, and not for nothing is an old name for nostalgia "immigrant psychosis."

Well and it's not all bad, really. Where once nostalgia was seen as a negative, scientists are finding, in study after study, a healthy sense of nostalgia balances out existential dread. It maps meaning onto the future. What's weird about this is that, due to today's permanence of media, your favorite childhood TV shows are still and always available; toys are reproduced at the first hint of demand; and the great entertainment machine barely gives you a chance to miss a thing before it gives you another iteration (how many Spider-Man reboots? how many Hulks? how many Robocops? is it worth mentioning that Logan's Run is now being remade?). Those cycles grow shorter until time just sort of stops and everything is available simultaneously. The singularity is the thing that finally consumes the consumer.

Once, long ago, when toys were lost, they stayed lost. When TV shows went off the air, they were gone. Missing those things then must've been that much more poignant. (We're now getting nostalgic for an older kind of nostalgia, so it's time to wrap this up.)

Good old Morse closed out his lecture to the Psychical Society with this: "Death is not the end of life. The great hosts of men are marching on into a world more fair, a humanity more divine, where man shall go upward and onward forever and ever." It's a nice thought, and rather recalls another study on nostalgia, the weirdest yet. Nostalgia heats people up. Put them in a cold room, encourage them to think on some favorite old thing, and the room won't seem as cold. How about that? It's as though the past is keeping us warm until the future finally arrives.

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Brandon R. Reynolds

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