Nostalgia Example

Both magic and nostalgia are common, arise more when we feel threatened, and comfort us in such situations. … Both … rely especially heavily on wishful thinking – magic presumes we are especially able to influence events important to us, while nostalgia presumes that our previous social orders were especially functional, moral, good to people like us, etc. The fact that fantasy tends to combine both magic and nostalgia suggests that some readers have an especially strong tolerance for wishful thinking, and/or demand for comfort, and fantasy targets that audience. (more)

As I’ve enjoy some science fiction by John C.Wright, I found it interesting to read the nostalgia that energizes him:

High Fantasy rests for its paramount appeal on nostalgia: the longing for a world once known, now lost. An Uzi is a more efficient killing machine than the great sword Excalibur, but the Uzi is never to be described in words [as poetic as] these: … The sewers and streets of New York are cleaner than the crooked lanes of Athens, but New York is famed neither for her acropolis nor her philosophers. … Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy.

The difference between a culture that respected and reveres the virginity of the maiden fair and the bravery of the warrior prince, and the cult that reveres the bravery of the transgendered community and protects the crooked penis of a presidential adulterer with comically ferocious self-righteousness, is not merely a difference between an ape and a man, a savage and a savant. … The Middle Ages may have been evil and cruel and dirty in many things, but they were never held Mutually Assured Destruction by thermonuclear annihilation to be a work of wise political policy. …

The only tales ever told in the history of the world without any element of magical or the supernatural were those told in the modern age. … There is a common thread linking speculative fiction with romances and epics and fairy tales of old. That thread is an acknowledgement that the world is wider and wilder and weirder than we suspect, and that there are fields beyond the fields we know where elves might dance in moonlight or demons rage in flame or angels clothed in brightness soar at their lord’s command on errantry to deeds immense of which we mortal men hear no slightest fame. …

The current world in which we live, the current age of darkness, rests on certain assumptions which High Fantasy undermines: the assumption that might makes right, the assumption that man is the master of his own fate, the assumption that the universe is a machine and everything in it (including man) is merely a raw material to be exploited in the restless search for pelf and pleasure. … The assumptions of the modern world, … Low Fantasy undermines them by showing the reader a glimpse of a world where the strength of a man’s arm decided the triumph or downfall of cities, and the honor of his word and the courage of his heart decided the strength of that arm. (more; HT David Brin)

Wright’s skill with words shows me the depth of his feelings, even though such feelings fail to resonate with me – his nostalgia still seems to me mostly wishful thinking. Yes, modernity is missing something, and stories of other eras can highlight what we lack. But some of what we lack is impossible, and so is missing everywhere. And every time and place is missing something; there are so many tradeoffs.

But let me make a prediction. In the future, stories will be told that are set in forager worlds, in farming worlds (where most of our fantasy is set), in industry worlds (like our world), in em worlds, perhaps in further worlds we can now only dimly imagine, and finally in worlds of a vast stable future lasting for trillions of years. My prediction is that in that vast stable future, when they tell nostalgic stories about other eras, they’ll tell more stories set in industry worlds than in farming or forager worlds.

John C. Wright can’t see the romance of our era, compared to farming era romance, but I doubt the first farmers could see much romance in their world, compared to forager worlds. But eventually story tellers will find many fine ways to see our dream-time era conflicts as engaging. For a cosmologically brief time, everything changed rapidly, anything seemed possible, and its mostly rich residents indulged in a great many real-life fantasies.

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  • Pole

    One day there will be stories of bravery written with C++ programming language constructs. 🙂

  • Ben

    It would be fascinating to read a romanticised fantasy narrative set in the industrial era, but written by some emulated mind from the far future with only a shaky grasp of how capitalist industrial enterprise really worked. Perhaps this distant descendant would even struggle to portray the emotions of industry-age biological humans accurately.

    I guess the nearest we can get today is “Atlas Shrugged”.

    • Adrian Ratnapala

      Actually I think we have already started romanticising the industrial world. Atlas Shrugged is an good point – but I was thinking about cyberpunk. Even when it is dystopian, it turns a world of not-very-far-fetched technology into a magical land. And come to think of it, this romanticisation probably explains steampunk (which I never quite understood).

    • Vince Mulhollon

      It would be fascinating to read a romanticised fantasy narrative set in the industrial era, but written by some emulated mind from the far future with only a shaky grasp of how capitalist industrial enterprise really worked.

      Pretty good summary of the contemporary steampunk scene.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    What I have read of Wright and Brin’s blogs makes me disinclined to read any more from them. Good thing I don’t read fiction anyway.

  • David

    “The sewers and streets of New York are cleaner than the crooked lanes of Athens, but New York is famed neither for her acropolis nor her philosophers.”

