Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be…. If It Ever Was
I’ve been reading a marvelous new collection of essays edited by Penelope Rowlands, Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light, and I just saw Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, so it won’t be a surprise that I’m wallowing in nostalgia, even though my own visits to Paris have been infrequent. Now, I wouldn’t dare to tangle with Richard Alleva (Commonweal, July 15, 2011), who didn’t much care for the Allen movie and gave some persuasive arguments. Though I must confess that, unlike Alleva, I do sometime go to the movies just to pass the time. Only a professional movie critic would say anything else! But the movie did get me thinking some about the uses of nostalgia.
Whatever you make of Midnight in Paris, it’s an exercise in nostalgia of a sort only aroused by places that exist in some idealized form in the imagination or have been transmuted through our own needs to remember somewhere or someone in a particular way, perhaps for some deeply personal reason. We’re only nostalgic for the good old days or for some personal Golden Age, but it’s the nostalgia itself that irons out the boredom or aloneness or even pain of some past time. Maybe sometimes, if age has provided us with the comfort of ordinary life, we are nostalgic for the loneliness itself. Gauloises and Sartre and Angst are somewhere in the distant past of baby-boomers like me, even if we coughed uncontrollably, could never finish La Nausée and had our ticket home safely stored away in case things got too painful.
Midnight in Paris may be more about realism than nostalgia. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) wants to go back to Paris in the Twenties, while the woman he meets there, Adriana (Marion Cotillard) looks back even further to the fin-de siècle Paris of horse-drawn carriages and Maxim’s at its most romantic. But the point is that these are not real. Gil leaves Adriana in her dream-world and settles for Paris in the present day, the Paris of traffic and cell-phones. The movie ends with him walking in the rain with his new Parisian girlfriend, a romantic moment admittedly, but in his own world, not the imagined past. There’s a lovely line from Proust quoted by Marcelle Clements in an essay in the Rowlands collection entitled “Paris Is Gone, All Gone,” that seems to sum up Gil’s “teachable moment”: “We do not succeed in changing things in accordance with our desires, but gradually our desires change.” Clements’ essay, which is about teaching Proust to young Americans who’ve never visited the city of lights and don’t speak French, also makes the excellent point that l’Age d’Or and even Paris’s own “Roaring Twenties” were themselves beset by nostalgia. The Golden Age was full of regret for the medieval city that Baron Haussman destroyed in his obsession with straight lines, while the Twenties were overshadowed by the absence of those whom the Great War had taken away. There’s something about Paris, writes Clements, that makes us homesick, but for “something unnamable, very old and hard to articulate…. Maybe for longing itself.”
So I’m rooting for Gil and wondering if his wake-up call isn’t also a step in Allen’s own ability to accept. It would be no surprise if it took Woody about forty years longer than most people to reconcile desire and longing with the real world, and Gil as the Woody Allen figure perhaps suggests that Allen himself is coming to terms with reality, which means being an aging icon in New York, not a dreamer in Manhattan. Great for Woody, but what will it mean for the movies to come? Don’t panic. Remember the end of Midnight in Paris, It’s still romantic.