April 10th, 2009

The Impulse To Return

We need an anatomy of nostalgia. I've been giving a lot of thought to the sort that overcomes me when I spend time with cultural content from my pre-school years, 1968-1972. It's enormously powerful, but also quite different from the nostalgia I have for my life in Pennsylvania as a ten-year-old or the nostalgia I have for the early years of the MTV-style music video or the nostalgia I have for the graduate-school debauchery of the early 1990s I'm watching early episodes of Sesame Street right now, which resonate for me with special force. They showcase the design sensibility that I absorbed as a toddler, when my mother would spend hour after hour in the fabric store and the television was on most of the time. But they are distinguished from other culture of hat period that conjures a general sense of, say, 1970, by the fact that I actually watched them as as a very small person. Like most people, my memories of pre-school are spotty at best. Nevertheless, I find myself repeatedly brought up short in these episodes by an uncanny feeling that I'm watching something that affected me deeply when I was at my most tabula rasa-like.

Just now, as I was typing that last sentence, I recalled how hard it was for me to say the word "lollipop," what the outside of my play pen felt like and a visit to Philadephia, when I was three, in which I had to sit at the little table appended to the big one where the adults were sitting. When I say I'm nostalgic, I don't mean that I'm musing on specific events, though, so much as a desire to be transported back into the frame of mind in which the world was not yet intelligibly framed. Perhaps my favorite thing about being an exchange student in Germany after high school was that my inability to understand the language and my lack of experience with the texture of European experience gave me a few weeks, at the beginning of my stay, when I felt as close to reliving early childhood as it's possible for a grown-up to be.