One of the all-out unpredictable oddities of this U.S. presidential election cycle has been nostalgia for the Cold War – from the ostensible “left” of the American political spectrum, of all places. Usually, spinning fever dreams of a renewed rivalry between th U.S. and Russia is something voters associate with the “right,” e.g., Mitt Romney in 2012 when he called Russia “our number one geopolitical foe.” But this time around, it has been Democrats battering Republicans, and Donald Trump in particular, for their ties to Vladimir Putin. It’s a mix of Manchurian Candidate-style conspiracy theory and what I can only guess is the decades of anti-Russian indoctriniation drilled into the Baby Boomer and Gen X generations, who grew up when the U.S.S.R. still existed, coming back to life like some capitalistic vampire out for new blood.
Why would anyone not insane have fond memories of the Cold War? It brought civilization to the brink of destruction in 1962 (and likely at many other points that we don’t even know about). But it still seems to give 40-something bespectacled GOP pundits as well as PR firm shills hard-ons (and make no mistake, these are predominatly/almost entirely male subgroups we’re talking about here) thinking about Washington and Moscow rattling sabers in Ukraine or Venezuela. There will have to be reckoning in U.S. foreign policy at some point, which for so long has coasted on endless spending fighting imaginary foes, including the hollowed-out shell that is 21st century Russia.
So if even the Cold War, with all of its apocalyptic overtones, can be rehabilitated by our collective dark nostalgia, what can’t be given a favorable coat of paint? Anything? There are moments from my own past that I feel like I can recognize as “inferior” to the present, and whose lived experience I recall being just awful – the endless afternoons of 2010 and 2011 despairing in a studio apartment, the painful ends of relationships – but which, looking back upon, a certain fondness can be conjured up. In trying to come to terms with this, uh, non-sequitur, I often think back to this Margaret Atwood line from Cat’s Eye:
“I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean. Whatever energy they have came out of me. I’m what’s left over.”
I think the past is not just what is being remembered but also what is being re-experienced; your brain is not a computer, retrieving memories, but something that needs to be conditioned, like an athlete, to perform in certain ways under specific sets of circumstances. In this sense, the past is similar to an artwork, which regardless of its particular character can be approached from different pathways – a new area of visual focus in a drawing, or a dedication to listening more carefully to the bassline on a song that you never really listened to closely before – each time. But the visceral feeling toward it, the “meaning” it has in the mind as a series of associations with the minor and major details of the moment, is to some degree uncontrollable.
I mean, I was thinking about Daft Punk’s much-maligned third album Human After All the other day. It was released at a pivotal time in my own life, March 2005, when it felt like the stresses of adult life were first starting to register in my previously invincible teenage consciousness. I am certain that if I were to go back and replay March 14, 2005, I would probably be exhausted, confused about if I had made the right college choice, and on the verge of taking a nap at any given moment, lusting for the release of Ambien in the evening. I wouldn’t be reveling in the sounds of “Human After All” or “Technologic.”
Yet in my memory it seems sunny, a set of effervescent scenes through which my younger self strides to a soundtrack of “Robot Rock” (from that album) and my roommate’s obsession with The Killers song “Mr. Brightside,” which I remember only sort of liking then but which I adore now, if only because of its proximity to my current favorite moments from that era. Likewise, 2010 – when I started my first teaching job, for nearly no pay, and began to listen to the album in depth – was a similarly trying time that I would never want to relive. Still, in my memory it’s the formative time that I got into that album, began to rethink my previous faith in music critcism, and oh yeah finally dug myself out of my post-college pit (though subsequent things had to go right as well).
And just as these at-the-time terrible circumstnaces have been turned around years later, due to myriad details that I could not totally control, there are plenty of “perfect moments” of relaxation and sunshine that I passed through, though I would cherish forever, and now cannot even remember.
This is where I think the “I’m what’s left over” part of Atwood’s quote comes in. Ironically, maybe it’s because the problematic moments took such a pound of flesh out of me that I become inexplicably nostalgic for them. They made me, in some way, to a greater degree than the idyllic ones, and I can realize their effects by seeing my current self – with its ever-shifting and reconstructive attitude toward the past, which will remake even it in time, perhaps leading it to re-darken the same moments it had previously let the light in on, who knows – as what’s left over, a sculpture in conversation with all of its pieces that were knocked off along the way.
I can try to give what happened meaning, but the effort seems in vain: I’m as likely to think that the miserable snowy winter of 2005/6 was a golden age of youth as I am to forget almost all of the details of the then-glorious life-affirming college graduation and think it was just a gateway to adult misery. Nostalgia kinds works this way across the board, I feel: For example, even though I can get almost any song ever recorded streamed to my phone now, I sometimes pine for the days in my dorm when everyone’s iTunes libraries were shared over the LAN and I could peek to see if Bright Eyes or “Mr. Brightside,” even, were in there.
Look, I have no idea if this is the labyrinthine memory-struggle reckoning that has driven 40 and 50 something political commentators to wish that the world were every day on the cusp of nuclear war. Maybe it’s a way of retrospectively looking on the bright side – sort of “swimming through sick lullabies,” a lyric from “Mr. Brightside” that I always thought was a good description of revisiting quaint subject matter with a newly darkened outlook – to play self-defense against one’s own past…