The Nature of Nostalgia

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“The Atlantic Ocean was really somethin’ in those days.  Yes, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”

           ―Burt Lancaster as Lou, an aging ex-underworld figure sitting at a beachfront bar in Atlantic City.

        After forty years, I rendezvous in a restaurant with a childhood companion.  An instant of nonrecognition, a few minutes of small talk, and our disparate worlds melt away to remembered moments.  There is a mystic sense that we are something more than our provisional selves, that we share something pure and fundamental, that those distant fragments are who we really are and the still-familiar features of this person are the one gossamer thread to that root past.  We long to retrieve that remnant, that pristine clarity.  But we cannot.

 Our childhood visions of the world fade like the morning star, lost in the light of day.  They may be rekindled for a fleeting moment by an old song or familiar fragrance but never recaptured.  So misty is the memory that we cannot even name what has been lost.  “Innocence” and “belonging” may describe the ambient conditions, as a physics text explains the color red, but they cannot recover the direct perception—the coloration of the world through the eyes of the child.  There is a fresh-dawn clarity, a mountaintop purity to that magical time of first encounters.  Once upon a time we were mythic beings, sired by gods, afloat in a frictionless world of warmth and wonder―an open space of infinite potential, all feats someday perfectible.  In 1948, in my dim little room where I sat by my radio and stashed away comics, I lived, like Leonardo, at the dawn of discovery.  Outside, the frontier extended over fences, through grassy lots, and out long, quiet streets to oak-studded hills shimmering in summer heat.  To explorers on bikes, those hills were as vast and distant as the lush continent that lay before Columbus.  The little trials are long forgotten, the dark corners dissolved to crisp mornings and soft summer evenings, the afterglow of a world vanished into deep time.

 Images of dawn and dusk epitomize nostalgia, a bittersweet looking backward to a time of looking forward.  There was a time, said Wordsworth, when the world and everything in it seemed celestial, glorious, fresh, dreamlike.  We lived on the leading edge, certain that no one before had ever had the same thoughts or committed the same acts.  We see our childhood and youth as the root time, inchoate, aglow in mystery, a world of boundless horizons.  There is a sense of lost possibility, the romance of could-have-beens.  What is lost is not the past but the future.  Clutched in the conventional confines of time and space, we pine for that Edenic time before narrowing choices diminished who we are.


Yet nostalgia is more than the longing for a lost future.  That sense of once limitless prospect emanates from the autocentric, personalized universe of the child, a cozy, benign cosmos whose stars are phosphorescent stickers on the nursery ceiling, the mysterious world without as distant as the stars themselves.  The domain of most children is a familiar, well-ordered place buffered by elders, an inner sanctum that renders the larger world irrelevant.  It is the innocence of that benevolent realm, with its clear borders and values, that we miss as much as its horizons.  The same aura infuses our collective past.  When we envision the innocent morning of modern America—Tom Sawyer’s Missouri or Teddy Roosevelt’s turn of the century—it is not the aggressive optimism of a nascent technological society that elicits nostalgia so much as the image of a small‑town world with its Fourth-of-July picnics and rambling twilight talks on the porch swing.  What we really mourn is the loss of a constant context of meaning, the stable value consensus of a simpler yet heroically energetic age. 


Nostalgia can be personal, cultural, or mythic.  Personal nostalgia remembers one’s youth, cultural recalls an era in which one lived, while mythic nostalgia is the dream of some Golden Age in the past—a primordial Eden, or rural small-town America, the “memory” or which rests on images created by Disneyland or Norman Rockwell.  Though the three forms differ, all have a personal function.  There is always a core truth to the notion that something real and vital has been lost, allowing the cultural forms to color the private.


Nostalgia can have a negative connotation, enveloping all that may have been painful or unattractive about the past in a kind of fuzzy, benign aura.  But nostalgia cannot be written off as mere sentimentality.  More than a wallowing in pangs of regret, more than the wistful longing for a time without limits or responsibilities, nostalgia is less a refuge in the past than a healing in the present.  We long for something changeless and eternal as reassurance that we are not just process.  “Has it ever struck you,” said Tennessee Williams, “that life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you hardly catch it going?” 

