On Saturday, March 26, 2011, Union soldiers raided a Confederate stronghold on Johns Island, South Carolina. The Battle of Bloody Bridge raged for two days. Galloping cavalry, battle cries and cannon fire drummed the surrounding farmland. Though outnumbered 4-1, Confederate soldiers ambushed and mercilessly slaughtered the Union. The dead and wounded then rose from the field and staggered toward the tents through a haze of musket smoke. Wives and daughters, dressed in hoopskirts for that night's southern ball, doled out cold Budweisers to the ragged, happy men. The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War had commenced.
We should give a dutiful nod to the value of re-enactment -- historical preservation and education: the motives offered by the re-enactors themselves -- while yet being suspicious: the origin of Civil War re-enactments is contemporaneous with the Civil Rights movement, and 50 years on, there's still virtually no participation by the black community. Re-enactment remains the hobby of white men, most enthusiastically those of the American South, and Confederate victories are the most popular choices for re-enactment; indeed, soldiers are frequently required to switch to the Union side in order to balance the scales of history.
The Civil War dealt a mortal wound to the fortunes of the American South, from which it's never recovered. How could southerners not be nostalgic for the antebellum years? Prior to the war, average white Southern males were twice as rich as those to the north, their cotton production accounting for a majority of the nation's wealth; but by war's end, the prosperity of the South had been laid to waste, its prior glory was gone with the wind, and those simpler times, of southern belles and plantation estates, forever became the rose-coloured stuff of reminiscence.
Homer's Odyssey sings of the nostos, or homecoming, of Odysseus. Joined to algos, the Greek word for pain, English is given nostalgia -- "homesickness," or "pain for a homecoming" -- which we can read in what Homer sings as the "hollow, salt-rimmed eyes" of Odysseus, sitting where the breakers roll in and staring out to sea, "His life draining away in homesickness."
It's only fit that nostalgia derives from among the very earliest words of Western literature, for we've beat on, boat against the current ever since our maiden voyage, striving to restore a lost glow to the present gloom. Nostalgia seems to grow ever stronger with each technological leap, as we cast our salt-rimmed eyes back toward a golden age uninterrupted by ringtones and revving engines.
But nostalgia was originally coined as a medical condition, a sickness so severe it led to malnutrition, insanity and even death, and it seems apt to me to keep the word in the category of disease.
Nostalgia is a kind of selective memory. It does not, like Proust's famous bite into the biscuit, return a remembrance of things past wholesale, the good and the bad together. Instead, nostalgia pines for an ideal, and no ideal can ever correspond to our lived experience. To bring an ideal into reality is much like trying to excavate just the guacamole from a five-layer dip.
But what could be the danger? Now and then we all take a seat where the breakers roll in and indulge in thoughts of better days. How could this lead to malnourishment, insanity?
Collectively, it seems to me that we pine for no era more often than the roaring '20s. We covet its style, its manners, and what we perceive as its loose attitudes. Even Prohibition somehow seems to us generative of good times -- we think of underground speakeasies, big band jazz numbers and slapstick getaways from raiding police.
Sometime or another, we'll attend a 1920s party, which always seems to take The Great Gatsby as a point of departure -- the women flaunt bobs, silk slips and lipstick, the men don smoking jackets and call each other "sport" -- and for one night, we'll try to realise some magic of those good old days. And yet Gatsby is nostalgia's Macbeth, the cautionary tale of a man destroyed striving to recover an ideal past. In the person of Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby perceives "the pap of life... the incomparable milk of wonder," a milk which turns out to be sour and fatal.
"I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before," says Gatsby, and he does, as best as can be managed, boat against the current. Staring out with salt-rimmed eyes to the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, Gatsby's "dream [seems] so close that he can hardly fail to grasp it," Fitzgerald writes, but he doesn't recognize he's "following a grail," not knowing that what he hopes to re-enact is "somewhere back in a vast obscurity."
Jay Gatsby is perhaps our last literary case of death by nostalgia. The last deaths to be medically diagnosed as resulting from nostalgia were in the American Civil War, in which nostalgia was the second major diagnostic category for mental illness, after insanity. Seventy-four soldiers fell victim to nostalgia between 1861-1866.
By the 1870s, nostalgia had largely fallen off as a viable medical diagnosis. But it still seems to me that we can diagnose nostalgia on the societal level, where it forms a kind of mental interference. So many of our public conversations presuppose a golden age -- some simpler time, when the music wasn't so offensive, when the family was intact, when we studied Latin. We even seem capable of feeling nostalgic for a time we killed each other with swords instead of rockets. We narrow our vision to one golden thread of history, ignoring the uniform into which it's tightly woven. We long for the '20s, forgetting the dust storm on the horizon; we long for the '50s, forgetting school kids crouched beneath their desks; we long for the '60s, forgetting Jim Morrison's singing. And so on.
It seems scarcely necessary to detail what would need to be forgotten in order to feel homesick for the antebellum South.
Civil War re-enactment, as its proponents like to boast, is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the United States. The Battle of Bloody Bridge in March was what's known as a "farb" event -- casual and sportive, compared to the hardcore re-enactments. These intense hobbyists are known as "threadcounters" for their obsessive attention to detail, their ability to fix everything just the way it was before, and they participate in total immersion events, closed to the public.
Are we to believe that re-enactors in total immersion all have as their primary motive the lofty goal of historical preservation? Perhaps. Or is there something else in the hearts of these hobbyists, some urge to return to that turning point, when the dream of an independent South seemed so close that one could hardly fail to grasp it?
Battles always have their heroes, the standard-bearing, lance-waving patriots charging up the hill; but an experienced re-enactor knows when to take one for the team. What separates a good re-enactor from a great one is the ability to truly die like a Civil War soldier. Most threadcounters would agree that corpses lend a re-enactment the true putrid odour of authenticity.
According to medical records, the leading cause of death in the American Civil War was diarrhea.
This essay was delivered at the third issue launch of The White Rabbit Quarterly, at The Dunlevy Snack Bar, April 23, 2011.