NOTE: The following is adapted from a short lecture given to Torrey Academy students before a screening of The Wind Rises. It is profoundly indebted to Joshua Gibbs, particularly this essay at the FORMA Journal, and to long conversations with my colleagues, Alyssa Rooney and Jacob Waller.
Lately, I asked my students which time period they would like to live in. When they pressed me for my own answer to the question, as students do, I quipped that I’d like to live in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, because “I was a child, which means I was happy then.”
I found it curious that my students (who, after all, are still children to my eyes) responded with knowing laughter. Why does this sort of joke ring so true? Why do we see the past as happy? More precisely, why do we see the past as containing some inaccessible happiness that cannot be replicated in the present? It is not actually true that life becomes more unpleasant as we get older, though we start accumulating more responsibilities, have to pay taxes, and approach nearer to the grave with each passing year. What is this phenomenon that we all experience and call nostalgia? Is it just an illusion, a delusion? I am nostalgic for the 2000s and think the 2010s are dreadful, but I know that, given time, my students will be nostalgic for the 2010s, and given enough time, someone someday will be nostalgic for the 2020s. It doesn’t seem to be the case that any one era, decade, or year is actually objectively better than another. As Michael Sheen’s pedantic character from Midnight in Paris puts it:
Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is “golden age thinking”… the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in… it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.
Is nostalgia, then, only a trick of an immature imagination? Is something wrong with those of us who experience it? Allow me to suggest instead that something is right with us – that we should pay attention to our experience of nostalgia because it tells us something profound and true.
In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis writes about our “desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience” – our “inconsolable secret” that we “take revenge on,” as the pedantic character from Midnight in Paris does, by “calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” Nostalgia, in other words, is one more form of our longing for God, for heaven – for glory, for eternity, for the Good. How so? To answer that, we must back up a bit and investigate the nature of time.
In Christian thought, there are two types of time: Kronos and Kairos.
Kronos is earthly time, finite time; Kairos is heavenly time, infinite time.
Kronos is chronological. In Kronos, you are born, you live, you die. Kairos, however, frees us from this; in Kairos, eternal life transcends this cycle of birth, life, and death. We experience Kronos as fleeting, passing – what Ecclesiastes calls vanity or vapor. Kronos is time leading inevitably to dissolution, decay, death. In classical mythology, Kronos is the god who devours his own children. He is the god who is always giving with one hand and taking with the other. No sooner does a moment come to us than it is gone, replaced by another, and then by another. In Kronos, no moment can truly be grasped before it slips through our fingers like sand.
Another, more contemporary depiction of Kronos is the crocodile from Peter Pan. When you become an adult – for Peter Pan is, at its heart, the story of the conflict between the Lost Boys (who are forever children) and Captain Hook (who is a grown-up) – the monster of time takes off a part of you and begins to pursue you, hungering for the rest. Adults spend their lives fleeing from Kronos, the devourer, whose approach is announced by the ticking of the clock in his belly.
We experience Kronos as pressure and passing away. Every time we try to grasp a moment, it is gone. No matter how well we manage our time, there is never enough of it to satisfy us. Kronos never brings things to fruition as we hope. As Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes:
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.
Kronos is vapor, vanity, futility, pressure, passing away. Kairos is fixed, solid, permanent, meaningful. One of our most striking descriptions of heaven, from Isaiah, suggests freedom from the tyranny of Kronos. In direct contrast to Solomon’s description of life under the sun, Isaiah tells us that in the new heavens and the new earth, “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat.” Isaiah tells us, “No more shall there be [in the new Jerusalem] an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days.” This idea of agelessness also crops up in Lewis’ description, from The Great Divorce, of spirits in heaven: “Some were bearded but no one in that company struck me as being of any particular age. One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless – heavy thought in the face of an infant, and frolic childhood in that of a very old man. Here it was all like that.”
One of the finest descriptions of Kairos that I have encountered comes from Sheldon Vanauken’s memoir, A Severe Mercy, in which he recalls a time contemplating phosphorescence on the ocean with his wife, Davy, from the deck of their boat:
We remained so in timeless loveliness – was it hours? We never knew… The moment was utterly timeless: we didn’t know that time existed; and it contained, therefore, some foretaste, it may be, of eternity… Next day we did not know at all whether that timeless moment – that moment made eternity – had been hours long or minutes long. But the question was, of course, of no importance… What is important, perhaps, is that the moment was a culmination of all we had ever dreamt: the timeful life without the pressure of time.
