Lewis, Augustine, and the Nostalgia that Transcends, pt. I



In his widely read essay, The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis writes about truth in a unique way. It is not particularly philosophical or apologetic, at least in a traditional sense. Rather, true to Lewisian form, it is perfectly humane. To wit,

“Now if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. And this, I think, is just what we find… If a transtemporal, transinfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolic relation to what will truly satisfy.”

Similarly, and perhaps more famously, Saint Augustine, to begin his Confessions, writes,

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

What both Lewis and the great saint are both describing in their own manner is an idea that has become much maligned in our day – nostalgia. Jen Pollock Michel writes of the Greek root of the word: nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain); nostalgia, then, is the pain of wanting to go home. That our time is so oversaturated in nostalgic pursuit is telling of the modern condition, and one that I wish to explore. One may accurately consider nostalgia a sort of restlessness for a sense of belonging, comfort, or peace. We are all longing to go home.

The same essay that informed our understanding of the etymology of nostalgia also provides a hauntingly beautiful truth. We return to Michel, who writes,

Julie Beck explains in “When Nostalgia Was a Disease” that “el mal de corazón” was the reason for the discharge of at least six Swiss soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War. Because soldiers might suddenly contract a severe case of nostalgia if they heard the Swiss milking song, Khue-Reyen, its playing was forbidden and punishable by death. Decades later, in 1688, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term “nostalgia,” from the Greek: nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nostalgia was commonly diagnosed in people who suffered physically and psychologically from a longing for home. The last mention of nostalgia on a death certificate was in 1918.”

After sharing this passage with several friends, I found a common response – sadness. One even felt, to use her word, “empty,” though this same friend points out how interestingly similar this sounds to those stories one hears of a man or woman having died of a broken heart. Home, perhaps like love, is at once both something of this world and something that transcends it. Love is not just a feeling, but a state of being; home is not just a place, but a promise.

Lewis goes on to write in the same essay,

“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now… I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you – the secret that hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism… the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.”

Lewis considers calling such feelings as these ‘nostalgic’ to be taking revenge on them for the sweetness and longing they inspire within us. We want to share these feelings – these secrets – because of the great joy they come with; removed from the quotation above, Lewis equates these experiences with that of being in love. We want to return to these moments of experience, naturally, as they were moments of love, or beauty, or sublimity, but according to Lewis, were we able to achieve this impossible feat, we would find that what we returned to was not the thing itself, but a memory. Lewis continues,

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not yet visited.”

This is what we must remember, or in the first place learn. These feelings of nostalgia that all but the coldest analytical man-turned-machine experience – to return to a certain moment in our lives, or to relive a certain experience, or to encounter a certain person or feeling – these are not in themselves the good thing that we think they are. They are hints of something beyond them; they are glimpses of an unknown goodness that lies beyond what we know to be good. Our greatest good in this life, whatever that may be for each man or woman, is not the goodness we mistake it to be. It is a guidepost, a light in the dark. It reassures us and encourages us in our search, but it is not the end of our search; it is instead the beginning. A man finds a treasure map and filled with that rush of excitement, for what purpose? He is not excited by the map – it is just a thing. Let it burn and no one is worse for wear. No, the man is excited because of what the map signifies. The map tells the man “Here lies treasure,” and the man is excited by the prospect of finding it. The map only tells him that it exists, and that he should not begin the search.

In part two of this series, it will be considered what our present nostalgic crazes might suggest about the state of modern man’s soul.

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