Restoration, Metanostalgia, and Critical Memory: Forms of Nostalgia in Contemporary Southern Poetry

Article excerpt

White southerners and their literature traditionally have been known for nostalgia (sometimes even defined by it), and contemporary southern poetry does not escape its influence. In fact, nostalgia is arguably the most prevalent paradigm of current southern poetics, even as much post-World War II verse works in contrast to a pathos-laden view of the past. A collection of recent southern poets--including those under analysis in this article, George Scarbrough, Donald Justice, and Henry Taylor--make use of the inheritance of southern nostalgia, though not necessarily in traditional ways. They demonstrate that nostalgia remains a driving force in the poetry of the postwar era even or especially as the U.S. South begins to operate under the shifting conditions of trans-southernism: increased (sub)urbanization, the influence of late capitalism, the pressures of racial conflict manifested in the civil rights movement and continuing efforts at desegregation, as well as the claims of current identity politics. Though at times their poetic measures can become reactionary measures, preserving a mummified past from such cultural transitions, these poets also show signs of a more jagged nostalgia, one that struggles to come to terms with this changing South: old times there are not forgotten, hut re-viewed with a different, even distrustful eye.

Southern nostalgia can take the seemingly innocuous form of a "moonlight-and-magnolias" yearning for a more peaceful and reassuring past, often centered on the wish to return to the homestead, a physical and symbolic space that merges the southern staples of ties to family and place, perhaps intensifying into a shrine for ancestor worship. Such pining for a more organic time and place may seem harmless enough, but it can also take on ideological import; for retreating into the past can elide pressing social realities of the present. This is apparent in ongoing conflicts over the politics of nostalgia for the Lost Cause, seen most vividly in the continuing battle over the flying of the Confederate flag on the South Carolina State House grounds. Waxing nostalgic can be a racially inflected and politically weighted act.

Nostalgia's backward-glancing would seem to run counter to the continuously shifting identifications of an increasingly transregional and global world, forming a conservative defense mechanism against contemporary culture's overflow of meanings by positing the singular meaningfulness of a sturdy, unified past. A starting point in defining nostalgia might be Michael Kammen's understanding of it as "essentially history without guilt," a sense of heritage "that suffuses us with pride rather than with shame" (688). Although nostalgia can function as a sentimental balm to salve the wounds of more divisive historical conflict, we should use this definition to press beyond an out-of-hand neo-Marxist condemnation of nostalgia, as that seems at best incomplete. Current theorists offer a range of perspectives on nostalgia as both a method of cultural retreat and critique. From the Greek nostos, "to return home," and algia, "a sorrowful or distressing condition or illness," nostalgia is literally a state of homesickness. (1) By the twentieth century, the concept had been gradually stripped of its medical associations and took on more pejorative meaning as "the useless yearning for a world or for a way of life from which one has been irrevocably severed" (Starobinski 101). Whereas there is undoubtedly a good deal of truth involved in this typical definition, nostalgia is not a univocal phenomenon, but contains multiple, even contradictory levels. Svetlana Boym proposes two contrasting impulses of nostalgic desire: restorative versus reflective nostalgia. In its uncritical restorative sense, nostalgia can become "an abdication of personal responsibility, a guilt-free homecoming, an ethical and aesthetic failure" (xiv). Restorative nostalgia "stresses nostos and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home" (xviii), while reflective nostalgia

   thrives in algia, the longing itself, and delays the
   homecoming--wistfully, ironically, desperately. …