Sociologists Fred Davis and Janelle Wilson suggest that nostalgia is essentially a quest for meaning and identity, the sense of a “self through time,” the continuity that makes us who we are.  We are the sum of our memories.  Nostalgia tends to focus on those transitional phases in the life cycle that demand the greatest adaption and shift in identity: childhood to pubescence, adolescent dependence to adult autonomy, single to married, mate to parent.  Most abrupt is adolescence, which serves as the “prototypical frame for nostalgia for the remainder of life.”  What space-writer Frank White called the “overview effect”―the view from the air, or the whole Earth from space―applies as well to the story of our lives, bringing a sense of harmony, of going home.  An event defined by its larger outlines comes to represent a whole era in the life cycle, much as one heartfelt truth overshadows the peaks and valleys with the death of someone close.1 

Those who see nostalgia as naive escapism may themselves harbor a naive faith in the future—or in change itself, an extraverted need for novel experience that sees nostalgia as dreadfully inward.  But nostalgia is neither negative nor neurotic.  Essentially therapeutic, it is less an escape from problems than a source of continuity and identity that can enhance our ability to face them.

  Nostalgia returns us to moments intensely present-oriented, sensate, and fully engaged—the camaraderie of faces in firelight, a long-ago night on a faraway beach.  Citing Emily’s return to the past in Our Town, psychiatrist James Phillips sees nostalgia as a lament over our condition as spectators of life and a longing for the recovery of direct experience, of immediate contact with the world.  For philosopher Ralph Harper, nostalgia is a wellspring of “presence”―elusive but transcendent moments when our false personas fall away and we feel overwhelmed by the truth of our connectedness to significant persons and places, fleeting images framed by a world and time unfathomably larger than the muddle of our minute-to-minute selves.  Both the remembering and the remembered may occur in the timelessness of presence―the paradox of being absorbed in the moment yet softly aware of the whole sweep of one’s life.  In the broadest sense, says Harper, such moments can arise in love, art, or contemplation; but in a mercurial, depersonalized world, nostalgia becomes a vital source, offering “an oasis of presence in a desert of loss.”2 

 Nostalgia returns always to those moments―to something ideal and unchanging at the back of memory that says “Here is what I should have known, what I loved and lost compared to this false moment.”  Marcel Proust, the icon of literary nostalgia, confided that he lacked sufficient perspective to grasp important moments in the present, but that living retrospectively he could escape from time into a “knowledge of essences.”  Combining the bitter and the sweet, the lost and the found, the far and the near, nostalgia becomes regenerating, the moral sentiment of our time.  The end of all our exploring,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time. / Through the unknown remembered gate.”3

 The Mythic Past

 The term “nostalgia” derives from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain).  Coined by Johannes Hofer, an eighteenth-century Swiss physician, it referred to homesickness displayed by Swiss mercenaries whose supposed symptoms included weeping, palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and anorexia.  Hofer believed the cause to be “the vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the brain in which ideas of the Fatherland still cling.”  Others suggested that the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps damaged the brain.  Equated with homesickness throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nostalgia continued to be regarded as a disorder involving anxiety and depression, common to such groups as immigrants and first year boarding students.  Only in the latter part of the 20th century did nostalgia become associated with old times and childhood, shifting in focus toward positive and potentially therapeutic aspects.

 Analytical psychologists suggest that we mourn the lost innocence of childhood because we forever seek to heal the split that accompanied the growth of consciousness.  Each individual reenacts the evolution of the species.  Just as humanity once saw itself at the hub of the cosmos, the child lives at the center of his world.  Childhood and adolescence are essentially a process of self-definition, of becoming a separate individual.  Lacking clear boundaries between self and others, the infant sees everything as a literal extension of herself.  Gradually, through frustrating encounters with limits, she learns the boundaries between self and other.  The sense that the warm intimacy of home extends into the world begins to shrink.  My bed as an integral extension of me becomes simply a bed; and the ego grows ever more finite and detached in a world of impersonal and interchangeable objects.  

 In adolescence this individualizing process accelerates.  The imperative is to break out of the parental cocoon and become a unique, autonomous individual.  But in truth the adolescent is torn between the security of home and the promise of the world.  If home prevails, the cozy parental aura is carried into the world and the cosmos, where the notion of a personal God replaces the parents, the sense of infinite possibility becomes belief in a hereafter, and the great mysteries are diminished, at worst, to fundamentalist fairy tales.  Those, on the other hand, who do cut the cord may remain eternal adolescents, seeing the world not as an extension of themselves but as a persistent threat to their individuality.  They may develop an obsession with power.  The means—wealth, status, competitiveness—become ends in themselves.  While the eternal child retains Paradise in fantasy, the chronic adolescent seeks the power to recreate it.  In either case, the drive is to retain or recapture the primal sense of unity with the world and restore oneself to the center of that intimate, personal universe.  Few of us ever lose that longing entirely.  A core desideratum of human consciousness is to find some kind of oceanic meaning that reunites the self and the world. 

