Friday, April 12, 2013

"Nostalgia is dangerous"

"Nostalgia is dangerous," wrote Colum McCann in a recent New York Times op-ed. McCann's piece celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the settlement that brought—to quote a recent newspaper headline—"an imperfect peace" to Northern Ireland. Of course, peace is never perfect, but that necessarily wasn't the thrust of McCann's op-ed. His words praised the innumerable souls (chief among them, George Mitchell) who accepted that the peace process in Northern Ireland would be tormenting, fitful, blinding—like those initial moments when one passes from darkness into light and the irises reject the foreign brilliance.

(Side note that may interest only me: The opening section of McCann's Let the Great World Spin is akin to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks in how it reanimates the arcane paradises we once blithely floated through during adolescence. McCann elegantly details a childhood spent in Sandymount, a coastal suburb of Dublin. This section of the novel is titled "All respects to heaven, I like it here." Indeed!)

Is nostalgia dangerous? For Morrison, nostalgia was a muse he never stopped courting. Hear Astral Weeks, Irish Heartbeat, The Skiffle Sessions (cut with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber), "And It Stoned Me," "Orangefield." A quote from Peter Mills' Hymns to the Silence: Inside the Words and Music of Van Morrison: "I don't mind nostalgia, I've nothing against it, so long as it's mine!"

Morrison's nostalgia was warm and winsome; it was like closing your eyes and feeling the sweet breath of your young mother upon a cheek and then falling backward onto your childhood bed. McCann's op-ed is referencing a nostalgia that's seductive and provocative and thorny—you know, obsessive nostalgia. I witnessed it during a visit to Derry, Northern Ireland. In the home of the middle-aged Protestant couple who rented us rooms, their old-fashioned patriotism for Britain exhibited in the form of a security code that was "1940." Or at St Eugene's Cathedral, where the bells ring every night at 9 p.m. to honor a long-dead curfew imposed under the notorious anti-Catholic legislation known as the Penal Laws.

Obsessive nostalgia. The kind one has no control over. The kind that consumes. The kind that leaves one pondering the question "The past is through with me, yet why am I not through with the past?"

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