What do these two conceptions of time tell us about nostalgia? Simply put, nostalgia is the ache we experience when we glimpse the reality of Kairos, heavenly time, through the fog or veil of Kronos, earthly time. For what do we want when we feel nostalgia? We are not actually longing for a past time, to reclaim any particular good thing that we once had. Actual time travel, if it were possible – experiencing the past as the present – would not satisfy our desire. According to Lewis, “Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify [the longing for eternity] with certain moments in his own past. But this is all a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.”
When I say I am nostalgic for 1999, I would not actually want to return and live in 1999 the way I lived in it as a four-year-old. Neither would I want to live in it as the twenty-four-year-old I am now. What I want is to live in 1999 as I remember 1999, for in memory, moments lived in Kronos are transmuted – one could almost say transfigured – into Kairos. The moment that is empty and incomplete as we pass through it becomes full – is, in a way, completed – when we remember it, because we recognize and apprehend its meaning in a way we almost never can in the moment. As Kierkegaard puts it, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Memory invests the things of Kronos with the qualities of Kairos. What we experience, when we live life chronologically, as vapor and vanity and pressure and passing away becomes – when we remember it – solid, fixed, permanent, meaningful. What made no sense as it happened to you becomes a scene or a chapter in the overarching story of your life. It is understood and charged (per Tom Wolfe) with purpose. Memory redeems moments from the tyranny of Kronos into Kairos by revealing what is eternally significant about those moments, and this is why we feel nostalgia. It is not the longing for good things in the past; to be four years old again, if I could, is not the answer. Nor is it the longing for more time; to have infinite amounts of Kronos is not the answer. Nostalgia is nothing more or less than the longing for the solidity, the permanence, the meaning, of memory. It is the longing to live life as we remember it – to live in Kairos. We want to live through the stories of our lives while also knowing the whole story and thus seeing how each part is meaningful. The ache of nostalgia is the ache of our inability to have this eternal perspective. And this brings us, finally, to film, for film lets us experience nostalgia in real-time. How?
Film is the only time-based art form, which is why Andrei Tarkovsky calls filmmaking “sculpting in time.” A book is measured in pages (or words), but a film is measured in minutes. A film, by its nature, must be experienced in time; a film is subject to Kronos in a way that a painting or book is not. A book, poem, or painting can describe or evoke the experience of time, but cannot capture it as a film does. You read a book or poem, or contemplate a painting, at your own pace, but a film dictates the pace by which you watch it.
This is why film is suited to evoke certain kinds of suspense or urgency, as well as certain kinds of poignancy. Film is good at capturing how fast life goes by, for in film, as in life, you cannot stop in a moment; every moment is passing away into a new moment. If you pause a film, you are not sitting in the film, savoring it, the way you can sit in and savor a poem by pausing on a few of your favorite lines. When you pause a film, you are pulling yourself out of it, breaking it; you are, to put it simply, watching the film wrong. This is why film captures the experience of living in Kronos – what Vanauken calls the “pressure of time” – in a way no other art form can. Film captures how things are passing away; when you watch a film, you can see Kronos at work. You can watch him devour his children.
And yet, paradoxically, a film is both under the dominion of Kronos and not under the dominion of Kronos.
A film is subject to the pressure and passing away of time, but a film is also fixed, permanent, meaningful. Every moment in a film passes away before your eyes, but every moment in a film can be lived again and again, because it is always the same. Moments in a film are arranged and charged with purpose; moments in a film disclose their meaning in a way moments in life rarely do. Life becomes meaningful in retrospect because you can see the meaning in memory, but in film (if the film is any good at all), you are able to experience the meaning as it happens. We want to live life as we remember it. Film, unlike any other art form, allows us to do just that.
Film, then, is an utterly unique intersection between Kairos and Kronos. It captures the tension, the tearing, between these two modes of time. Film is fleeting the way life is fleeting, yet permanent the way memory is permanent. Film is nostalgia in real-time. Thus, by its very nature, it tells us of our situation in time – that we are creatures of Kronos who are meant for Kairos, who will one day be redeemed from the tyranny of earthly time into the freedom of heavenly time. As Lewis puts it in his Reflections on the Psalms:
The Eternal may meet us in what is, by our present measurements, a day, or (more likely) a minute or a second; but we have touched what is not in any way commensurable with lengths of time, whether long or short. Hence our hope finally to emerge, if not altogether from time (that might not suit our humanity) at any rate from the tyranny, the unilinear poverty, of time, to ride it not to be ridden by it, and so to cure that always aching wound (‘the wound man was born for’) which mere succession and mutability inflict on us, almost equally when we are happy and when we are unhappy. For we are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.