In Search of Lost Time
September 15th - November 9th 2018 - Bien Cuadrado, Barcelona.
There was also a performance of Hummus by Sophie Heydel on the evening of September 29th at Bien Cuadrado Gallery.
When C. K. Scot Moncrieff translated Marcel Proust's seven book novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, into English, he decided against a literal translation for the collective title of the books and instead, chose Remembrance of Things Past. This is a direct quote from Shakespeare's Sonnet 30, in which, as part of the Fair Youth Sonnets, the narrator relays his recollections of a relationship with an unnamed young man.
In doing so, Moncrieff is aligning two writers that could be viewed as suffering from the same kind of melancholic nostalgia. In likening the pain (and joy) of past love experiences of one writer to that of another, he shows us how archetypal and very human the need to reminisce is.
In 1992, a revised translation* of À la recherche du temps perdu was published with the amended title In Search of Lost Time. This is much closer to a literal translation of the French and gives an entirely different approach to the interpretation of reminiscence and nostalgia. Instead of a sort of memoir to a past long gone, it suggests that Proust's aspirations were more to do with searching for a time which was not past, but lost. Except, lost in what sense? Missing, wasted, defeated? And so, the very nature of the nostalgic narrative is changed.
It is clear, that Proust was describing another, very different, form of nostalgia. What he is constantly looking for is a certain “aura” from a past time or experience or person or work of art. But, unlike the title of the seventh volume, The Time Found Again (Le temps retrouvé), the past is not easily recovered - the auratic impression does not stop at a particular moment. After all, human perception does not record snapshots of memories and in that way, it differs from the cameras of the 19th century. What people perceive is shaped by expectations, by the opinions and recollections of others, by subsequent attributions and by illusions.
One of the many interesting things about nostalgia, is that the word didn't exist when Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, although the feeling clearly did. It was first coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer as a medical term for a homesickness so severe it had the potential to be fatal.** Hofer took the Greek word nostos - meaning to return***- and added the suffix algia, simply meaning pain. Thus signifying a physical pain one feels when one needs to return home. The German word Hofer attributed to this painful yearning to ”return" is heimweh or homesickness, but nostalgia is so much more complex than something as simple as homesickness.
Nearly one hundred years after Hofer, during the time of Romanticism, the word nostalgia can be found being used to describe an abstract emotional response - a kind of wistful yearning for past “better” times, which is closer to our present understanding of nostalgia.
A resurgence of nostalgia as a feeling or emotional response, came about with the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The Romanticism movement rejected that “modern future” and instead looked to the past with a idealised view of history and ancestry.
With the belief in the lone artist and the importance of nature over science, the Romantics sought to distance themselves from the new and reconnect with the “old” and dedicate their time to “an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals”****.
While Romanticism's nostalgia could seem somewhat pretentious and egotistical, they had clearly tapped into something - the human need to connect with something greater. A new industrialised workforce meant the decimation of cottage industries and an increased movement of people seeking employment in unknown territories, and yet, the migration was not solely physical. The Industrial Revolution ultimately changed every aspect of daily life, the displacement people felt was not only a homesickness but a fundamental shift from the known.
Romanticism gave birth to works of epic poetry and paintings of bucolic beauty, that came from the artists self-expression or inner vision, summoning up an illusion of a superior, more spiritual, past. This was completely counter to what was happening within most people's lives and would act as something akin to what Freud would later label “emotional displacement”. Nostalgia has always been a utopian daydream***** but combined with a heady sentimentalist movement it became a vehicle for nationalism, which did not seek to address the larger problems but instead would find a scapegoat to blame for its ills.
Clearly this form of sentimental manipulation towards an ideology or belief is still very much in use today. The harnessing and channelling of the public's nostalgia has been, and is still, utilised by political parties and groups all over the world - see Brexit, Trump, AfD, Lega Nord et al.******
Our conjecture, and it is conjecture, is that the real catalyst for the periodic ascent in collective nostalgia is displacement, be that physical or emotional. When we feel disconnected we feel “homesick” or “heimweh”, and we seek comfort in reminiscing in our memories of past times. Nostalgia acts as an ointment to our sorrows, in it we find a connectedness that we find deeply comforting. But, if nostalgia is manipulated to create myths rather than examine our individual or collective pasts, then the present becomes an unsettling and potentially dangerous time.
The artists we are collaborating with on this exhibition are all in some way or other drawn to nostalgic elements of our common experience.
*By Dennis Joseph Enright in 1992.
**The physician Leopold Auenbrugger believed that nostalgia could physically manifest as diseased lungs (it was likely the patients were also suffering from tuberculosis which Auenbrugger went on to research and treat with his revolutionary percussive diagnosis method).
***In The Odyssey, Homer writes about nostos, a triumphant and glorious return by sea, and the lost tenth tale in the epic cycle was entitled Nostoi or Returns, thus showing that the return home was just as important as the outward conquering journey.
****The Roots of Romanticism - Isaiah Berlin.
*****As Bernhard Schlink has stated in his essay Heimat als Utopie (2002) “Homeland is a non-place, homeland is Utopia which will be experienced more intensively the farther you are from it.”
******In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym asserts there are two forms of nostalgia, reflective and restorative. "Reflective nostalgia" while grounded in longing, contemplation and remembering, does not attempt to restore the past - you don't deny your longing, you deliberate, you dwell upon, you reminisce. Whereas, restorative nostalgia "is not about memory and history but about heritage and tradition. It's often an invented tradition--a dogmatic, stable myth that gives you a coherent version of the past.”