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Washington Diarist


Once upon a time, before the panicked society-wide attempt to expel contingency from American life, existence was organized, or left sufficiently unorganized, for the refreshments of serendipity. The domination of the days and the years by logistics had not yet gone from authoritarian to totalitarian: interventions of experience, and island paradises of idle time, still got through. There were walks, and on those walks, finds. On a snowy afternoon a few years ago, for example, I stopped in a record store (more evidence of the antiquity of my tale) and discovered--but first I must introduce a distinction, to clarify my complaint. It is the distinction between searching and browsing. On that lucky day I was not searching, I was browsing. They are antithetical activities in their pace, in their range, and in their yield. The one is curious and the other is efficient. Anyway, what I found while I was loafing in the record store in Dupont Circle was the compact disc of one of Dizzy Gillespie's most exquisite records, called Portrait of Jenny, from 1970. I had feared that it had not survived the war on vinyl, but some fratelli in Florence finally made the transfer. And my thrill did not end with its acquisition. I put the CD on and at the very beginning, just as the trumpet first stated its simmering theme, I heard a sound that excited me even more. I heard a scratch! I mean on the record, not on the CD. And then another scratch, and then another. And the sounds of the scratches were beautiful to me. They were the traces of human use, of human ardor. They restored me to the liberal age that preceded the frigid perfectionism of the new technologies of reproduction. The more you listened to a record, and studied it, and deployed it as a soundtrack for intimacy or interiority, the more scars it bore, and they were the scars of true feeling. You listened past them, the way you listened past the muffled panting of a Russian pianist or the clinking of glasses on a far table in Birdland. I know that CDs also get scratched, but their flaws have no significance: they are only interferences with a silvery promise of pristinity. A scratched disc is worthless, but a scratched record is a madeleine. After all, it was you who scratched it--when you dropped the needle, perhaps, because you were distracted by the distraction for which you chose it. Now the scratch's song is an abraded elegy for all the surprise--and all the risk, which is surprise's disagreeable twin--against which we believe, and not altogether falsely, that we have, with the assistance of the gadgetries of connectedness, secured ourselves. One's preparedness for adversity is determined in large measure by one's expectations of the world. There is nothing more disabling than an illusion of control. Disappointment is not a system failure, but an essential element of this system that is not a system. And there is no such thing as stoicism 2.0.

I no longer count myself among the despisers of nostalgia. Often it is disparaged as facile sentiment, as ornate self-pity, as memory's kitsch; and it began its career as the name for a disease--specifically, for the homesickness that soldiers experience abroad. The pathological yearning for return was soon extended from soldiers to sailors (its nautical version was called calenture), and then to exiles, and then, most achingly, to the end of childhood. The problem with nostalgia, of course, is that it shrinks and it blinds. It hollows the fields of interest and desire. The Swiss doctor who identified nostalgia in 1688 observed that "the nostalgic is affected by but few external objects, and nothing surpasses the impression which the desire to return makes on them; while in a normal state the soul can be equally interested in all objects, in nostalgia its attention is diminished." There is indeed a sense in which single- mindedness is a mutilation of consciousness, a betrayal of the variousness of mental life that is required for the plurality of realms that we inhabit. In his scorn for the present, the nostalgist misses too much. He is rapt and poor. And the imagination of reversal that attends nostalgia, the dream of a restoration, can be damaging and dangerous. The pain of displacement breeds the hope of perfect placement. But childhood cannot be an adult's ideal. I come from a tradition that cultivates nostalgia, yet I am quite certain that the re- building of the Temple in Jerusalem would not fulfill my religion, but ruin it. And yet nostalgia, or so I am beginning to understand, is not only an escape. If it may represent a collapse of critical thinking about the past, it may also represent a birth of critical thinking about the present. One method for exposing the inadequacies of the present is to hold it up against the past. (And against the future, which is of course much less constraining. The future is never inadequate, is it?) And in the event that the present should be found lacking in comparison to the past, this is not nostalgia. It is critique. A longing may contain an analysis. In a society whose watchword is "new and improved," new and unimproved is a heresy. But the religion of my homeless ancestors really was richer and deeper than the religion of my housed contemporaries. And I do not see that American life will be improved by the absence from it of second-hand bookstores, or large movie screens, or patience in journalism, or privacy. The view that everything is changing for the better is marketing propaganda--Google progressivism.

"It seems, just now, / To be happening so very fast," wrote Larkin in a great lamentation called "Going, Going." What was happening was the demise of his England, the unmetropolitan anti-modern one. Threnodies are less affecting when their objects are not attractive; but the melancholy of the ugly old grump lives past Hull. This was proven to me recently when I watched a video of Larry McMurtry reading this same poem, at the conclusion of a dolorous account of the book trade in America, as he accepted the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award; and as my friend read it, he, the toughest bookman in America, almost wept.

Most things are never meant.
This won't be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.