The Past is in. Conservatives can no longer claim a monopoly on romanticizing past cultures, past events, and past struggles, if not past individuals. From the Aztec prayers in California schools to the crusade against Western science and the idealization of pagan prehistory over and against Christian medievalism and secular modernity alike, nostalgia has proved itself a motive force of immense power in the development even of New Left ideology. This nostalgia extends beyond the temporal to the geographical: the cult of foreign culture among Left intellectuals is hard to mistake. A pervasive sense of homelessness in American culture leads to the lionization of non-Western traditions, be they Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, or African in origin, in art and politics alike—just so long as they are carefully tamed to conform with (Western) New Left identity ideology. This should encourage the conservative to ask whether Left nostalgia, or nostalgia in general, can be a positive influence on the social order, or if not, what differentiates the conservative impulse from the merely nostalgic.
As used today, the word nostalgia is pejorative, implying emotionalism, regressive thinking, and self-delusion. But it doesn’t have to be. Etymologically, nostalgia simply means a longing to come home. The question is only whether home is the right place to go. Perhaps the greatest nostalgic of the Western tradition is Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey; it is his defining characteristic and the underpinning of his heroic status. At the beginning of the epic, we find Odysseus pining for his νοστος, or homecoming, on Ogygia, an island belonging to Calypso, an amorous nymph with grand plans to make her unhappy consort immortal. In spite of this apparently attractive prospect, and of all other inducements and obstacles, Odysseus insists on his homeward journey, overcoming the ire of an angry sea-god as well as the infatuation of multiple nymphs in order to reach his ancestral hall again. Thus, the Odyssey is the paradigmatic example of return. His journey to Ithaca is equally the classic story of the triumph of nostalgia.
But why does Odysseus want to go home? By almost every metric, Odysseus is better off with Calypso. His life expectancy has shot up since his arrival on the nymph’s island—in fact, the nymph has promised to make him immortal. He is secure from the wrath of Poseidon and political intrigue. Rather than the provincial cuisine of Ithaca, his table is filled with “all kinds of food. . . that mortals consume.”All his needs and wants are supplied by the state, leaving no need for work of any kind. Even the sex is better, as Odysseus admits to Calypso. Best of all, Odysseus’ midnight flings with the nymph come with no strings attached: as seven years have passed with no children, we can assume Calypso has access to reliable contraception. We must admit that Odysseus is quite irrational to want to leave such a paradise. Perhaps he has forgotten what his home was really like. If he could see, stripped of nostalgic idealization, the drab stony hills of Ithaca and the wrinkly face of his aging wife, surely he would stay where he is. Or perhaps he chafes under the girlbossery of the immortal Calypso, yearning for a time and place where he was king of the castle.
Why can’t he just acclimate to the new conditions? Perhaps he’s too old, too rigid, too prejudiced to appreciate new experiences. If he would loosen up a little, open his eyes to the benefits of his surroundings, he would get past his old values and learn to forget. Perhaps what Odysseus needs to get him back on track is a little grief therapy to help him process the loss of his home, or rather his homecoming. Move on, Odysseus! Whatever he may have left behind at Ithaca, whatever he hopes to rediscover there, it’s clear the νοστος can’t be worth the αλγεα.
So one of our progressives or technophiles might put it. But I would prefer quite another description of our hero’s predicament: Odysseus is tempted. Temptation does not consist of a choice between two acquisitions. Temptation always amounts to this: being asked to give up what already belongs to you. It appears that Odysseus is being offered immortal life and happiness. In reality, he is being asked to give up these things for nothing in exchange. Odysseus is tempted to abandon his heroic work, much as Aeneas was tempted by Dido from his fated work of founding Rome, and Achilles from his heroic death at Troy.
This work involves homecoming but is not completed by it. It is completed by his death in the arms of his people, following a long and just reign. Teiresias advises him that “death will kill you as you lose your strength in a prosperous old age. And the people all around [your corpse] will be blessed.”The adjective ‘olbios’ establishes the mythical significance of Odysseus’ death: namely, that he will continue to oversee his people as a patron hero. The blessedness of his people arises from, and only from, his death: we might secularize it as the material and moral legacy of a just king.
What, then, does it mean for Odysseus to be home? It means that he is with the people and in the place that he can make blessed. He cannot do this on Ogygia. Calypso is already blessed. She has no need for him, only desire, and thus he cannot bless, only pleasure her. He belongs in Ithaca; still more, he belongs to Ithaca, even as the island belongs to him as king. His duty lies in the place where he can make a contribution, where he can right injustices, die a meaningful death, and leave a lasting blessing to his people. Odysseus is not made to eat the food of the gods. And he doesn’t want to be made immortal, because he has immortality already. That is the reward of the Greek hero. But it is not exclusive to Odysseus: rather, it applies to everyone who bequeaths to his descendants a heritage of blessedness, which is the result of a virtuous life.
The conservative is often mocked for his nostalgia. It is asserted that he revises the past to suit his own tastes, that he is unable to adapt to present conditions, that he ultimately understands neither whither he yearns to return nor where he presently finds himself. But from the example of Odysseus, it is evident that the core of nostalgia is not the yearning for a more comforting or congenial environment. On the contrary, it is the desire for a meaningful environment. It is the desire for an environment, like that of the family, where one is needed, where one can make others blessed. It is meaninglessness against which the modern nostalgic revolts, namely the meaninglessness of an unmoored, homeless life.
Opposite our nostalgics, on the other hand, we find arrayed an army of futurists promising a glittering assortment of utopias, sometimes with the assurance of that most vapid sort of immortality, the infinite perpetuation of consciousness. It seems we must edit our genes, digitize our brains, and even transplant our consciousness to be happy. Then, when death has been eliminated and every cyborg brain exists as the god of its own simulated reality, perhaps then people will learn to be content. And if they will not learn, they can be programmed. Could it be that it is not necessary to lobotomize ourselves and become omnipotent kings in nutshells to be happy? Indeed, the reality is that none of these proposals are necessary for happiness. They are nothing but the results of the fetishization of ghastliness. The uncanny, the unhomely, and the otherworldly are the guiding values of these dreams. But the resolution of our human problems cannot be resolved by becoming unhuman. The reason these proposals have gathered what little traction they have is that our contemporary solutions for human problems have proven insufficient.
They have proven insufficient because they are material, and we require what is immaterial, namely meaning. We devise a world which separates, alienates, polarizes, radicalizes, deludes, hyperstimulates, titillates, and tantalizes, and we ask why people are unhappy. They have all the distractions in the world and every luxury. They can hate with more impunity, steal with more respectability, and kill themselves more creatively than anyone in history. How can they be unhappy? So much food, such low prices, so many jobs, so much opportunity. How could we be unhappy? And so, when we find that people are unhappy, when they kill themselves with drugs or by more direct means, our physicians of degeneracy are audacious enough to suggest that we must change human nature to suit the world we have created, rather than build a world where human nature can thrive. The prevalence of nostalgia should come as no surprise to us, because humanity does not feel at home in the world of today. Perhaps we cannot turn back the clock. But we can change the hour labels. The future we create must be a homely one, in both senses. It should not be sleek, efficient, or utilitarian. It should be unassuming, considerate, and above all human. This is what it will mean to return, to regain what we have lost. That alone can constitute a homecoming.
A version of this article originally appeared in Republic of Letters, the February 2022 print issue of the Salient.
Homer, Odyssey, tr. Samuel Butler, 1.195.
Homer, Odyssey, tr. Samuel Butler, 11.135