Present, Future: Shades of (COVID) Nostalgia | March 2020 – May 2021
An earlier version of this blog post was published in Hebrew on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Blog (Program in Cultural Studies), it can be found here. The text was originally written in May 2021, when COVID’s end seemed to be in reach. It is sadly ever more present also in January 2022. This text should be read as an invitation for self-interrogation – I invite the readers to reflect (nostalgically) on the past two years, and to introspect the changes they went through with regard to the pandemic, and its influence on their spatial, social and personal being
The outbreak of COVID-19 provoked a myriad of intriguing sentiments among my friends, me, and others, including a cringey fascination and an ambivalent kind of Eros brought on by the feeling of doomsday. These sentiments changed rapidly into sheer fear and anxiety of the sinister and unfamiliar present time (and future) and provided fertile ground for the emergence and enhancement of nostalgic feelings and practices. Nostalgia (from Greek – nóstos: homecoming, álgos: pain, ache) is defined as missing the past and clinging to it in an idealized and nonjudgmental manner. As such, nostalgia acts many times as a way to cope with a crisis-ridden reality, when the individual yearns for the past — perceived as “simple” — in the face of a chaotic and incomprehensible present.
Svetlana Boym (2002) distinguishes between two kinds of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. Restorative nostalgia emphasizes the nóstos, the familiar and homey sense of nostalgia. It offers a nonjudgmental outlook of the past, at times bordering on the naïve, that leads one to attempt to recreate the exact same experience, or feeling. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, stresses the álgos – the ache caused by ruminating about the past with irony, at times even desperately. While the difference between the two kinds of nostalgia is not a binary one, I would like to suggest that restorative nostalgia tries to recreate a moment in time, while reflective nostalgia observes the same moment from a far.
I called Miriam, my 83-year-old friend, daily during the first lockdown. She recounted to me detailed and enchanted memories of her childhood in Bat Yam (a small city in Israel) during the fifties. She lingered on the cooking smells in the staircase, the strong sense of community, exotic visits to the neighboring city of Jaffa, and the feeling of freedom she and the other kids in the neighborhood had back in the day. Miriam’s nostalgic feelings were restorative ones – not criticizing the past, but reveling in it.
Miriam was not the only one relishing in nostalgic memories. Interestingly, the past longed for during the peak of the pandemic was an elastic and relational term. Nostalgia usually addresses the considerably faraway past. The chronological gap between the present and the nostalgic moment is what allows us to be less critical towards the past and view it fondly. Nostalgic feelings during COVID, however, addressed two separate past times: that of the distant, less globalized past, and the more immediate past that preceded 2020. The first sentiment derived from regarding COVID as punishment for a kind of human hubris that technology, progress and globalization brought about, causing the unprecedentedly speedy outbreak of the pandemic across the globe. This perception made some, like Miriam, nostalgically long for past times, which they perceived as simpler and more comprehensible.
Much like Miriam, others also nostalgically reflected on simpler times: small intimate neighborhood living, and the sense of community it entailed. Some of them in turn created neighborly and citywide support networks based on online platforms as well as on the singular apartment buildings, transforming their feelings into practices and actions. People rediscovered their neighbors, their immediate living surroundings, and children enjoyed playing ball games and hopscotch on the street and communal backyard again. Alongside these communal and spatial practices, the emergence of free time and the necessity to stay home made many – me among them – return to past practices which oscillate between the domestic field and the urban-hipster (sub)field, at times with overlap. These practices included, among other things, baking sourdough breads, dining as a family every night, completing jigsaw puzzles, knitting and excessive indoor gardening.
Some people took great joy in urban life during the pandemic, and cherished the peaceful city that lockdown had created – quiet streets and outbursts of nature in the now placid city.
On the other hand, as the crisis-ridden reality lingered, the sentiments of nostalgia were soon directed towards the very near past – just a few months earlier. A good friend of mine erupted in an emotional monologue: “I know just two months ago I grumbled about the city and threatened to leave it, but I miss the City, everything about it! The cars’ honks, the construction noise and dirt, the stinky clubs with their cigarette’s stench, men not respecting my personal space, the overcrowded beaches. I miss it all!” Other friends who have just a few months earlier complained about the overflow of social, cultural and familial events they had to attend, shared their longing for some human interaction. Even my ten-year-old nephew quietly confessed he misses his teacher and the schoolyard.
