Of Nostalgia & Going Sideways Beautifully (Best of WH)

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“There were fishing folk online, and their love of and longing for the boats and the water was palpable and poetic. What little I knew of tug crews from my early life had been different: these could be hard men; rough, no-nonsense and quick with profanity when a lubber or another boat got in their way. Their byword was respect—for skill, courage and hard work—not respectability. I was a little unprepared therefore to find among them musicians, poets, and artists, who spoke, painted, carved, and sang for appreciative audiences about how a boat came alive in the chop past the lighthoused pier; how the boats got them home; how, occasionally, they became coffins.”— William Ramp

Small Things Recollected

By William Ramp

Lake Erie, near Port Dover, Ontario.

Lake Erie, near Port Dover, Ontario.

William Ramp

LETHBRIDGE Alberta, Canada—(Weekly Hubris)—First Published on 9/7/2015—Sometimes, it can be salutary to reflect on what one has written.

When I look back at columns I’ve produced for Weekly Hubris over the past year, I note an unplanned thematic continuity: ambivalence about attachments; ambivalent relations to place, memory, and history, a certain courting and evasion of nostalgia.

Our era is one in which vehicles of memory and reminders of history—landscapes and architecture; world heritage sites; museum, library and archival collections; tools and treasured objects; traditions and folkways, are trashed daily. Some of this destruction is indifferent; dictated by balance sheets and expectations of profit. Some is motivated ideologically: a hatred of the difference of the past, or a dedication to the new and transgressive. 

The first chapter of Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto; Walter Benjamin’s “The Destructive Character,” and Filippo Tomasso Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurism” are but three classic statements which address the Janus-faced profile of the forces which have strewn the world with rubble and corpses over the past two centuries.

Destruction liberates: that is its great attraction. It liberates, above all, from attachment.

It’s no accident, though, that the 20th and 21st centuries have been the golden age of the nostalgia and heritage industries. Destruction redoubles a desire to collect, to preserve, to return, to repeat. As one commentator puts it, “Perhaps second only to sex, nostalgia sells.” That marriage of money and conservatism has given nostalgia a bad name.

It was Marx who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, and then as farce. One could say something similar about nostalgia. The past recurs thrice: first as aftershock; then as history; finally as ersatz. Nostalgia does more than tint destruction’s “before” with soft light. The colorizing of a recycled past also reproduces it as a never-never land. Anyone who has spent time in front of, say, a Thomas Kinkaid painting will understand that. Or so most cultural theorists hope.

But aside from the content delivered by nostalgia, there is also the question of its form, its associations, and its politics. It is driven by and caught up in longing: it is a form of hunger for attachment. One might go so far as to argue that it seeks to present or represent a world into which one can disappear: a place to go back to, if only for a minute, an hour, or a Brigadoon day.

Nostalgia’s paradox is that it (re)presents a lived world as a frozen object of longing—or vice-versa. It confronts us with a wish to lose ourselves in a past; to cease to exist in separation from it, but it gives only a simulacrum with a price-tagged promise of possession. 

One can buy a Kincaid painting, hang it in the living room, and contemplate the golden light streaming from the stone-casemented village windows. The light streams eternally. The doors and windows beckon. There is no way in to the village inn. The painting remains an object. The viewer remains alone, outside in the cold.

Nostalgia, then, has been reviled in the political contestations of modernist history, and also used to cross-contaminate the idea of tradition. It has been represented as a handmaid of the drive to death; a sort of anti-politics that erases history and institutes in its place a spectacle that severs our ties to real and forceful pasts under the guise of binding us to them. It is represented as the willing accomplice of a repulsively-dead aesthetic: the sickly, the pretty, the kitschy, the gooey: a Faustian confection of suffocating moistness.

Attachment, and the longings generated by modernization’s severance of the burden of the past, have also received their share of distaste. Clinging, the opposite of using, shows dependency; an unwillingness to dispense with dead forms, stunting relations, old baggage, the weight of objects. In order that new life may grow, these things must be disposed of; eradicated in acts of revolutionary hygiene. Appealing hands must be brushed away; old associations dispensed with; dust shaken off shoes. Attachment generates a scripted obedience of dead souls; by contrast, the force of transgression releases energy.

The German sociologist, Georg Simmel, noted this in the glad rush to enlist in the early days of the First World War, as did Modris Eksteins a hundred years later.

War explodes forms; life risks blood.

