The experience of nostalgia is a feeling of beauty’s remoteness, but only because it is so far in the future. It is hope.
I went for a long walk in Oxford the other night. The city, of course, is always enchanting, but in early summer and at night, it is so the most. When summer finally comes to England, it comes with festivity: canals are flooded with water plants, blooming flowers, ducklings, and cygnets. Roses are in every yard. At night, though, the city takes on a noble, solemn stillness. With tourists having departed, there are whole passages and lanes wherein there is no sound at all. The facade of Baliol College at night is grandly silent, with pockets of shadow and light from the streetlamps playing over the gothic facade. You can take Brasenoes Lane, a narrow alley bordered by high crumbling walls, into the heart of Oxford, where you sometimes have the Radcliffe Camera and St Mary’s tower all to yourself. The Rad Cam is mottled with grey and white stones, and the tower rises darkly, high into the midnight of the sky.
And as you walk through these streets and quietly pass into and then out of the shadows, you feel a smallness: these buildings have been here for centuries and have that noble antiquity of an earlier and prouder age that did not ask “how much” but “what should be done.” The buildings don’t look down on you, because they’re too lofty, too concerned with higher dreams. You feel small because you know that, to them, you are nothing. They have heard centuries of idle chatter and adolescent boasting; they have heard the first authentic thoughts of learned men; they have seen trees, older than the New World, grow up and die within their walls. These buildings feel as old as the seasons and the streams that flow constantly among them. Experiencing such august nobility in Oxford is to encounter a solemn, foreboding, and mysterious antiquity.
And it’s not only American tourists who get this strange, melancholic feeling about Oxford. Even those iconic titans, Lewis and Tolkien, whose personalities have blended into the stones of the city, felt it, too. Tolkien, in his wonderful Anglo-Saxon manner, called Oxford that “Many-mansion’d, tower covered” city “in its dreamy robe of grey / … aged in the lives of men, / Proudly wrapt in mystic mem’ry overpassing human ken.” In Lewis’s short poem “Oxford,” he describes this city as a place of deep serenity, like the perpetual movements of the city’s somnolent rivers: “A clean, sweet city lulled by ancient streams… / A refuge of the elect, a tower of dreams.” Similarly, Hopkins called Oxford, “Towery city and branches between towers; / Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarméd, lark charméd, rook-racked, river-rounded.” And if you go inside the Ashmolean Museum, you will see any number of romanticizing paintings of the city that give you an Oxford, bathed in soft light. What the Pre-Raphaelites did for knights and ladies, these painters did for Oxford: they give a painfully nostalgic view of the medieval city. To such astute observers, Oxford is that city that mingles antiquity, the natural, and a keen sense of nostalgia.
What is even more interesting, though, is that the great Oxford authors got the same powerful sentiment from their ancient texts as they got from walking through their city. Tolkien once said, in words that echo his sentiments about his towered city, that fairy stories are not just “ancient” forms of story telling; rather, they possess a “remoteness” even “older” than antiquity. Fairy stories “are now old, and antiquity has an appeal in itself…. and yet always the chief flavour of [these tales] in the memory [is]… distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr… [They] open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe” (“On Fairy Stories,” 129). Lewis wrote about this super-saturated experience of “antiquity,” too. Once, when he read a book on Nordic mythology, he experienced “Pure ‘Northernness’: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity.” It caused him to “plunge back into [his] own past,” and then:
there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the God and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience… And at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to “have it again” was the supreme and only important object of desire (Surprised by Joy, 73).
Thus, this whole city, dedicated to study and quiet pleasures (boating with tall, heavy poles; croquet on Sundays; reading in the afternoon; long walks on the weekend; drinking tea in gardens; pubs that do not play recorded music), possesses a rarefied atmosphere, as if you, entering into some kind of historical biodome, are breathing air preserved from an earlier century. It’s a city of keen heart ache: of towers rising at night and old libraries and colleges with no students (just fellows) and streams that glide past trees a millennium and incalculably beautiful architecture, Euclidean proofs worked out in stone. Such a city reminded Tolkien and Lewis and others of how alien they were in the modern world. It filled them with a poignant nostalgia for an earlier age, for an “enchanted cosmos.” We can hear this pained nostalgia in all of Lewis’s writings, but it comes off particularly keenly in his great sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” preached at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, in Oxford, of course:
In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves.
