This is a legacy post from a blog I wrote in 2018 about language, storytelling, and the shape of things. Delivered here straight from the archives, please enjoy the following issue of The Quiet Post.
So there was this article from Slate a couple weeks ago about the way social media narrows and exaggerates the range of emotions a person can have online. I understand this. I often feel compelled to take extreme, passionate positions to be heard—a couple weeks ago I called Rogue One a trash pile of a movie on Discord because, as one of my friends pointed out in a later comment, “opinions only matter if they’re extreme.”
Hyperbole has a long, respectable tradition, but it’s also partly shaped by the way our online tools have been designed. On Facebook, for example, I may choose between feeling like, love, haha, sad, wow, and angry. The Slate article’s main argument, though, was that people on Twitter seem to do an awful lot of crying at movies, to the point that tears have become a sort of symbolic shorthand for quality. Of course, emotional vulnerability is a good thing, but there is a point where exaggeration becomes uprooted from actual vulnerability and only heightens the churning noise of the Internet. In a constantly moving timeline, with only 280 characters, emotions must be big to stand out, and tears are an easy way to express value.
Nevertheless, your support for The Quiet Post last week did make me tear up. Nevertheless, I appreciate the likes and loves that came in through Facebook. Thank you, sincerely, for your texts and tweets and kind words. You were the best part of my week. In creating The Quiet Post, it was important to me that it felt like a place people wanted to spend time in, and that everyone who read it felt included.
I am not, as John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats put it, “a wizard in a tower with his last copy of the book of spells, doing a spell that only he can do.” Everything I write is informed by the people I know. “It’s a communal exercise,” Darnielle says, “even if it takes place in solitude.” It’s one of the reasons I started this project instead of a personal blog, with my name attached to the header. Because this sentence, right here, is not just me. It’s The Quiet Post. It’s the people it’s being delivered to. It’s you. Thank you.
So. Okay. Week two…
I listen to a lot of video game music. Even from games I haven’t played (or, in the wonderful case of Bird World, from games that don’t actually exist). In part because I find it inherently productive. It was, after all, written with the explicit intent to focus a player, transport them to another world, and make them do something there. To inspire them to explore or create or destroy or solve. I have sometimes listened to a half-hour loop of the Goldenrod City theme while trying to get something done.
But mainly I listen to video game music because it’s nostalgic.
We frame nostalgia as a backward facing emotion. Remembering a pleasant time from the past. The Greek root nostos means “to return home,” and the root algos implies pain in the attempt—sometimes a pleasant, melancholy pain, yes, but pain all the same. It’s a feeling that’s captured beautifully in a lyric from the song “Riches and Wonders” by The Mountain Goats: “And I want to go home. But I am home.”
Video game music creates a comfortable shape that I fit into easily, because I’ve fit into it many times before. When the Goldenrod City theme is playing, I slip right into the feelings of home and adventure and safety that I remember from childhood, that I’ve tried on dozens of times since then, like an old coat. But also like an old coat, it changes in the wearing of it. The seams fray, the elbows stretch, and the past changes the more I remember it.
Quite literally, in fact. Radiolab has a whole episode about how our brains completely reconstruct our memories from scratch every time we recall them. Small things change in the process, so each time you pull up a memory, you destroy it piece by piece, and the holes get filled in by our own fabrications.
Nostalgia has its place. It can be a lot of fun to spend time in it. But it’s also an inherently deceptive emotion. It thrives on memories of the past, but it’s a daydream of a life we never actually lived, which is why it’s crucial to recognize that nostalgia tells us nothing about the past at all. Its value, in fact, is in a quiet appreciation of the present, of a story our current self is telling us about who we are or who we want to be.
That’s why when we take them at face value, stories about nostalgia are so dangerous. Stories about nostalgia are what the current U.S. president tapped into to get elected. Stories about nostalgia are what allowed him to rave about “shithole” countries last week. The racist story he tells about people who live in Haiti and African countries, the basic humanity he denies them, works to shore up his warped narrative of what America is, to keep it rigid and static, holding on to a daydream of a place that never existed. When nostalgia goes bad it belittles and controls and rejects change. It clings to the past, however false that image may be, and to sameness.
But Joseph Campbell writes that “it has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.” The stories we tell are meant to change us. “Let me begin to tell of forms changed,” Ovid writes in the Metamorphoses. And in 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Sarah Ruhl proposes a whole new way of storytelling based off of this: the Ovidian form, not interested in conflict or morality, but in transformation. “Gods become swans, people become trees, people fall in love and die, the supernatural world is permeable.” Stories are about movement and the future. Even stories told by nostalgia. Especially those.
We frame nostalgia as a wish for the past, but it, too, is about change. We enjoy the past even as we know it’s gone, and that the present moment will also eventually drift into half-remembrance, with all the rough edges smoothed away. In the end, nostalgia perhaps has less to do with memory and more to do with the Japanese term mono no aware, which the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal writes about in her brilliant and soulful book Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Pronounced mo-noh noh ah-WAH-ray and written as 物の哀れ, it means “an awareness of the impermanence of all things and a wistful, gentle sadness at their passing.”
Nostalgia is not about the thing we’re remembering. Nostalgia is about the act of remembering it. About time and change and transformation. I listen to video game music because it reminds me that it’s good to move forward.
Switching gears here. One of the things I want to continue to do at The Quiet Post is bring out the best of the Internet. Here are my favorite things I found online last week:
I Started the Media Men List. My name is Moira Donegan. This is a great piece by the woman who started the Shitty Media Men list, taking control of the narrative after nearly being outed by Harper's last week.
And finally, speaking of video game music, Bad Romance in a major key really does sound like someone is trying to sell you potions in an RPG potions shop.
I hope you all have good weeks. I hope you take some time to remember something pleasant, and allow it to inspire you forward.