Nostalgia is a luxury.
-Zadie Smith, Swing Time
I was a young and idealistic graduate student of Russian literature when I met my future husband in St. Petersburg. For our first date, we went to two museums—the Yusupov Palace and the Hermitage—and as we wandered through ornate rooms and past priceless treasures, I asked him if he was in love with Russia as much as I was. I expected this educated and cultivated man to share my romantic ideals, but he had a very different take on Russia.
He looked at me quizzically and said, “My people experienced the pogroms and fled en masse to America to escape the horrors of Russia’s secret police. No, I am not so romantic about Russia.”
I knew he was Jewish, but I hadn’t considered Russia’s treatment of the Jews when I had asked my question. I wasn’t Jewish and had no personal connection to this period of history. A few years later, I would return to Russia as a married Jewish woman, and right away I heard anti-Semitic slurs and comments—some directed at me and some at others. Why hadn’t I noticed this before?
I still love Dostoevsky and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and clips of Nureyev dancing give me the chills, but no, I have not been nostalgic for a long time, because nostalgia, as Zadie Smith writes, is a luxury. It is a luxury of those who did not experience the pogroms or Jim Crow or torture or disenfranchisement or ridicule.
We cannot erase the periods of history that make us uncomfortable. At the same time, we can’t disentangle these challenging periods from the greats they produced: Nina Simone, Count Bassie, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Harriet Tubman, Chagall, Spinoza, Jonathan Larson and Gertrude Stein. I mourn the sorrows they experienced; I am grateful for what they produced.
I can’t assume to know another’s experience, but I can ask. In this, I am reminded of Joseph Conrad’s famous statement about his intention in writing: My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your desserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask. Yet, asking is just the beginning. There is so much more that we can do, tangible things—getting involved in our communities, voting for policies that we believe in, and helping others.
Everyday we are given new opportunities to look honestly at our past and work toward a bright and beautiful future.