January 29, 2013 | by James Santel
Nostalgia is a dangerous feeling to indulge. It transforms other people, including old versions of one’s self, into figures whose lone purpose is to lend texture and credence to a diorama of the past. And just as an elementary-school diorama of, say, a Roman frontier fortress, no matter how meticulously researched and constructed, can never convey the totality of what it would have been like to stand sentry in Germania circa 70 A.D., so the version of the past constructed by nostalgia is a distortion, albeit one that relies upon memory (itself a kind of distortion, as neuroscience tells us) and experience to weave what is in essence a fairy tale.
Nostalgia’s refractions aren’t limited to people, of course. Its influence extends to places, too, refusing to acknowledge that places have presents and futures—presents and futures that often don’t involve one’s self, hence the willingness to ignore them—but only pasts: your pasts. Whenever I visit the University of Chicago, for instance, Hutch Courtyard is never Hutch Courtyard, a pleasant flagstone enclave that’s served as a favored warm-weather gathering spot for generations of undergraduates, but instead the place where I sat reading Moby-Dick when I learned that my grandmother had died. That’s it. All of the hopes and dreams, joys and fears toted through that spot by millions of human beings for more than a century, brushed aside by my solipsistic longing for a past that wasn’t nearly as honey colored in the living as it is in the remembering. I recall seeing a picture of Prince Charles passing through Hutch Courtyard during a 1977 visit and thinking, There’s Prince Charles walking right by the spot where I was when I heard that Grandma died. Nostalgia, which presents the past as a meadow of boundless possibility, is actually quite constricting. Read More »
October 2, 2012 | by James Santel
My grandfather died in St. Louis last year on October eighth. The following night, Chris Carpenter pitched a three-hitter against the Phillies, lifting the Cardinals into the NLCS and alerting the nation that rather than just a squad of plucky underdogs, the Cardinals might be a team touched by something phenomenologically greater than a hot streak. For certain members of my family, my grandfather’s mid-playoff death offered a locus for the sense of destiny awakening around the Cardinals; in the weeks to come, as the team mounted increasingly improbable victories, more than one relative offered comments in the vein of, “Wally had something to do with this!” or “Wally was watching over the Cardinals last night!” Being a skeptical and ragged Catholic, I responded to these remarks with quiet derision, as I do to all suggestions that the Almighty would choose to meddle in the outcomes of our mortal diversions.
But as the weather here in St. Louis finally cools after a boiling, interminable summer—a summer that saw the maddening Cardinals muddle their way to a fragile hold on one of the devalued wild-card spots—I find it difficult not to look back on last fall’s championship run and see a team touched by divinity, or magic, or fate—a moment when a higher realm reached through the portal of sport and touched this mortal plane. The Cardinals may well make the playoffs this year, but I have to confess that I’m finding it hard to care. Whatever illumed last season, it’s gone, and here in St. Louis, we’re learning to live in its aftermath.
“Baseball,” as Michael Chabon observed in McSweeney’s no. 36, is “a game that somehow seems to offer more room, a greater scope than other sports, for the consciousness of failure and defeat—has always been associated, in its own history and my own, with a sense of loss, the idea of the lost arcadia, the last patch of green folded into a pocket of the world of brick and asphalt.” The sport is a dissonant blend of nostalgia and modernity. On the one hand, as Chabon says, it is a sport stubbornly resistant to change. The unhurried pace, the managers in uniform, the persistence of Fenway and Wrigley, the timeless sound of vendors calling out over the chatter of multitudes—these are all dogged holdouts, boulders in the stream of capital-P Progress, a refuge of familiarity in a world that often feels bent upon making itself unfamiliar from one day to the next. As George Carlin once put it, the objective of baseball is to go home.
August 30, 2012 | by James Santel
Around Valentine’s Day, my gut finally confirmed what my head had long known: I would in fact be graduating from college in just three months, which meant that something would have to be done about the books.
This was in Philadelphia, in a large room on the second floor of a three-story house on Baltimore Avenue. Not wanting the hassle of selling a sofa or armchair at year’s end, I had furnished the room with little other than a bed, a salvaged nightstand, and a too-small desk borrowed from a friend’s girlfriend’s roommate. If it weren’t for the books (and the Robert Kennedy campaign poster that passed for decoration), a visitor to my room might surmise that its occupant tended toward a mildly disturbed kind of solitude. But there were books, lots of them. Books lined the mantel of the bricked-up fireplace. Books were stacked at the foot of the bed; they were strewn on the floor around the desk like a blast radius. Piles of books that frequently collapsed into small landslides annexed the nightstand. A stray book or two often lay on the floor in the middle of the room, the aftermath of hasty between-class transitions. For the first time in my life, I felt I had too many books.
You have to understand that like many bibliophiles, this was a Rubicon I never imagined crossing. In my experience, the adage “all things in moderation” carries much wisdom; until last winter, I thought books were an exception to this rule, occupying a higher moral plane than other things one might collect, like bottles of fine scotch or European football jerseys. In my reverence for the printed word, I subscribed to all the humanistic pieties: books as worlds between two covers, as food for the mind and soul, as a link between living and dead. Walking into Penn’s library every day for the last two years, I passed beneath a window bearing a breathless quotation from Samuel Daniel: “O blessed letters! That combine in one all ages past, and make one live with all!” The pane’s religiosity was apt; my faith in books had never been higher than in college. There, they protected me from the terrifying emptiness of Sunday afternoons, distracted me from one girl or another’s failure to return my call, and transported me from the campuses where I often felt I was merely playing at life, swept away from my old comfortable St. Louis existence because I needed a college degree. Books were the tributaries that returned me to the main current, if only for a few hours.