A pathological nostalgia
“I had a pathological nostalgia. I grieved not only for my own rapidly receding childhood but also for the years, ‘the pasts,’ that I would never experience. The past seemed as real to me as the present, as real as another country. But unlike another country, its borders were closed…pictures felt like the next best thing to time travel.” — Chris Wild
Illustrations, particularly photographs, are a natural complement to reading, or perhaps just another version of the same activity in a different dimension. When I read this quote, I understood my own “pathological nostalgia” as one reason for my enduring compulsion to take pictures. I’ve been creating conduits for time travel into my own personal past, having taken many such journeys into our collective past through the work of camera enthusiasts from Matthew Brady to Dorthea Lange to my own father.
One of my first and most compelling experiences on WordPress was reading about the history of a Canadian family at an interesting blog post which really tapped into my nostalgia for anyone and everyone’s past. Something about the photos and writing connected me to the writer, who (as anyone following this blog for awhile will know) became a dear friend. The title of her post says it all for me: “We would have a lot in common.” I suppose that conviction is what draws me to the history of all sorts of people.
In childhood, biographies written for and about children were among my favorite books. Even in my early travels, I quickly sensed (or perhaps imagined) that historic sites retain some intangible remnant of what has passed there; traces of atmosphere redolent of previous decades, or sometimes even centuries.
I used to dream of time travel with three parts longing tempered by one part spellbound terror. On some level I knew that it would be frightening and dangerous to find myself in another era, but that didn’t stop me from wishing I could visit history in person.
My first vivid memory of wanting to transport myself back in time was on our family trip to Castillo de San Marcos in Florida. Something about that well-preserved fortress captured my imagination and made me feel as if I could almost hear the sounds of canon fire and soldiers speaking in rapid, urgent Spanish. But when I turned from gazing dreamily over the ramparts, there were my parents and siblings looking blandly contemporary, and the exotic sounds and images vanished.
Wild is correct: no matter how real the past might seem or really be, its borders remain closed to us in a physical sense. Yet thanks to digital images, we are able to get closer than ever before, as obscure photographs, drawings, journals and other ephemera from bygone days are scanned and made available in numbers that stagger the imagination. I smile to think that having such easy access to these abundant collections might seem as exotic and impossible to my great-grandparents as time travel is to us, and wonder whether those now-closed physical borders will ever be crossed by generations that come after us.
Until then, though, we travel on the wings of imagination, navigating with photographs, stories, historic preservation and that mysterious sixth sense that springs to life occasionally, when we stand in a place where others stood long before we were alive. Do you like to visit the past? If so, send postcards from your next imaginary journey — and maybe I’ll see you there sometime!