The Ruins of Nostalgia 49

By Donna Stonecipher


Nostalgia began as an illness with a prescribed cure: opium, leeches, a view of the sufferer’s home Alps. But over the centuries it turned into a feeling with no cure—except, maybe, the feeling itself. What is a feeling? Isn’t it a kind of miniature illness, a force that takes hold and keeps us moored inside ourselves, with consequences and a duration we can’t foresee? Now that nostalgia was no longer an illness, but a feeling, was it a good or bad feeling? And did we feel we felt nostalgic, or was it a mezzanine of the mind we meandered down to willfully, more an act of will than a feeling? We weren’t sure if a feeling could be an act of will, or if it was always a mental reactivity, a reaction to a stimulus—the view of a city we abandoned, to which we cannot return; a photograph of a dead loved one—that only comes under our control when we shift our thoughts, like a roomful of heavy cardboard boxes that must be moved to another room. A roomful of heavy cardboard boxes of regret. A roomful of heavy cardboard boxes of grief. Nostalgia, on the other hand, felt weightless, a tiny black-lacquered snuffbox inlaid with golden scenes, beautiful and detrimental, that we could carry with us effortlessly from room to room, and even out into the world waiting to infect us. Like Proust’s division of memory into voluntary and involuntary, can we speak of both voluntary and involuntary feeling? Can we speak of good-bad feeling? * Mostly our nostalgia felt involuntary, but sometimes there was no madeleine. “People feel with their hearts, Ellen” (Emily Brontë). But maybe sometimes people feel with their minds, especially when, their minds infected with regret or grief, they wander for healing into the feelingly ruined ruins of nostalgia.


DONNA STONECIPHER grew up in Seattle and Tehran. The New York Times named her most recent publication, Transaction Histories, one of the best poetry books of the year.


Art by Davina Gray