Whether addressing the near or the far past, these nostalgic sentiments are not mutually exclusive, and some people fluctuated between different nostalgic points of time as if trying to dialectically advance time that seems to stand still.
After the beginning of 2021, and advancement of the vaccination efforts, restrictions were rapidly and surprisingly removed. ‘Old’ practices like going to the gym, to cafés and social gatherings were allowed again, first in drops and then like a flood. Personally, I was not prepared for this fast return to my previous life. I felt like the personal peace of mind and freedom that COVID had allowed were expropriated for the sake of old normal routines. I was not the only one who felt ambivalent towards the sudden return to ‘life’.
The radical transformation between the COVID-state-of-mind, and the return to ‘normal’ life brought about a third subject of nostalgia – nostalgia for COVID days. Each of us experienced (experiences) this feeling differently. Some missed the right to be unsocial and not meet a single person. In some households COVID days allowed a more equal share of the domestic burdens, and the return to life challenged the newly acquired gender balance. COVID brought some families closer together and created a newly-shared meaning of home, which would be hard to maintain without the restrictions of the pandemic. Newly acquired hobbies, like baking bread daily, were bound to be forsaken when having to go back to life’s demanding schedule, and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) sentiments that were gone during COVID time were bound to return. Surprisingly, the memory of the COVID-era entailed a nostalgic dimension of simplicity.
We are all still experiencing COVID as a prolonged present, and the different kinds of nostalgic sentiments related to it come and go accordingly. I would like to suggest that the nostalgic feelings we had during COVID may be categorized as ‘regular’ romantic ones, or restorative nostalgia in Boym’s terms. Nowadays (post)COVID nostalgic feelings bear a more critical dimension. This form of nostalgia is critical in an analytic sense – that of allowing an assessment of the past by confronting it with the present (Cashman, 2006: 137-8), similarly to reflective nostalgia, which adds an ironic and judgmental dimension to the simple feeling of longing. Nevertheless, critical nostalgia also encompasses a normative dimension that calls for future action (ibid).
We did not have much time to miss COVID days, the pandemic came back in full power. But much like the virus itself, COVID’s reality changes as well into new variants, new realities. For a short fraction of time our spatial reality changed to our immediate surroundings, changing our spatial, social and personal practices accordingly. The cosmopolitan and joint sentiments the pandemic arose globally were interpreted and adopted locally in different manners. Those who wished to took part in, or witnessed, the emergence of shared spaces of meaning, through affective, cyber and public spaces. As the virus changed, so did our reaction to it, we learned to live ‘with’, or ‘next to’ it, and most of the emergency measures and their (positive and negative) byproducts were left behind, leaving some, like me, nostalgic for different times yet again.
Nostalgic sentiments toward early COVID days do not imply that we miss a global pandemic threatening our health. Rather, it points out the spaces of opportunity that the crisis exposed, that allowed us to reexamine our life and consider what is really important to us. While nostalgia is usually understood as “history without guilt” (Kamen, 1993: 688) – a naïve way of thinking of the past – using critical nostalgia in order to consciously reflect on the past reveals deeper understandings of it. In this sense, nostalgia is a normative practice. By nostalgically viewing the past, we can understand what we want our presence to look like, and perhaps more importantly, plan our social and spatial future as individuals and as a society.
Merav Kaddar is a Minerva Foundation Postdoc Fellow at the Institute for Sociology, Technische Universität, Berlin, and an Adjunct Lecturer at the Political Science, Philosophy and Economics Program (P.P.E.), at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She received her PhD from the Hebrew University for work investigating individuals‘ urban agency. She is interested in spatial justice, urban art and culture, urban citizenship, urban politics, and political theory of cities, among others.
Boym, Svetlana (2002). The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books.
Cashman, Ray (2006). Critical Nostalgia and Material Culture in Northern Ireland. The Journal of American Folklore 119(472): 137-160.
Kammen, Michael. (1993). Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in America. Vintage Books.
 This is true for some households, but surely not for all. As the pandemic reality continued, and still continues, and especially with the burden of quarantine of young children, there are more studies and reports on a regression in gendered equality, especially in households with children, with mothers having to do the bulk of homeschooling/childcare.