Renee Trilling: The Aesthetics of Nostalgia
Guest Writer: Amity Reading

Thursday, November 20, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Amity Reading (English)

Shortly after listening to Renée Trilling’s paper and the provocative discussion it sparked, I found myself trying to very roughly summarize her ideas for an undergraduate in my medieval literature and culture course. I explained as succinctly as I could that Trilling was exploring the aesthetic function of nostalgia both within modern constructions of the medieval and within medieval texts’ constructions of themselves. Although different, both nostalgias perform the work of fantasy: they are a longing for an idealized past, a time when things were different, better, other than they are now. These fantasies of the past provide the present with something it is perceived to lack even though, of course, the ‘past’ that is mourned is imaginary, constructed based on the needs and desires of the now.

“Oh,” said my student. “Isn’t that what you do every day in class? Talk about how great the Anglo-Saxons were and what a disaster the Norman Conquest was?”

I smiled politely.

Of course, my student was not incorrect. It is hard to keep scholarly distance when you love something, but you have to love something to study it as a scholar. Thankfully, we can get ourselves out of this pickle by studying our method of studying. As both a medievalist and a lover of medievalisms, the question of distance, nostalgia, and the medieval is one that I find both extremely interesting on a personal level and also crucial for understanding the intellectual tendencies of medieval scholarship—not too surprising, given my own interests. But Trilling’s talk was relevant to more than just the sub-field of Anglo-Saxon studies, or even medieval studies in general. Her arguments were about our own historical moment as much as they were about the medieval one.

Trilling began her paper with an amusing and incisive summary of popular “medieval” movies, focusing on Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Robert Zemeckis’s more recent Beowulf (2007). Although ticket and DVD sales reveal that such movies are clearly appealing to modern audiences, Trilling pointed out that they are rarely good cinema and are obviously not concerned with representing a historically accurate or even feasible version of the Middle Ages. How, then, can we begin to explain their popularity? By looking at the cultural work they perform through their nostalgia, separate from their function as mere entertainment.

Robin Hood, for example, is obviously a product of its own historical moment—the economically- and politically-fraught 1930s—more so than it is a representation of twelfth-century England. With its forceful assertion of class equality and its vivid depictions of the plenty of Sherwood Forest, the film takes the desires and concerns of the moment in which it was produced and projects them onto another moment that was perceived as similar-but-better, this one situated vaguely in ‘medieval times.’ It would be an over-statement to say that the medieval setting of the movie is purely accidental—after all, it is the story’s very medievalness that made it appealing and appropriate. But certainly it is the idea of history behind the figure of Robin Hood that is of importance here, not his historicity.

And because medieval movies like Robin Hood are fantasy only loosely disguised as history, it really shouldn’t surprise us that they scoff at accuracy, textual or historical—their whole purpose runs counter to it. In order to function as they do ideologically, they must make use of the ideas of facts, not facts themselves. As Trilling phrased it, they must be and are “a pastiche of stereotypical images,” images that easily and quickly conjure medieval for a modern audience but that do not risk acknowledging the complexities and uncertainties that must necessarily accompany the study of a period’s history and culture. Onto this fabricated and homogenous but nevertheless ‘historical’ background, we are able to fling fantasies and anxieties about our own culture—an act in which we find pleasure despite the discomfort of our longing.

Trilling then turned to the modern and the medieval versions of Beowulf. Beowulf is interesting, Trilling posited, because its fantasies are harder to identify. What are we longing for when we watch the movie Beowulf? And if we ask this question, we must ask another: What were the Anglo-Saxons longing for when they read or heard the poem Beowulf? This question is crucial because the poem itself is thick with nostalgia, as are all Anglo-Saxon texts. The heroic culture of the poem, the culture that modern nostalgia attributes to the Anglo-Saxons, was already a thing of the past even in the late Anglo-Saxon period (ninth- to eleventh-centuries) when Beowulf was committed to manuscript. The poet, in essence, was already engaged in his own nostalgic act: Beowulf is a commemoration of the heroes of old, the pagan ancestors of the poem’s Christian audience. But in its nostalgia, the poem also maintains distance—men like Beowulf were heroes, yes, but they were not Christian, and while they can be judiciously celebrated, they are not meant to be emulated. So, in Beowulf, our longing for the medieval period, concentrated on the idea of Anglo-Saxon heroic culture, collides with the period’s longing for its own past, creating something of a nostalgic mise en abyme.

Trilling finished her paper with a solid reading of the Old English metrical and linguistic features of the poem that contribute to its own sense of ‘pastiche’ and nostalgia. While Beowulf itself ought not to be read as history or as a window into the ‘historical’ heroic culture of the Anglo-Saxons, one of the things the poem does do, and quite fruitfully, is tell us something of what the Anglo-Saxons thought about their own past. The same model can be useful for us: what can our versions of the medieval tell us about our own culture? Trilling concluded with the thought that the violent and sexually explicit Beowulf movie presents us not with the idealized past of Robin Hood, the past as it should have been, but rather the past as we fear it might have been. What does this anxiety say about our own moment, our own project of nostalgia?

Eleonora Stoppino’s response reformulated the questions raised in Trilling’s paper and presented them back to the audience as touch-points—a technique that encouraged a wide range of enthusiastic and productive responses from the audience. What does it mean that movies like Beowulf are produced in America? We didn’t actually experience the medieval period (not in the United States as a country, nor in our own personal lives as people), so we are being nostalgic for a time and place largely unconnected to us. This, too, links us to the object we are romanticizing: Beowulf itself, although an Anglo-Saxon poem written in Old English, was nevertheless a poem about Danish and Geatish heroes set in Scandinavia. In what ways is the idea of Beowulf, both the poem and the movie, related to a desire for origins, a desire for a foundational myth? Is nostalgia also a desire for belonging, community, history? Can we think of personal or individual nostalgia as separate from group nostalgia? Is the aesthetic function of nostalgia altered when it is employed in an epic as opposed to a novel? Why is it that violence seems to be an inherent feature of our modern nostalgic desires? Was the Anglo-Saxon conception/use of nostalgia different from the modern?

And perhaps most strikingly: is nostalgia always backward-looking? That is, could the fantasies and desires and longing intrinsic to nostalgia ever look forward to the non-existent, the unavailable, rather than back? Such questions left the audience thinking about more than just the medieval.


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Susan said...
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Maggie Flinn said...

Thanks Amity, for your post allowing me to re-enjoy Renée's wonderful talk and Nora's great reponse.