    There is something unforgivably ignorant about this, and it really made me mad. It must be that this guy just doesn’t care about philosophy and where it’s done. If he did even cursory research, he’d realize that more than half of the world’s greatest philosophers live in New York or within commuting distance. This geographic consolidation of philosophers is actually a very strange and fairly recent development, spurred on by big investments at NYU, Rutgers, CUNY, Colombia and others. In the history of our planet, there has never been a capital of philosophy in the way that New York is today. Even if you allowed 400 years of Athenian philosophers to be contemporaneous, the philosophers of present-day New York would collectively wipe the floor with them. So the choice of New York in his example was deeply unfortunate. He could have picked any other major city like London or Paris, which are being outgunned maybe 15 to 1 by NY in their philosophy power.

    Of course, the guy didn’t say that Athenians were better philosophers; he said they were more “famed” – which is true. And this brings me to a subject which is more on the topic of nostalgia. Apparently, some fields are more prone to nostalgia than others. Insofar as people even think about philosophy, literature, painting and classical music, they are often prone to wallow in nostalgia: They deify the great masters of old while being indifferent and even ignorant of present-day masters, even if the latter are producing superior work. This is not the case with music in general, nor with movies, nor with TV shows. With these, it seems like people see stuff simply because it’s new – not because it’s good – and they often display an indifference to learning about much better material from the past. That material is left for “movie geeks” and the like. It would be interesting to try and guess why we apply nostalgia so unevenly to different swaths of culture. I have some theories, but this comment is now long enough.

    • Michael Vassar

      Maybe people trust contemporary judgment less regarding movies etc? Personally, I’m disinclined to think that the departments that people today name “philosophy” have much to do with the discipline that took place in ancient Athens. It’s best contemporary exemplars would seem to me to be the folk at fqxi, mostly computer scientists, physicists and astrophysicists with a sprinkling of philosophers among them. Now if the fqxi folk were to take up serious lifestyle design we’d have some real philosophers of the old school, but that hasn’t happened yet.

      Going back a century, we did see some quite serious philosophy in the early 20th century, and I expect we’ll see some more quite soon, but while I disagree strongly about being in dark age, I do think we’re in the process of pulling out of one.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      If he did even cursory research, he’d realize that more than half of the world’s greatest philosophers live in New York or within commuting distance.

      What you would know if you read more of Wright’s blog is that he does not consider most of those philosophers to be “great”. First, I think that he would say that many of your “greatest philosophers” are not really philosophers (as Michael points out). But more importantly, the ones who are really philosophers are mostly, in his view, contemptible modernists spewing poisonous PC relativism, making NY “infamous” rather than “famed”. (That’s not my view, just to be clear.)

      • David

        Wow, you’re not making this guy sound any smarter. Anyone who would think that New York’s philosophers are spewing PC relativism shouldn’t be expressing themselves on the subject because they are talking out of their ass. What do New York philosophers actually do? Well, everything, but the stand-out strengths in the departments I mentioned are: Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Physics, Metaphysics of Fundamentality, Ethics, Political Philosophy, Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Mind… ok, I’ll stop. But notice that this is exactly what Greek philosophers were working on. And only deeply confused people could say that’s not “real” philosophy. Modern day philosophers draw different conclusions from the Greeks on many of these subjects, but that’s because the field has progressed and they’re almost certainly also smarter. Not one of the people I’m thinking about has defended anything like PC relativism.

      • Michael Vassar

        To clarify for David etc, I certainly don’t think that NYU Philosophy professors are spewing PC relativism, but I don’t think that most of them are all that good at philosophy, or at all good at lived philosophy, even if they have much higher IQs than the Greeks, which they surely do. I also think that it’s important to note that they are bad at philosophy, IMHO, because they are adhering to a method that is basically known not to work, while the Greeks were just trying anything that seemed (usually falsely) like it might work. There is, as I noted, plenty of real philosophy going on, IMHO, just not, for the most part, in ‘philosophy’ departments, but as Pirsig observed, there almost never has been much real philosophy there, just as few great novels have been written in English Literature departments (though surely a few have been).

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        @David

        Anyone who would think that New York’s philosophers are spewing PC relativism shouldn’t be expressing themselves on the subject because they are talking out of their ass.

        It probably won’t improve your view of Wright, but, in fairness to him, I should also say that he is probably also restricting his attention to philosophers who have had some noticeable impact on popular intellectual culture. That’s the kind of “fame” that he means, a fame that could conceivably inspire people who read fantasy novels.

        So, for example, Thomas Nagel or John Rawls might qualify. But they co-wrote a legal brief arguing that states shouldn’t be able to criminalize assisted suicide. In Wright’s view, assisted suicide is deeply evil (Wright is Catholic).

