At the turn of the 20th century, April was an exciting time for Paris. Between then and November of 1900, the city held the fifth Exposition Universelle, an international fair that was a celebration of global scientific and artistic achievement. The expo was a place of cultural and intellectual exchange where showcases of Finnish architecture and Russian engineering stood side-by-side with a photo exhibition put together by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.
The France of today, however, is no longer the giddy, optimistic place it was when it held its expo. Instead of being a locus of cosmopolitanism, Paris is now a place that sees citizens gather in crowds to chant hostilely, “This is our home!” A significant portion of French voters is no longer interested in the promise of the future. They no longer dream of internationalization and progress; they pine for a past when colonization was nothing more than a “sharing of cultures.“
After all, “One is always at home in one’s past,” wrote Nabokov.
Nostalgia, the term we use to describe this longing for what has passed, comes from the Greek nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain. Nostos is the central theme of “The Odyssey,” the epic following the hero Odysseus as he seeks his way back home from battle in the Trojan War.
Nostos also seems to be the central concern of our nations today. We, too, have emerged from a battle tired and fatigued; ours was for power, knowledge and technological development.
The 20th century’s race for certainty and its advances in scientific discovery and social organization materialized so fast that what we’ve created has slowly begun to suffocate us. Our world has become so connected that the size of our planet inspires claustrophobia instead of awe. Our artists lament that there are no longer any new ideas to put forward. In an interview, William Faulkner said, “There is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since” — and this was in 1956.
Selena Gomez doesn’t disagree. “It’s been said and done. Every beautiful thought’s been already sung. And I guess right now here’s another one,” she sings, before imposing an admittedly unoriginal staccato chorus on us as she keeps “hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat.”
Pop culture reflects our boredom by exposing our longing for the familiar. The film industry is now busy writing its ninth sequel to the Fast and Furious series and turning the remaining classic Disney cartoons into live-action remakes. Retro-chic is fashion’s way of placating our discomfort with the present, by turning us back to the aesthetic of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Finally, who could fail to remark on the great unwinding of the 20th century’s once most promising institutions?
Politics of exit are the politics of nostos. The exit from the EU, NATO or NAFTA is the politics of return. They promise to deliver us back home, to an America that is great again, a France that has its “freedom back,” and to a Britain in which the decommissioned Britannia sails the seas again. If nothing new can be new, we will make the old new again.
The present has flooded us with a deluge of new problems and concerns. However, instead of responding to new challenges with new answers, the most “novel” thought on the table, concentrated in the alt-right, is merely a provocative recycling of 17th-century political philosophy.
It’s just strange that in this quest to revisit the past, we’ve failed to heed some of its most crucial lessons. At the end of “The Odyssey,” Odysseus does, indeed, return home. But it is not the home that he left. His palace is ransacked by suitors, mercenaries who eat his stores and aggressively court his wife. His son is no longer the infant that he left. Odysseus succeeds in killing all the suitors, but his life at home will never become the vision of life that brought him back. Nostos is unreliable that way. Unless you’re buying a bus ticket, it’s often just false advertising.
Perhaps Faulkner was right. Perhaps Homer, Shakespeare and Balzac really did say it all. But falling into despair over this fact seems rash, given that we still haven’t acquainted ourselves with what they did say in the first place.
Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.