 In sum, the analytical psychologist sees nostalgia―whether longing for a golden age, the “good old days,” or the innocence of one’s youth―as the clouded memory of wholeness, of union with the maternal, with the world as extended self.  The “fall” into consciousness (generating myths of a fall from paradise) is the descent, individual and collective, from immortality to mortality, from the nirvana of primal unity to the polar conflicts of a temporal, finite world.4

 Expanding on this theme, psychologist James Hollis suggests that nostalgia is rooted in the “two great complexes that animate our lives,” the dream of immortality and the fantasy of the Magical Other (mother, parent, soul-mate, God).  “Nothing has greater power over our lives,” says Hollis, “than the hint, the promise, the intimation, of the recovery of Eden through that Magical Other.  The repeated loss of Eden is the human condition, even as the hope for its recovery is our chief fantasy.”5  This mythic, free-floating nostalgia, infusing but distinguished from particular events in the personal past, is so fundamental as to underlie all quests for meaning and continuity, all art, science, and religion. 

 While the scientist seeks reattachment through knowledge the artist cuts through the conventional schemata of the mundane social order in an attempt to restore the fresh, spontaneous perception and intense emotion we once knew.  Religious belief is the result of many interrelated conditions―evolutionary,biological, psychological, and societal.  But a constant factor in all religion, as psychologist Mel Faber argues in The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief, is the projection of the Edenic world of the child onto adult experience, restoring the “all-powerful provider, the big one who appeared over and over again, ten thousand times, to rescue us from hunger and distress and to respond to our emotional and interpersonal needs.”6  The etymology of the word “religion,” from Latin religare, is “to bind back, to reconnect.”  Even the most sophisticated spirituality―holding that “God” is but a word for the mystery of being―is prone to perceive the cosmos as sentient, as the Magical Other.  Projecting the mythic past onto a mystic present, one regains the parent in ideal form and remains immortal at the center of a personalized world.  Religion as nostalgia, both individual and collective, is the default state of the psyche.7   

 The scientific worldview rides no less than religion on the yearning to reconnect.  Beyond all the practical benefits, science is a spiritual quest in the broadest and deepest sense.  At its heart is the attempt to complete a grand internal model of reality, to broaden the context of meaning, to find the center by completing the edge.  The scientific quest comes most naturally to the skeptic, to those who, in their fervent search for root meaning, question all that convention holds sacred; it is the purlieu of the outsider, the quintessential nostalgist. 

 The overview perspective of nostalgia is more natural to the outsider, who seeks meaning by stepping back from the mainstream.  For the insider, who is less likely to have cut the cord completely to the world of parental authority, the drive to reconnect is less consuming.  The outsider tends toward introversion, while the insider is typically more extraverted.  At its extreme, the extravert’s reality is simply equivalent to the path of his encounters as he moves through the world, whereas the more reflective introvert’s reality is an evolving inner construct in light of which raw experience is selectively interpreted and incorporated.  On the simplest level, the extravert is interested in who, what, where, and when, while the introvert cares more about the why.  The extravert is more in tune with the left hemisphere of the brain, with detail and process, while the introvert is affiliated more with the right hemisphere, synthesizing global patterns, seeking the larger meaning.  The extravert hungers for new experience and wants to be entertained; the introvert hungers for meaning and wants to be moved.8  The introverted outsider is thus more prone to nostalgia than the extraverted insider, who finds his identity within the mainstream through the persistent absorption of new experience.  While the outsider’s quest is more isolated, single-focused, and temporal, the insider’s is more communal, institutional, and spatial.9

 Of course most of us lie closer to the middle, merely tending to one pole or the other.  Nor is either pole categorically superior to its opposite.  Like the yin and yang of all human dualities―masculine/feminine, isolation/communion, realist/idealist, extravert/introvert, left/right brain―the two are interdependent, each with its vital functions, assets, and liabilities.  The incessant and intensive concern with meaning can leave the introvert hypersensitive and susceptible to overload, while the extravert is more stable and thus better equipped to multitask and perform the jobs critical to a functioning society.  And while the outsider’s quest to restore meaning may escape the illusions of the flock, that very freedom―often a flight from adult limits―can result in the self-destructive disconnection of a Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollack, Sylvia Plath, or Charlie Parker.  Yet there is always the search for authenticity, for a nostalgic return to some kind of primal truth.10