We can think of Lewis and Tolkien as the last of the Romantics, that group of artists, in Germany and England in the early 19th century, who felt the world’s “God-forsakenness” so keenly. Matthew Arnold lamented the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” or the “Sea of Faith.” Before Arnold, Wordsworth sighed, the “world is too much with us.” And around the same time, the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich, portrayed ruined abbeys, gnarled old trees, and lonely travelers, viewed from the back, and enveloped by a swirling, misty sorrow. Charles Taylor’s haunting words capture this modern sense of loss well:
[T]he presence of something beyond (what we call today) the ‘natural’ is more palpable and immediate, one might say, physical, in an enchanted age. The sacred in the strong sense, which marks out certain people, times, place, and actions… is by its very nature localizable, and its place is clearly marked out in ritual and sacred geography. This is what we sense, and often regret the passing of, when we contemplate the medieval cathedral. God-forsakenness is an experience of those whose ancestral culture has been transformed and repressed by a relentless process of disenchantment, whose deprivations can still be keenly felt (A Secular Age, 553).
The passing of this immediate and palpable presence is painful. It invokes nostalgia. Taylor’s haunting term for this this movement from the enchanted world to the dis-enchanted one is “excarnation.” The result is that the sacred is felt to have withdrawn from the public sphere, and, indeed, from the physical, visible world, so that our ordinary actions can be carried out seemingly without any connection to it.
This sense of nostalgia for the past—a piercing sense of loss, a sense of the weakening and effacement of what, we suspect, used to feel so strong and vital—is the dominant sentiment of contemporary “conservatives,” that is, those of us who are religious, who believe that a law outside us ought to rule us, who do not believe that we have the right or authority to define the totality of the terms of our existence. We feel embattled, exposed, isolated, and anxious, as if even the memory of what used to be will soon be taken from us or stolen from our children. When exactly it began to dissolve, we’re not sure (in the 1960’s for Rod Dreher; between the 19th and 20th century for Walker Percy; during the Enlightenment for Taylor; it was the 16th century for Brad Gregory; but the 15th for Thomas Pfau). In any case, we find that we miss the “good old days,” the “age of faith,” the “age of heroes,” the “enchanted cosmos.” We long for something we can barely define but know we are losing. We pine for it, pant for it, but still feel a secret sadness that within a few years all that is left of it will be taken from us. In a word, we are nostalgic.
This is the flavor of “conservatism,” as I have always known it. And as soon as these melancholic sentiments are invoked, say, in a discussion with my students, the audience is filled with immediate and impassioned questions: what should we do? We should lament the passing of the “enchanted cosmos,” right? Can we do more than just passively suffer such nostalgia? Is there any way you can get back to the past, rebuild it in some way? Can you return to the Land of Faerie? Should you try? Or must you content yourself with this peculiarly modern form of alienation?
The sad truth is that such nostalgia—good, I think, for the most part—is dangerously close to pessimism, grumpiness, and despair. Lewis quite bluntly says we suffer from a lack of hope. He wondered if our diluted conception of Heaven is connected to “the fact that the specifically Christian virtue of Hope has in our time grown so languid,” whereas “our fathers, peering into the future saw gleams of gold” (Miracles, 265). When we think about the beliefs of the old world—say, how Roland could not break his sword because it had become “enchanted” with holiness; or how St. Benedict caused those clay vessels that carried poison within them to crack when he blessed them—we are entertained, but feel a little uneasy. The “bodily” and the “spiritual” don’t go together well for us: “Let us confess that probably every Christian now alive finds a difficulty in reconciling the two things he has been told about heaven—that it is… a life in Christ, a vision of God, a ceaseless adoration, and that it is, on the other hand, a bodily life. When we seem nearest to the vision of God in this life, the body seems almost an irrelevance” (Miracles, 259). Taylor says this is a defining characteristic of a “secular age”: the sources of depth have moved from “out there” to “in me.” We “conceive of ourselves as having inner depths. We might even say that the depths which were previously located in the cosmos, the enchanted world, are now more readily placed within” (A Secular Age, 540).
The Romantic movement was shaped by this modern landscape of disenchantment, and in response it turned from “cosmos” toward the self to seek the real world within. For instance, when Coleridge was traveling in Malta in 1807, he, sad and melancholic, looked up at the huge moon hanging over the sea at night, and wrote:
In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering thro’ the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing any thing new. Even when that latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phaenomenon were the dim Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature.
