I was born in 1955 when monoaural long playing records were in fashion and people still listened to jazz. As a little boy I loved Dave Brubeck and I often pressed my blind eyes to the thin fabric of the speaker as if I might get inside the record player. Somehow over the past few days that child has come back—he’s insisted I listen to those early records and I’ve acceded to his wish. I’ve listened to albums that were brand new in the mid 1950’s and while I’m generally immune to nostalgia I’ve been experiencing something like it—a fancy that times were more joyous and elegant back in the day. Foolish I know. I’m a disabled man who recognizes all too well what a horror show America was back then for every conceivable outlier group and I’m not liable to forget it. But Brubeck….
And Chet Baker by god! “My Funny Valentine” crackles from my old stereo speakers. Snow falling and jazz and coffee and wistfulness in what’s otherwise a dark time in our nation.
I went furniture shopping yesterday with my wife Connie. After we’d visited a couple of stores I turned to her and said: “These places give me the willies.” I’m not sure I can explain it but the oversized fluorescent cluttered showrooms with sofas and arm chairs made me feel like Pablo Neruda who saw intestines hanging from balconies and bones flying out the windows of hospitals. Furniture stores cause me to think of the dead. All those fiendish arm chairs.
When I was in my twenties studying poetry writing I didn’t have much nostalgia. When you’re young you’re too busy thinking about how to live and what do do. In my case I was fearful since being blind I had great difficulty conceiving of how to make a living. All disabled folks experience this though many are better at confronting it than I was. Essentially I was a poetry writing wretch. What use nostalgia?
Of course not everything has a use. Even Carl Jung thought so. The psyche has many mansions and some lack utility. If nostalgia has a sibling it is avoidance from which we derive the arts. It is the half grown sister of imagination. Yes its childish. Funny how children don’t experience it—they have only envy. A kid can be homesick but not nostalgic.
You can say, and you’d be right, that nostalgia doesn’t exist without an object. It should reference something lost and which has come to be an illusion. You’re nostalgic for that baseball glove with its smell of leather; for that 1962 black Rambler station wagon, Elvis Presley on the radio. By illusion I mean you’ll think all was better and one could argue this has a use but for something to be useful it should advance the cause and squishy remembrance is only useful if it keeps you from pain and of course it can’t. Nostalgia gives way to regret.
The salesmen in furniture stores didn’t study enough to become funeral directors.
Dave Brubeck: “In Your Own Sweet Way” Newport Jazz Festival, July 6, 1956
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
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(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger
One thought on “A Short Essay on Nostalgia”
Stephen I’ve been reading and enjoying your stuff for a while, found you because I’m a TVI. For that reason a practical question: how did you make a living before writing, and are you making a living at it now? And a comment that I really enjoy your blog and my dad had a stack of Brubeck albums that I used to hear, maybe when he was in a nostalgic mood!