Here at the end of the collection I want to propose going back to the beginning—not to the beginning of nostalgic desire in the modernist era, but to the start of the anxiety over nostalgia in the modernist era. The discomfort has, I want to argue, two distinct periods: the early twentieth-century anxiety that various modernists had toward nostalgia, and the later uneasiness modernist critics have with nostalgia within the modernist period. Most eras, of course, experience at least some form of nostalgic longing, along with a corresponding distrust and uneasiness about such longing. The apprehension that nostalgia may provoke seems to stem in part from the fear of being taken in—the fear of being caught believing in a fairy tale or an illusion, and the corresponding worry that people who succumb to nostalgic longing may be distracted from the pressing problems of the current moment. Yet each era also shapes nostalgia—and the critical reaction to nostalgia—to its own ends, and this collection explores the particularities of one moment in nostalgia’s history. Worries over nostalgia in any era are not unfounded, but such worries do take on particular force and immediacy in the early twentieth century, and, in a parallel anxiety, in the critical responses to modernism in the last forty years. Even in this collection, which so evocatively reconsiders relations between nostalgia and modernism, a vein of anxiety over nostalgia can be traced, in both the modernist writers and the modernist critics themselves. I’d like to suggest that this apprehension surrounding nostalgia stems in part in the modernist period from twin sources—the shattering effects of World War I and the rapid rise in consumer culture and corresponding shifts in advertising. The more recent critical fear of nostalgia in modernism that I explore in the second part of this Afterword flows from these sources and also from the urgent need, from the 1980s on, to redeem modernism from critiques that claimed it clung nostalgically to a lost wholeness, and to reject its casting as the anemic second cousin to a more intellectually robust and uncompromising post-modernism. Understanding some of the intense worry over being taken in by nostalgia—both for the modernists and for ourselves—may further clarify nostalgia’s protean nature, both as a powerful force and as a troubling obsession.
Copyright © 2013 Palgrave Macmillan. This chapter first appeared in Modernism and Nostalgia: Bodies, Locations, Aesthetics.
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Outka, Elizabeth. "Nostalgia and Modernist Anxiety." In Modernism and Nostalgia: Bodies, Locations, Eesthetics, edited by Tammy Clewell, 252-261. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.