 But there is a force at the heart of nostalgia that goes beyond the longing for lost youth, beyond presence, beyond even the quest for lost meaning and the yearning to return.  If the nostalgic compulsion to reconnect engenders all art, science, and religion, it is because nostalgia itself is rooted in the awareness of death.  As the ultimate overview, death puts the personal timeline in perspective.  Like the night sky, death lies at the boundary between known and unknown.  Death and the stars are what sociologist Peter Berger called the “sacred canopies,” one in time, the other in space, one inner, one outer.  The notion of my nonexistence is as alien to my daily reality as the thought of a hundred billion galaxies, the finitude of self as unthinkable as cosmic infinity; and a true sense of either lasts but an instant.  The dream of reconnection, of recapturing the passion and intensity of open-ended youth, is the distraction that delivers us from that terrifying instant; it is the haunting music ever behind the kaleidoscopic scrim of our days.

 Awareness of death lies at the core of romanticism―the sense that there is some unknowable root-reality, some larger truth beyond space and time that underlies everyday existence, not the gods of theology but transcendent Nature itself, a pantheistic feeling that comes to rest on the ultimate mystery of why there is Something rather than Nothing.  (Ironically, the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment now inverts as the mysteries revealed by science become the new romanticism.)  But without the awareness of death, romantic perceptions reduce to intellectual exercise.  The romantic savors those moments when the transcendent surfaces in art, music, or quiet reflection, resurrecting images that seem to define the whole sweep of one’s life, returning always to the crossroads, those inflection points where futures were cast.  Nostalgia is the realm of the romantic.

 “Everybody needs his memories,” said Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler. “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”11  There is an enchantment, a transcendence to nostalgia that is more suited to poetry and music than to exposition.  An old song can recapture for an instant the gestalt feeling of another time—the enchanted world at nine years old, the boundless vistas at twenty-one.  Nostalgia thrives on the sensate―music, aromas, and artifacts, imagination over analysis, feeling over thinking.  We don’t remember days, we remember moments, dreamlike images studding the panorama of our past like stars in the night sky, inaccessible, inscrutably remote.  As the star-filled night stretches away into space, the frozen tableau of my past reaches back into time, a single seamless event in which the mundane fades and the marrow comes clear.  Those moments of intense presence roll over us in a tidal wave of emotion, moments lived in a mist, yet more fundamental, more real.  Receding in deep time like the galactic specks in Hubble’s deep space, they become mythic.

 A Culture of Longing

 History serves the community as memory does the individual.  The past, wrote journalist Michael Malone, “is always a happier place.  Agrarian people dream wistfully of the life of the hunter; democrats envy the sophistication of the aristocracy, and Americans forever relive the bandstand and barbershop quartet world of 1910.  But while we look back and see stasis, our descendents will look back and see only the white noise of endless change.”12  There was a time, reflects John Updike’s Rabbit, when “the world stood still so you could grow up in it.”  Our collective nostalgia is less a longing for the past than a failure to feel at home in the present.  A world once known only through our senses is now so mediated by technology that we subsist in an ever-expanding virtual reality, a secondary world in which electronic displays become the center of human consciousness. 

 Like the ancient Hebrews, whose migrations uprooted religion from the concreteness of permanent space (the sacred grove, the hallowed mountain), removing it to the inner abstraction of time (a sacred history residing in stories or carried in a book), we now experience a similar but far more profound process of abstraction, becoming not only mobile and amalgamated on a global scale but ever more distanced from direct experience.  The result, reflected in modern art and literature, has been a turning inward, a leap in self-reflexivity and narcissistic self-absorption.  Like the Hebrews in exile, we find our sense of who we are increasingly removed from stasis and place and ever more defined by motion and time, lending the past a sacred aura.

 Most enduring in that aura is the archetype of the American small town―Grover’s Corners (Our Town), Bedford Falls (It’s a Wonderful Life), or Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri―a place where

 neighbors greeted neighbors in the quiet of summer twilight, where children chased fireflies.  And porch swings provided easy refuge from the cares of the day.  The movie house showed cartoons on Saturday.  The grocery store delivered.  And there was one teacher who always knew you had that special something.