  • arch1

    (David, quoting Robin):
    “The sewers and streets of New York are cleaner than the crooked lanes of Athens, but New York is famed neither for her acropolis nor her philosophers.”

    (David):
    There is something unforgivably ignorant about this, and it really made me mad. It must be that this guy just doesn’t care about philosophy and where it’s done.

    David, do you realize that the first sentence of your second paragraph (in which you agree with Robin’s quoted assertion) completely undermines your “unforgivably arrogant” comment above? Many readers will come away thinking the entire comment ridiculous.

    I found your post worth reading because of the points it made about New York’s philosophical preeminence and the possibility of different levels of nostalgia concerning different areas of culture.

    That said, you really need to work on the editing. For example, you might do something else for 5 minutes, then reread your post before clicking “Submit.”

    • David

      Yeah, fair point. I should have re-written that first sentence. On a more careful reading, it really seems to me that Wright is just describing prejudices that people have,and how these feed into nostalgia. I do still have the impression that the New York prejudice is something he was *endorsing*, but apart from his not calling attention to its falsity, I don’t have clear evidence in the text that he does endorse it. If I wrote about nostalgia, I would think it’s important to distinguish between nostalgia that’s grounded in history versus nostalgia based on false preconceptions, or “nostalgia for an age that never existed” (an expression of Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon). The latter should probably not be considered a species of nostalgia at all.

  • arch1

    change “arrogant” to “ignorant” in my previous comment (I never said that rereading was a panacea:-):-)

  • Thursday

    I would have to disagree. Nostalgia for the pre-modern world there just because these things happened a long time ago. There really is a divide between the pre- and post-modern worlds and stories set in the pre-modern era are popular because they feature the following:

    1. A world where everything is alive with personality. Dryads, gods, ghosts etc.
    2. A world where moral values are based on authority, ingroup, and purity.

    Because stories set in our era can’t plausibly feature those things, there will not be a general nostalgia for our era.

    • Thursday

      “Nostalgia for the pre-modern world isn’t there just because these things happened a long time ago.”

    • Michael Vassar

      Joyce wrote about a modern world where everything is alive with personality. Some others have too, though possibly less well.

      It’s much harder to do authority, ingroup and purity well for a modern person, but plenty of movies and stories do it well in the modern world. Think of I Am Legend, for example, or Margaret Atwood’s stuff.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      So do you disagree with my prediction about distant future fiction?

      • Thursday

        Sorry, I don’t think I was being clear. I was responding to this:

        My prediction is that in that vast stable future, when they tell nostalgic stories about other eras, they’ll tell more stories set in industry worlds than in farming or forager worlds.

        I think stories set in the past will continue to mostly be set in farming worlds.

        Interestingly, very few stories are told about forager worlds ever seem to get told at all. Golding’s The Inheritors, a handful of ok-ish fiction movies, a “documentary” like Nanook of the North are all I can think of.

    • cite please

      [Citation Needed]

      Got anything that doesn’t scream of armchair psychology, Thursday?

    • http://hertzlinger.blogspot.com Joseph Hertzlinger

      “authority, ingroup, and purity”?

      These three values are quite common in today’s society.

      • Thursday

        At a very low level. Know a lot of pure maidens or a lot of people who celebrate them?

  • steve

    We have plenty of modern stories about magic and magicians. We just call it science and scientists. They substitute for priests (who often did know a few things like astronomy). The work of engineers is just as understandable to the average person as the tricks and simple machines used by the ancient priests. I suspect the average engineer is just as respected as the average cleric was in the day. I would further suggest that the chairman of the FED is the modern day high priest considering the amount of attention paid to his every intentionally obtuse utterance and prognostication.

    • Michael Vassar

      That’s a pretty reasonable point.

      There’s also lots of overt fantasy these days set in the modern world.

  • Mark Clifton

    “For a cosmologically brief time, everything changed rapidly, anything seemed possible, and its mostly rich residents indulged in a great many real-life fantasies.”

    That sounds awfully like a description of the time when Wright’s “Golden Age” trilogy takes place. I can’t believe that a man who would write such a detailed, insightful portrait of posthumanity many millennia hence would be so blind to the wonders of the present age. Granted, much or all of that trilogy were written before or during the author’s conversion to Christianity (by his own timeline), but I look at the work as a greatness in itself, free of religious or sociopolitical baggage. It still stands with me as one of the most believable and well-thought-out depictions of humankind tens of thousands of years in the future, along with the Dune series. I think anyone in search of serious far-future hard SF would be well served by reading the “Golden Age” trilogy. His subsequent short pieces in the same universe aren’t so shabby, either.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      His subsequent short pieces in the same universe aren’t so shabby, either.

      I didn’t know about the subsequent short stories. Where can I find them 🙂 ?