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Jonathan Lethem on nostalgia

Photo: Adrian Cook

I asked the writer Jonathan Lethem the following question:

Dear mr. Lethem,

Would you have time to write in approximately 15 lines about your opinion on the appeal of nostalgia in modernity? I am planning to ask this question to other writers and scholars too. It would be for the cultural website

Best regards,

Olivier Rieter


I've been staring at this for a week or more… apart from my general intolerance lately to writing short things for websites, no matter how interesting, I find that the question raises in me a certain protest, in that it takes the terms of its own inquiry as "givens" -- that there is such a thing as "nostalgia" and therefore that this thing has an appeal in modernity; the more I study the formulation the more tenuous it seems to me. The present ("modernity") is a conflation of innumerable ruined pasts, and most of them are fantastic concoctions with no basis except for magical and wishful thinking. Paradoxically, even as they're used to condemn or evade the present, such confabulated pasts are employed to flatter the present for its superiority in sophistication, perspective, and vantage — the previous epochs are patronized by our hand-wringing nostalgia, so that we can imagine we are glamorously posthumous, the first truly self-conscious humans to walk the earth. My thinking is surely muddled, but my resistance to the question means something to me — anyhow, you can throw it into the mix if it helps.

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