 The passage comes from a Disney sales brochure for a $2.5 billion project called Celebration, creating the idealized small town outside Disney World in Florida.13  The fact that we all share similar “memories” of the generic small town derives less from personal experience than from Disney parks, Currier and Ives paintings, and Norman Rockwell’s covers for the Saturday Evening Post, injecting the images into our virtual world.  As life becomes ever more abstract and depersonalized in a narcissistic, consumerist, global economy, the appeal of those ideal images can only intensify―in part because they harbor a core truth.

 We have become a culture of longing, pining for the gods who went underground, for the connections of family and myth-sustaining institutions.  Deep within the malignancy of modern individualism is a longing to restore some larger context, some meaningful end for runaway means.  As a species, we stand alone at the leading edge, isolated by evolution, fallen from innocence.  Stripped of the sacred, of consensus, of community, we are all outsiders. 

 “The longest distance between two places,” said Tennessee Williams, “is time.”  Those faraway places are black-and-white stills, grainy images of defining moments―my grandmother standing in front of her house, waving her last goodbye; our children at play in eternal summer, before their metamorphic fall into time and truth.  It is not the past as such that haunts us but the sad suspicion that we might have lived it better, that I might have seen my father’s burdens or attended more to the hopes and dreams of the girl who took my hand at a crossroads long ago. 

 In the restaurant, I scrutinize my childhood friend for some trace of our world before the fall.  But the distance is too great, the metamorphosis too complete.  In the end, we are alone with our private ghosts―the song my grandmother sang, the sound of my father’s laugh, nights of eternal youth on warm, sandy beaches.  And that electrifying moment, a lifetime ago, when I met the girl in the dark blue dress, her voice as warm as the light in her deep brown eyes.  And always the children―our first-born in a fresh ironed shirt for his first day of school; the shiny new fire truck he pedaled so proudly, rusting away in a shed; the bedtime music box, buried in a basement drawer.  The wisps of remembrance flicker in a mist like old home movies, sad yet soothing―mystic chords of memory, echoing down the corridors of time, flooding the cathedral of the mind. 

 Memory always plays to music.



1.   Fred Davis, Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia (New York: The Free Press, 1979), pp. 14, 49, 57, 59; Janelle Wilson, Nostalgia: Sanctuary of Meaning (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 2005), p. 127; Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

2.  Studies confirming the positive effects of nostalgia have proliferated over the last two decades.  See, for example, Constantine Sedikides, et al., “Nostalgia as Enabler of Self Continuity,” in Fabio Sani (ed.), Self Continuity: Individual and Collective Perspectives (New York: Psychology Press, 2008), pp. 227-42; Anne Wilson and Michael Ross, “The Identity Function of Autobiographical Memory: Time Is on Our Side,” Memory 11 (March 2003): 137-49; Angelina Sutin and Richard Robins, “Going Forward By Drawing from the Past: Personal Strivings, Personally Meaningful Memories, and Personality Traits,” Journal of Personality 76 (June 2008): 631-64; and Clay Routledge, et al., “The Past Makes the Present Meaningful: Nostalgia as an Existential Resource,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101 (September 2011): 638-52.

3.   James Phillips, “Distance, Absence, and Nostalgia,” in Don Ihde and Hugh J. Silverman, eds., Descriptions, Albany: SUNY Press, 1985, p. 73; Ralph Harper, Nostalgia: An Existential Exploration of Longing and Fulfilment in the Modern Age (Cleveland, Ohio: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1966), pp. 29, 100, 120.

4.   Milton L. Miller, Nostalgia: A Psychoanalytic Study of Marcel Proust (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Associated Faculty Press, 1956), p. 106; T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” in Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 59.

5.   The far reaches of Jungian analysis, while intuitively compelling, can have a certain heuristic ring.  At the other end of the spectrum, experimental psychology seems less than compelling, offering tautologies and common-sense observations camouflaged in heavy jargon.  In most cases, people are too complex for simple questionnaires and single variables.  Until we know vastly more about the brain, a black box will remain between subjective experience and any attempt to objectively explain it.

6.   James Hollis, The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1998), pp. 36-37, 50.    

7.   Mel D. Faber, The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief: Searching for Angels and the Parent-God (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2004), p. 20.

