I’ve been thinking about nostalgia with the recent blitzkrieg that is the marketing campaign for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Instead of the pure excitement and anticipation that many have felt, I felt trepidation. Not just because I was burned by the prequels, but mainly because I was worried that, if the film was good, I still wouldn’t feel the same joy that I once felt when I was young.
Nostalgia is not just longing to return to a place or a past where one was once happy. It is a type of pain. It comes from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain or ache.” My forty-year old edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a form of melancholia caused by a prolonged absence from one’s home or country.” Nostalgia was seen as a disease from which people could die. Of course, it was only in the twentieth century that it became a wistful longing for the past. Yet when I look at the current waves of nostalgia that are saturating our current pop culture, no one seems hurt. There is no longing; there is glut. We wanted there to be more media of our many beloved fictional universes, and we got what we wanted. Everyone rejoices in this plenty.
When nostalgia was first coined, it was used to refer to soldiers who missed their home. I wonder what it means for several generations to be nostalgic for a place and a time that doesn’t exist. But isn’t that the problem with nostalgia, what we long for was always a fiction. Soldiers return home to find both themselves and the ones they left behind changed. The idyllic childhood is result of a child’s limited perception and the flaws inherit to memory. Perhaps our obsession and our love of fictional universes reveal a certain jadedness that our culture has. We look around us and realize that the world we want to live in could only exist in fiction.
I suspect it’s a mistake to focus on the longing for place when considering nostalgia. Place simply provides the details, but what one is longing for is a time. The soldiers who originally suffered from nostalgia were longing for a time before they knew war. Perhaps the thousands of people who are buying The Force Awakens tickets are longing for their childhood or at least the good part of their childhood. Many have leveled that criticism at different fandoms. Yet when I examine my own nostalgia for Star Wars, I can’t help but be struck by how unhappy a child I was. In Elementary school, I escaped my daily life by reading Anne of Green Gables (and its many sequels), Animorphs, and the Star Wars Expanded Universe books. I suspect what I long for isn’t a return to childhood, but a return to whatever comfort those books provided me then.
I finished the Anne of Green Gables series in late elementary school, and the Animorphs series didn’t end until high school (by then I could read an individual Animorphs book in two to three hours). These series loom large in my memory, but I have not returned to them. They ended, and I was moved. I will probably never reread them. I fear that, if I returned, I would only find the flaws of memory and the ways I’ve changed. However, Star Wars never ended. The expanded universe always kept me supplied with new books and new adventures. I read them through my undergrad years in college. Worse than leaving home and returning to find it changed is to stay home and watch yourself change until home is like a foreign country. I stopped enjoying the expanded universe novels.
I told myself that it was just the expanded universe that I was tired of. Its need to retcon developments in characters to keep them familiar and the fact that there would never be an actual ending was what had turned me off. These reasons were part of why I’d never been able to get into superhero comics. Surely, I thought I would feel that familiar joy when I re-watched the original trilogy. I haven’t re-watched it in years. I don’t want to sit down and realize they had been reduced to a fun popcorn movie in my mind. I refused to return because I feared I would find the experience different then how I remembered it.
I saw the The Force Awakens on New Years Eve, and it was a good, fun movie and nothing else. What the film made me feel was the nostalgia for my former relationship with the expanded universe—the collection of stories the film retconned. I missed those characters, and, while the ones I was introduced to are interesting and sympathetic, I didn’t feel for the same excitement I once did. I still like Star Wars, but I can no longer define myself as a fan. They’re fun movies, but they no longer fill me with the excitement and the joy they once did. Why does this make me so sad?
It bothers me that I miss being able to get lost in this fictional universe. It’s just movies and merchandising; it shouldn’t be so important to me. I still lose myself in movies and books, but the way I do is different. Why does this difference matter to me? Is it representative of a more naïve and optimistic viewpoint? I doubt it; I was a pretty jaded child who hated beloved classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Disney’s Snow White. I remember watching Disney’s Little Mermaid over and over and loving it so much, until I didn’t. That loss never bothered me.
Maybe it was because I built part of my identity around being a fan of Star Wars, and now I must say “I’m no longer the person I once thought I was.” If my love of a series of movies and books can change for no clear reason, what else can change? I’m left wondering what person I’ll become without willing it. I worry that I’ll lose my sense of awe and whimsy. I worry that I’ll lose joy in trivial and mundane things because, while the things themselves may be banal, the joy they can give never is. That joy is why I can’t criticize those who still find it in the films, even if they are twice my age. Perhaps, I’m worried that I’ll become the caricature of an adult—no joy just grind. Or maybe nostalgia is just emotion that we all feel, and, if I didn’t feel it for my former relationship with those stories, I would simply miss some other fiction.