After Millennial Nostalgia
A question I hope I’m never asked to answer before a very large audience is “what’s your favorite poem?” That’s because I’d have to admit that, instead of something by Shel Silverstein or Emily Dickinson, the poem that’s haunted me the most ever since I read it (as a high schooler) is a 1960 piece by Philip Larkin entitled “A Study of Reading Habits.”
When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.
Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.
Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.
To date, I’ve never come across another bit of literature that so simply and devastatingly captures the psychological effect of growing into adulthood in an age of pervasive cynicism. We grow up stirred by heroic tales of valor; in seasons of rebellion, we later find ourselves attracted to the darker, more subversive side of storytelling; finally, we are tempted to despair of anything meaningful at all, invited to reject “purposive” accounts of life and to instead see ourselves as participants in stories of human weakness and failure. (I believe the popular term now is “NPC,” a reference to the “non-player characters” of video games who frequently feel the brunt of digital mayhem.)
To be clear, this is not a view of life I hold myself. But that’s not to say I don’t understand it or feel the cultural pull.
One of the more characteristic tendencies of the millennial generation is our appetite for nostalgia—more specifically, nostalgia for the 1990’s. And maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. For those born before or after that decade, it’s impossible to communicate the prevailing sense that, for all intents and purposes, history had ended. As Francis Fukuyama infamously posited, with the end of the Cold War what “had come to an end was not the occurrence of events, even large and grave events, but History: that is, history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times.” As a history- and geography-loving kid, this was the mood back then: longstanding great-power struggles had concluded in a stunning victory for capitalism and liberal democracy, peace in the Middle East seemed attainable, and the rest of our lives would be spent in relative serenity, enjoying the evolution of technology and culture toward an ever-more-peaceful and ever-more integrated cosmopolis.
To wit, 90’s-born millennials were offered a very clear idea of the telos, or final goal and end, of social life: an interconnected world of virtually limitless prosperity, capable of overcoming ideological and scientific challenges alike through ever-advancing technical mastery. And so the life expectations of a generation were woven into that grander narrative of human progress, a framework within which the individual stories of our lives made sense. Given such priors, the inevitable collapse of that framework could only ever be experienced as a metaphysical disaster.
Twenty years ago, the 9/11 disaster upended the international order of things. The assumptions of the broad liberal-democratic tradition are more contested now than ever before in recent memory. Prophecies of climate apocalypse have grown ever more ominous in recent decades. Does it really surprise anyone that for children of the 90’s, the soothing voice of Mister Rogers or Bob Ross or Bill Nye is something to be clung to, a last echo of the promise of universal acceptance and stability and a hopeful future? In such nostalgic indulgence, there is reflected a longing for a time when existential crises were nowhere in sight, and everything in the world could in principle make sense. A few weeks ago, “Steve” (of Blue’s Clues fame) captured the ethos succinctly: “I mean, we started out with clues and now, it’s what? Student loans and jobs and families? And some of it has been kind of hard, you know? I know you know.”
We do. But, of course, turning back the clock is never possible.
One of my favorite novels of all time is Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which also happens to be one of the most bracing juxtapositions of adult cynicism and childhood idealism I’ve encountered. Grossman’s novel is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a young sorcerer who attends “Brakebills University” (a stand-in for J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts) and there enjoys the debauchery of the modern college experience while simultaneously developing his supernatural abilities. At the novel’s climax, he and a group of friends are swept into the other world of “Fillory” (a stand-in for C.S. Lewis’s Narnia)—which, in the metafictional universe of The Magicians, was the setting of the children’s fantasy novels on which Quentin and his peers were raised.
In Fillory, they do not undergo the moral transformation of, say, a Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Quite the opposite: they bring with them the cynical, nihilistic dispositions they have so carefully cultivated in the “real world.” Indeed, upon first being confronted with the reality of the “Aslan” analogues within Fillory—the mystical rams Ember and Umber—Quentin and company respond somewhat less than reverently:
“I don’t want to sound crass,” he said out loud. “But Ember and Umber are the big shots around here, right? I mean, of all those people, things, whatever you mentioned, They’re the most powerful? And morally righteous or whatever? Let’s be clear on this for a second. I want to be sure we’re backing the right horse. Or ram. Whatever.”