8.   This pattern, once universal across our species, is rooted in specialized mental processes evolved for survival over millions of years as hunter-gatherers.  Our survival would be in jeopardy had our minds not evolved to understand the world in terms of patterns, purpose, causality, group loyalty, and respect for authority.  Unlike other animals, our instincts are insufficient to guide us automatically in all situations.  Young children are therefore predisposed by natural selection to believe whatever their parents tell them.  We thus learn many of our basic core beliefs before we have the rational capacity to evaluate them.  We are programmed to process current information along neural pathways that harbor our previous experience; the more frequent the associations, the more solid they become, which makes beliefs, once learned, so difficult to change.  The synaptic pathways become set and the stories are passed on in perpetuity.  An expansion of these points can be found in Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Bruce M. Hood,  SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable (New York: HarperCollins, 2009); Hank Davis, Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2009); Michael A. Persinger, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (New York: Praeger, 1987); Michael Shermer, How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God (2nd ed.; New York: W. H. Freeman, 2003); Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (New York: Free Press, 2006), and How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009); Nicholas Humphrey, Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation (New York: Copernicus, 1999); Joseph Giovannoli, The Biology of Belief: How Our Biology Biases Our Beliefs and Perceptions (N.p.: Rosetta Press, 2000); and Daniel Dennet, Breaking the Spell (New York: Viking, 2006).

9.  Roughly, the left side of the brain deciphers the text of experience (analytical) while the right side provides the larger meaning or context (gestalt).  The one is literal and focused on means, the other metaphoric and concerned with ends.  Both are vital to normal mental function.  Damage to the left hemisphere, for example, can mean problems with speech and logic, while damage to the right causes problems with perception and attention.  In a classic experiment, patients were asked to redraw from memory what they saw after studying a large H made up entirely of small A’s.  Patients with right hemisphere damage often simply drew scattered A’s over the page, while those with left damage just drew a large H with no A’s.  Nostalgia’s overview effect and the outsider/introvert’s search for meaning would thus seem more at home in the right hemisphere.  See Sally P. Springer and Georg Deutsch, Left Brain, Right Brain (4th ed.; New York: W. H. Freeman Co., 1993); D. Frank Benson and Eran Zaidel, eds., The Dual Brain: Hemispheric Specialization in Humans (New York: Guilford Press, 1985); Fredric Schiffer, Of Two Minds: The Revolutionary Science of Dual-Brain Psychology (New York: The Free Press, 1998); and Richard J. Davidson and Kenneth Hugdahl, eds., Brain Asymmetry (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995). 

             On introversion and extraversion, see Kenneth J. Shapiro and Irving E. Alexander, The Experience of Introversion (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1975); Marti Olsen Laney, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World (New York: Workman Publishing, 2002); Larry Wayne Morris, Extraversion and Introversion: An Interactional Perspective (Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere Publishing, 1979); H.J. Eysenck, ed., Readings in Extraversion-Introversion 3: Bearings on Basic Psychological Processes (New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1971); and Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012).

10. “Kant thought that space was the form of our outer experience, and time, the form of inner experience” (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia [New York: Basic Books, 2001], p. 18).  Given free time, the outsider/introvert may polish his novel, while the insider/extravert may travel the world.  Perhaps we each need some form of balance between inner and outer and between order and chaos to stabilize our open search for meaning and identity.  The outsider’s inner quest may require a stable external order, from compulsive neatness and habit to monastic extremes, while the insider’s outer quest may require the inner order found in a rigid social, political, or religious value structure.

11. There is an aspect to nostalgia itself that appeals to outsiderness.  “There is the illusion, now that we are safely through a time, that the time was essentially safe.  We forget that then, as now, we were turned toward an uncertain future.  We did not know that we would survive our shoestring life.  The fact that we did retroactively bathes everything in the glow of vie bohème” (Sven Birkerts, “American Nostalgia,” The Writer’s Chronicle [February 1999], p. 36).

12. Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (New York: Viking Press, 1970), p. 190.

13. Michael S. Malone, The Valley of Heart’s Delight: A Silicon Valley Notebook, 1963-2001 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002), pp. 4-5; and “Silicon Insider: Tech Kills Tower . . .and Nostalgia?” (, December 14, 2006).

14. Quoted in Birkerts, “American Nostalgia,” pp. 33-34.


[This appeared in different form in Narrative Magazine, April 2013.]






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