Academic journal article ARIEL

Nostalgia for the Future: Remembrance of Things to Come in Doris Lessing's Martha Quest

Academic journal article ARIEL

Nostalgia for the Future: Remembrance of Things to Come in Doris Lessing's Martha Quest

Article excerpt

Abstract: Historically, nostalgia has a bad name. But what might an oppositional, regenerative nostalgia look like? In this article, it takes the form of a "nostalgia for the future," a temporally-misoriented concept that is both a nostalgia for that which has yet to happen but feels as though it already has, and a nostalgia utilized for future revolutionary gain, a phenomenon best exemplified by Doris Lessings Martha Quest (1952). Nostalgia is often thought to begin at home, with a deep longing to return to an originary plenitude, but for white African settlers like the Quests, where is home? When living in self-exile with only a provisional dwelling, what is nostalgias object? Martha, unsettled by waves of nostalgia, uses her nostalgia to envision a homeland for black and white alike, a utopic golden city on the horizon that may have been and may yet be. Lessing returns to nostalgia's past and remedicalizes the term to produce a "home-sickness," waves of nostalgia set free from their traditional objects that thereby create a melancholy and despondency that rob one of presence and selfhood. In order to achieve her vision, Martha must overcome her home-sickness and wield her nostalgia so as to overpower racism and anti-Semitism.

Keywords: nostalgia, temporality, utopia, colonialism, home, Doris Lessing, Martha Quest

And as often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.

Carson McCullers, "Look Homeward, Americans" (1940)


In his 1688 dissertation that gave it its name, Johannes Hofer claims that nostalgia is symptomatic of an "afflicted imagination" (381). In the centuries since, nostalgia has been called much worse. Indeed, nostalgia is often thought to be crippling, regressive, and politically suspect, bound up with the worst aspects of nationalism--but nothing, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, that a little history lesson cannot cure (156). It is numbered among the "ugly feelings" taxonomized by Sianne Ngai in her study of the same name, "diagnostic rather than strategic" (22) and without a determinate object in mind; a "minor and generally unprestigious" state that tends to both immobilize and demobilize, arresting all attempts at action and preventing productive outpourings of emotion (6). (1) When Jennifer Wenzel claims that nostalgia is in need of "critical recuperation" (8), what is most surprising is not her statement of the obvious but rather the underlying presupposition that there is something in the experience worth reclaiming. This essay extends the work undertaken by Wenzel and others and, as a way of clearing nostalgia's bad name, proposes an understanding of the concept that is at once oppositional and regenerative, what I call "nostalgia for the future," a phenomenon best observed in Doris Lessing's Martha Quest (1952).

If nostalgia is the mark of an afflicted imagination, in the case of Lessing's titular protagonist it is also, as Gayle Greene notes in her reading of the novel, a sympathetic imagination, "the means to freedom and to creating a world where all can be free" (22). Martha is afflicted by various vague illnesses and sympathetic visions but suffers chiefly from what I diagnose as home-sickness, (2) by which I mean the negative feelings one associates with nostalgia, although freed from their traditional objects, which flare up when she finds herself with an opportunity to take a principled stand. Perhaps in our critical usage of a term like "recuperate" we forget its primary definition, which is to recover from an illness; it is this home-sickness that Martha must be strong enough to recover from so as to wield her nostalgia within 1930s Zambesia (a fictional nation modeled on Southern Rhodesia) as a tool and faculty against racism, anti-Semitism, and colonialism, among other things.

A nostalgia with such teeth has much in common with Wenzel's anti-imperialist nostalgia, which she devised as a counterpart to Renato Rosaldo's notion of imperialist nostalgia. …

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