It has been too easy for me to roll my eyes at the slogan Make America Great Again. The instant objection—when, in its history of exploitation of humans and pursuit of stuff, was America ever great?—misses the point altogether. This is not a fact-based imperative, not even a truthy longing. It is anemoia, that wonderful new word from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. And I am often plagued by it myself.
Anemoia is nostalgia for a time you have never known. In a forum on reddit.com, the dictionary’s author explained that he coined the word from Greek anemos, or wind, and noos, for mind: “Anemoia is a psychological corollary to anemosis, which is when a tree is warped by strong air currents until it seems to bend backward, leaning into the wind.”
We are leaning way back. Some of us to what we think the ’50s were, some all the way to the New Deal. For each of us personally, this is nothing new. Thanks to books, movies, and history lessons, I have anemoia for the salons of eighteenth-century France and the brave, bright-lipsticked 1940s in the United States—a wistful longing to experience their worlds.
But nostalgia is complicated.
We used to define it too narrowly. First, it was thought to be an especially painful sort of homesickness, leading to melancholy. “You can’t go home again,” we tell one another with sage nods. Psychoanalysts decided that the home we were really longing for was the womb, because we had been wrenched from its safety.
Then we came to understand that this melancholic wallow mixes the pain with pleasure. The longing is bittersweet, not just pathological. And it is directed not so much toward a particular place as toward the way that place made us feel.
Or might make us feel. In an essay on Aeon.co, Felipe De Brigard, who is the Fuchsberg-Levine Family Associate Professor of Philosophy and has joint appointments in psychology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, points out that nostalgia is not so much an autobiographical memory as “a mental simulation—an imagination, if you will.” It is perfectly possible, in other words, to be nostalgic for something you never experienced. Especially today, when we have so much visual data within reach, so many bits of other people’s history to collage.
I once read a mystery in which one of the characters had deliberately recreated the late 1890s, down to the last detail, inside his home. When you stepped across the threshold, you time-traveled to the previous century. Instead of dismissing him as a delightful eccentric, I felt jealous. How restful it must have been, pulling an unquestioned, leatherbound classic from the shelves in the evening and reading by the fire. So much of the appeal of stepping back into another era is leaving the glare and noise and angst of this one.
I would choose the Roaring Twenties, I decide, with its Art Deco elegance and fizzy excitement. Or maybe the twining, truth-seeking vines and sinuous curves of Art Nouveau… Planning my imaginary return, I feel quite happy, freed from the need to conform to todays’ craziness. Once we return to an earlier time, we will already know what happens next. We can choose a place where we fit better.
“Certain negative experiences tend to trigger nostalgia,” De Brigard says, “including loneliness, loss of social connections, sense of meaninglessness, boredom ….” But do we really want to ease these feelings by packing up a leather satchel, lifting our skirts, and climbing onto a smoky train that is chugging in reverse? Of course not. Who would give up modern plumbing and air-conditioning? No, what we want is for someone to haul the salient aspects of that earlier time into the present. (Never mind that this is impossible, that things cannot be plucked out of context, stolen from their own ecosystem, a lesson we should have learned a few centuries ago.)
The easy answer? We need do nothing at all. Simply imagining pleasant aspects of the past can make us feel like they are present again. De Brigard cites a 2016 study in which nostalgic recollection fired reward signals in the brain. Turns out we can, for a few minutes, go home again.
But if we linger there, we face Cinderella’s dilemma: The magic soon turns into a jangling discontent. Why? Because those reward signals in the brain act as motivation. This, it dawns on me, is why so many wise aunts warn of the dangers of “living in the past.” Its consolations leave us discombobulated, desperate to make our fantasy real.
Unwittingly, people all over the globe are currently replicating that 2016 experiment. Here, with “Make America Great Again.” In the UK, with “We Want Our Country Back.” In Hungary, with strict new social policies to restore a pure Hungarian culture. These are not movements fired up by cranky old-timers. Young people around the world, De Brigard points out, are “avidly supporting nostalgic policies that would return their nations to a past never experienced.”
This kind of nationalism needs no facts; it does not draw on history or mess with context or step back for perspective. It needs only a group of people with a strong consensus about what would have marked the lost greatness. Often that consensus stays blurry, never even spelled out by those who yearn for its realization. If it is articulated, the narrative cherry-picks a few pieces of the past and imagination takes care of the rest.
It is, in other words, a shared fantasy, sort of like our Pilgrims Thanksgiving with its cornucopia of selective abundance and the hosts patting their tummies, all pleased with themselves. Shared fantasies can be harmless—a quick trip to the Holodeck, an escapist diversion. But when they are sustained and widely shared, they make the present reality look even worse by comparison—the way the grim constraints of 2020 America would look if you were stepping out of a swanky gin joint in a pale peach beaded dress, high on illegal champagne and jazz, exhilarated by the freedom to live any life you chose.