Such a reaction is a far cry from anything that Lewis—or other generations past—would have recognized. Here we seemingly have no Lion whose claim to rule is self-authenticating, who heals Dragon-sickness or puts White Witches to flight; “the true gods” are merely one locus of power among others, For those of us who love the Narnia books, the importation of such a late-modern critique of power into a premodern cosmos can only feel positively acidic; for others of a more critical bent, it’s wholly warranted. But more to the point, within the world of The Magicians, who could expect anything else? Such a paradigm is the only lens through which Quentin and his friends have been taught to understand the world, and the only ethical framework governing the way they behave within it.
At its heart, Grossman’s novel is driven by a single devastating insight: You cannot escape your own weaknesses and struggles by withdrawing into a fantasy world. You will bring those, and your own cynicism, with you wherever you go. “Fairytale magic,” if it were real, would not actually make you a better person or improve your life.
There was a time when this had been [Quentin’s] most passionate hope, when it would have ravished him with happiness. It was just so weird, he thought sadly. Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? Its groping hands so clumsy? He thought he’d left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills. How could it have followed him here, of all places? How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left!
Grossman’s (rather inferior) sequels to The Magicians attempt in turn to reckon with this truth, proposing new forms of meaning and purpose in the face of the collapse of childhood myth. That meaning is always constructed rather than discovered, an expression of private will superimposed upon an ultimately indifferent cosmos.
On its face, though, The Magicians remains a deeply damning indictment of the nostalgic mood. The desire to go back to a more innocent time neglects the brutal reality that we too have changed, that there’s no going back to a precritical time when all the pieces fit seamlessly together.
And yet it’s always seemed to me that Grossman’s tale is perhaps too bleak. Did the realities of adulthood alone, without more, drive an absolute wedge between Quentin and his beloved land of Fillory? Surely not—Quentin’s own moral decline, and that of his companions, was never really inevitable. One can imagine a world in which Grossman’s protagonists enter into Fillory wholly conscious of their failings and their own corrupt inclinations—displaying a willingness to trust, to lay down their grievances, to align themselves with a story exceeding their private priorities. What if, in short, they had chosen to be heroes governed by the ordered morality of Fillory that they once so cherished?
The closing pages of Lewis’s own The Last Battle depict the reunion of characters from all the previous Narniabooks—many of whom have lived most of their lives outside Narnia, but who are still brought back to it in the end. In that return, they carry with them the wisdom and life experiences of decades lived in the “real world,” yet without abandoning their moral origin. Usually at this point the analysis turns to the novel’s “Problem of Susan”—Lewis’s mystifying decision to abandon one of his early female protagonists to the distractions of makeup and modern femininity—but it seems to me that equally intriguing, from a psychological standpoint, is Lewis’s decision to return grown-up characters back to the mythic world that formed them. What would it be like to experience such a transition as an adult? Lewis suggests it is indeed possible to live as a “friend of Narnia” in the midst of the world’s uncertainty and ambiguity, but a dense cloud of mystery hovers over the matter.
Does Grossman’s governing dialectic—the apparent aimlessness of adulthood set up against the robust moral order of childhood—remain unreconciled? I don’t think so. After all, the collapse of one constitutive story—that of the end of history and the dawning of a glorious future—does not, properly speaking, mean that everyconstitutive story has no merit. Indeed, the act of rejecting the possibility of such a story, of positing that the world is only ever what we make it, is a profoundly hollow one (not to mention internally self-contradictory).
A path to more enduring hope lies in understanding one’s life, in every moment, as a story that transcends one’s own birth and death and extends forward into the uncertain future. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, a life well lived is one that, in the end, can be explained as a coherent course of events drawing toward an ultimate conclusion:
What traditionally gives significance to the story told in a novel, a play, or an epic poem is that something is at stake for one or more of the characters with regard to their relationship to their final end. . . . The enacted narrative of our lives begins at conception. It finds its ending at the point at which we have achieved or failed to achieve our ends as rational agents, when we have or have not completed our lives appropriately.
Else, we must inevitably find ourselves trapped within “a fictional world in which ends, whether ultimate or subordinate, have been erased, so that there are only rival and conflicting desires and purposes directed toward achieving the satisfaction of those desires”—trapped within, that is, Quentin Coldwater’s Fillory, a world in which the most that can be said of higher narratives is that “books are a load of crap.”
Whether our understanding is ultimately vindicated—whether one’s life-story cashes out as true in the deepest and most fundamental sense—must, inevitably, prove a matter of faith. But it is the only real alternative to dissipation and detachment—or, perhaps, to clinging to a nostalgia that offers no room to grow, to change, to tell the next chapter. And it is a bet that, for my own part, I am willing to take.