Imagining the Past

Over the past few years, I have developed the bad habit of writing down notes on scraps of paper, inserting them into pockets of my wallet and then completely forgetting their whereabouts. A spring cleaning of my wallet recently turned up the business card of an Icelandic air-traffic controller, several unnamed phone numbers and a plethora of crumpled receipts, each bearing some scrawled epiphany that time has rendered completely unintelligible.

While most of these notes get thrown out, I've been hanging on to one particular scrap that grabbed my attention. It bears only the Jeopardy-esque remark, "A Portuguese word that means 'nostalgia for a thing that never existed.'" I don't know where this note came from or what in fact the word is. A cursory search of Portuguese speakers and dictionaries has failed to find it, and I'm beginning to suspect that it, too, is a thing that never existed.

But in spite of what my research suggests, this concept is almost too clever not to exist somewhere, in some language. If it exists, it would not refer to simply an act of pathological self-deception, such as in, "I feel nostalgic for the Mondale Presidency." It would rather refer to the prevalent feeling that things used to be better in the past, even though that past is one that is more imagined that real. As one of the most richly mythologized institutions in the country, Harvard often falls prey to this same attitude. Consider a few cases of nostalgia for Harvard experiences that never happened or at least never happened in the way we would like to think they did.

Exhibit number one: The Leverett '80s Dance. At least half the play list consists of songs that no 21-year-old was old enough to remember hearing on the radio; nonetheless, everyone cheers gleefully with the imagined recognition of the music of their youth. Who was an ABBA fan before the great ABBA revival of the early '90s? Does anyone remember hearing the Violent Femmes "Blister in the Sun," that great staple of '80s dances, when it was first released? As a cultural institution, the '80s dance plays off of a nostalgia for a past that most of us never experienced.

Exhibit number two: Radcliffe College. It's undoubtedly sad, from a symbolic point of few, that this once-bastion of female education is getting the axe. But Radcliffe has been effectively absent from undergraduate life since co-education began over 20 years ago. The nostalgia that today's undergraduates feel for Radcliffe is, once again, nostalgia for an institution that never existed in our living memory.


Exhibit number three: The Harvard Lampoon. Harvard's comedy mafia currently write for The Simpsons and Conan C. O'Brien '85; as undergraduates, they wrote for the Lampoon; ergo, the semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that occasionally publishes a so-called humor magazine is funny. If only this syllogism were true. The Lampoon's reputation for comedy, much like Saturday Night Live's, rests on the belief that it once was very funny; whether it was ever all that funny, however, is up for debate. With a few notable exceptions, formulaic gags and random profanity don't make for classic humor.

Exhibit number four: The Tasty, Tommy's and the Kong. Harvard's late-night eateries are most famous for late.

Exhibit number five: Yale Weekend. Ah, the memories that will linger for eternity: driving down in an over-packed car to New Haven, watching football in the November rain, getting drunk, watching kids puke. Why do we rhapsodize this weekend of sub-par football and socializing?

Exhibit number six: The Freshman Union. It was dank, dark and had antlers on the walls--imagine a final club that decided to breach its guest policy and invite 800 first-years for dinner. The old Union was admittedly more homey than the new Annenberg, but hardly an architectural triumph.

Exhibit number seven: Harvard legends. Peeing on John Harvard, sex in Widener and butter in the Union. What impact, if any, do they have on our day-to-day lives? To hear the Crimson Key Society tell it, you'd think that Harvard undergraduates spend their days debating the Three Lies like Talmud scholars. "But if the Three Lies were committed in haste, ignorance and laxity, then there were actually nine lies committed by the banks of the Charles River, when our forefathers were led out of captivity...What do you think, Todd?"

Harvard's past is the mythic past; the fact that the deans give all incoming first-years a list of every past occupant of their rooms is conducive to such myth-making. We are all walking down well-trodden paths here, no matter how deviant we feel. And so we let others' pasts become our present, others' ambitions our own desires, others' fashions our own trademarks. There's a word for it, somewhere out there--if not in Portuguese, then perhaps there should be one in Harvardese. Joshua DERMAN Joshua Derman '99 is a philosophy concentrator in Quincy House. His column will resume in reading period.

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