In his new book The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin writes about how both the Right and the Left are waxing nostalgic—the Left, for the Camelot of the 1960s; the Right, for the Reagan Ranch of the 1980s. He may very well have a point—this explains the plethora of “Reagan Bush 1984” bumper stickers and t-shirts I’ve seen at Republican gatherings.
Levin’s point is that both sides are trying to find a way to get back to the cohesion the country felt after the Great Depression and World War II and both sides are doing this in ways colored by their own particular ideologies.
I thought, however, that nostalgia goes beyond politics, as I downloaded the hot new Pokemon Go game app to my smartphone. What was once a 1990s video game, anime series and trading card phenomenon became, in just a few short days, one of the fastest-growing smartphone games of all time, leaving companies and marketers and others wondering how to exploit and “monetize” the newest social media craze. This is what one does when an app has been downloaded more than 15 million times in its first week on the market.
We are a nostalgic nation, and we certainly see this in our entertainment. There’s a new Pete’s Dragon movie coming out for some unknown reason, and the continued popularity of franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek shows the financial success of taking advantage of our collective yearning for a time and place out of reach. Just think of the recent, current and planned sequels, remakes and reboots besides these two: Get Smart, Ghostbusters, Westworld, Indiana Jones, Planet of the Apes, Beauty and the Beast, Independence Day, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland. And that’s just another day at the suburban cineplex.
I remember in the 1970s there arose a certain nostalgia for the 1950s, shown in movies like American Graffiti and TV shows like Happy Days. I am sure there has always been some sort of nostalgia, hence the ongoing interest in stories about time travel, since the days of H.G. Wells.
Likewise, as seen with Star Trek, there can be a nostalgia for the future. We just saw the 2015 movie Tomorrowland at home, having prudently skipped it in the theaters. Leaving aside the progressive politics and environmentalism shown at times, it was interesting as a depiction of a future with a hopeful ending—the classic Disney ending of “Happily Ever After”—and, as someone who grew up near Disneyland in its glory days, I wanted to see what it was all about. I was not too disappointed. Star Trek and Tomorowland make us nostalgic for a positive, materialistic future, compared to the dystopia (also popular) of classics like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and the newer Hunger Games trilogy.
At the top of the entertainment world for generations, Disney has certainly mastered the art of building up our nostalgia so they can monetize it. Since the first park opened in 1955, based in great part on then-current Disney movies and TV shows, Disney has smartly gone full-circle, taking its major park attractions and turning them into movies—Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Tomorrowland, even Country Bear Jamboree, which was turned into an insipid movie back in 2002. While the “It’s a Small World” ride made it briefly into the Tomorrowland film, I pray it will not become a movie at some point—even though we always seem to get the entertainment we deserve, rather than the entertainment we need.
Why are we nostalgic? Because there is something in us that wants to be somewhere else, at some other time. When there is a lot of uncertainty or disconnection in our culture, this nostalgia flares up all the more.
Recently, we saw a performance of the play Peter Pan, another perennial opportunity for remakes, sequels and prequels. There was an endearing scene where Wendy was telling stories to the Lost Boys. They asked her to tell her how some of their favorite stories ended. Cinderella? The glass slipper fit, and she and the prince lived happily ever after. Sleeping Beauty? She woke up, and she and the prince lived happily ever after. One of the boys asked about Hamlet. Wendy paused thoughtfully and then, after recounting the many deaths in the play, she reassured the boys that those few who were still alive lived … happily ever after.
Happily ever after. We all want this, and we want this to last forever. The fact that we feel this supernatural thing as a natural part of ourselves, coupled with the observation that this instinct is more acutely felt when we are in a time of crisis, shows that there is something beyond the better days of our country’s existence—be it the post-war boom, the idyllic 1960s, or even the 1980s, where President Reagan declared it “morning again in America.”
Ironically, in the end, we really don’t want morning again in America. That will not ultimately please us. What will? Something not here, not in this time. Something even beyond what Peter Pan would tell us is past “the second star to the right, and straight on till morning.”
To paraphrase another line from Reagan, quoting an obscure poet after the Challenger explosion, we want simply to slip the surly bonds of Earth, put out our hands, and touch the face of God.