In other words, for Coleridge and other Romantics, the natural world is composed of “symbols,” that is, natural phenomena that were programmed to resonate with some inner part within us. When we look at the moon over the sea, we sense a glimmering depth within. The natural symbol draws it out. Inspired by what we see, we reach down into that inner depth and try to pull out words or images for it, words or pictures we did not previously know we had. Thus, for the Romantics, my journey through the world is an occasion for me to discover the inner continent of my own self. For Coleridge, then, it is not the symbol that possesses the enchantment; rather, it is the instrument to awaken that world within that is “higher” and “older.”
When you read Tolkien and Lewis in light of Coleridge (and Wordsworth), then you discover how romantic they really were! For instance, you can hear echoes of Coleridge’s “symbol” in this passage from Miracles:
It is not an accident that simple-minded people [in the archaic age]… should blend the ideas of God and Heaven and the blue sky. It is a fact, not a fiction, that light and life-giving heat do come down from the sky to Earth. The analogy of the sky’s role to begetting and of the Earth’s role to bearing is sound… The huge dome of the sky is of all things sensuously perceived the most like infinity. And when God made space and worlds that move in space, and clothed our world with air, and gave us such eyes and such imaginations as we have, He knew what the sky would mean to us (Miracles, 258).
In other words, it’s no accident that the physical world invoked spiritual responses from archaic man. It was designed to elicit those sentiments programmed within. This is Coleridge’s symbol.
But Lewis is not content to make such a large concession to modernity. Yes, we have to own the modernity of our sentiments—our sense of “exile” from the past and from the enchanted cosmos. We can’t falsify our emotions, pretending we see and feel as those in an older age would have felt. Still, Lewis, the great lover of myth, desperately wanted to acknowledge that primitive man had got hold of some deep truth. So how can you be both “archaic” and “modern” at the same time? Lewis’s solution (and Tolkien’s, too) is simple, but rather brilliant: we must look forward to the day when the estrangement between Nature and Spirit will be healed. Our nostalgia must be turned toward the future. And if we do, “a curious consequence will follow. The archaic type of thought which could not clearly distinguish spiritual ‘Heaven’ from the sky, is from our point of view a confused type of thought. But it also resembles and anticipates a type of thought which will one day be true. That archaic sort of thinking will become simply the correct sort when Nature and Spirit are fully harmonised…” (Miracles, 262). As I have said, we must have nostalgia for the future. Indeed, I think we could define hope in this way: nostalgia for the future.
That we have become “exiled” from the past, is, it turns out, a gift. In the “Weight of Glory,” Lewis at first describes our modern situation when we have an experience of surpassing beauty: “For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us.” But this experience of alienation comes as extraordinary stimulus to hope:
Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation… In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more… [T]he poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty… We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves…. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods.
In our age of exile, we don’t even have the option to simply rest in an enchanted landscape, and this helps reveal to us that our deepest desire is to possess that enchanting beauty, and to hold it within. Thus, the sentiments of nostalgia we get when reading from the past or walking through an Oxford, are not necessarily misplaced, provided that we understand that they are merely symptoms of a greater longing for something which has not yet come. We were denied the garden, and then we were exiled from the enchanted cosmos. Now, we must own our modernity. But by doing so, we engage in an extraordinary askesis of the senses. We must move within. Eliot saw this, too. In this “place of disaffection” we must
Descend lower, descend only
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy…
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same… (Burnt Norton).
I would like to conclude with a few words from Tolkien. Like Lewis, he was a great reader, so sensitive to old books. He recalls how every good fairy tale has an intensely happy ending, one that can “give to child or man that hears it… a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.” But in the best fairy tales, the happy ending is so unexpected (“never to be counted on to recur”) that the experience could be described as a “good catastrophe,” a “Eucatastrophe,” providing us “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (“On Fairy-Stories”). He concludes his famous essay by reminding us that this is exactly our situation:
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history… This joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth… It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe…. Art has been verified” (“On Fairy-Stories,” 156).
The experience of nostalgia is a feeling of beauty’s remoteness, but only because it is so far in the future. It is hope. And the great thing about true hope, this nostalgia for the future, is that it has none of the irritability, fear, and discouragement that flavors many of the words of those who describe the demise of Christendom in our day.
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The featured image is “Oxford from the River with Christ Church in the Foreground” (c. 1820) by William Turner of Oxford (1789-1862) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.