Nostalgia is a giant transitional-object production apparatus for a culture in which transition has become stuck in a constant cycle of repetitive production and destruction. In response, radicals of both the aesthetic left and the economic right, along with the popular-culture mavens of minimalist individualism, advocate autonomy as an eternal but mobile state of now. This works reasonably well in those parts of the world in which a mobile and restless youth demographic can be persuaded to seek individualized pleasures and forms of significance and the individualized incomes to fund them. They, too, may feel loss, but they assuage it differently than do the parental figures who urge them home every holiday season for one more agonizing celebration.

So nostalgia, as Wendy Brown has assured us, is mostly devoid of critical political possibility.

But not so fast. Nostalgia does have one rebellious potency: it transgresses transgression. And there is also a rebellious politics of attachment: it refuses a certain sort of autonomy. It is, of course, shamed for doing so. But if attachment refuses both that autonomy and that shaming, it can call into question both their meaning and their consequences.

A favorite device of modernist skepticism is to proclaim that if forms of attachment (such as the admittedly much-abused notion of “community”) are inherently contradictory, then they are therefore entirely false: false-without-contradiction. Similarly, if tradition lends itself to power, it is therefore taken to be entirely and always captive to forces of reaction. And if a longing to be possessed by and taken within a past is impossible, it is thereby always to be treated as pernicious.

I would suggest that all three of these equations need to be given a second look. If we are to be good skeptics in the modern sense, should we not also look at the uses of skepticism skeptically?

These are issues about which many words have been written, and over which much reputational blood has been shed, in academia, in the arts, and in the worlds of political and cultural activism. I will pursue them no further here.  Instead, I will un-moor from my own inner skeptic, and follow after someone who briefly made a fool of himself over old boats in a somewhat kitschily made-over harbor.

Though I grew up on a farm, it was less than a mile from a small Lake Erie fishing town that, for a while, held the reputation of being home to the largest fresh-water fishing fleet in North America. Like their kind elsewhere, its fisherfolk were a tight-knit group. None of my family ever worked the “tugs,” as the turtleback boats were called, nor filleted in the fish plants, and while there were points of contact with one or two fishing families, the world of the lake was mostly an alien one to me.

Yet we all knew the names of the boats, and the names of the English and Scottish and American families who had become tied to a life on the water. We knew the stories of the disasters: explosions and fires in the days of gasoline engines; gales; collisions; strandings in ice and long, dangerous walks to shore. Above all, we knew the names of the boats.

 “We all knew the names”: fish tugs and net shanties, Port Dover Ontario, 1940’s.

“We all knew the names”: fish tugs and net shanties, Port Dover Ontario, 1940s.

Port Dover was a town I once could not wait to leave. My time in school there was not much fun, most of the time. But once I did, finally, leave for good, I began slowly to become aware that something of it had followed me. That awareness became a kind of crisis this past year. At the same time as I completed a “Weekly Hubris” article in which I stated that, after 20 years, I could finally call the western prairie home, I was finding myself sitting in my office, with a glorious view out over a plains city and a deep-cut coulee, and thinking about—missing, longing for—another home. When I went back to Ontario to see family or for an occasional conference or research trip, I would find myself drawn back to drive past the farms I had known, or to the lake which had growled its pervasive way into my ears in every storm.

But not that often to the town itself. I would go to the pier to see the slowly-dwindling number of boats. I would snap a picture, now and then, of an old, too-small vessel hauled out and waiting for the cutter’s torch. I joined one of the ubiquitous “Do You Remember?” Facebook groups for small-town residents and exiles. But it wasn’t the town I wanted to go back to. It was either the vast sweep of the lake, the contours of farmland, or houses and barns that had become the rooms of my memory and the almost-unbearable settings of dream journeys.

“An old, too-small vessel . . .”

“An old, too-small vessel . . .”

Except, that—I think—the Facebook group worked on me. 

There were fishing folk online, and their love of and longing for the boats and the water was palpable and poetic. What little I knew of tug crews from my early life had been different: these could be hard men; rough, no-nonsense and quick with profanity when a lubber or another boat got in their way. Their byword was respect—for skill, courage and hard work—not respectability. I was a little unprepared therefore to find among them musicians, poets, and artists, who spoke, painted, carved, and sang for appreciative audiences about how a boat came alive in the chop past the lighthoused pier; how the boats got them home; how, occasionally, they became coffins. 

Late this past summer, during a visit back to Ontario, I went to visit a sister on the shores of Lake Huron. From there, I would make my way to my parents, intending to stop, for an hour or two, to see an old friend along the way. As it was, I arrived late, and stayed later, and that’s when the suggestion was made to drive out of the stifling, humid city for a meal overlooking the lake.

The drive there, windows down, gave relief and a bit of exhilaration. But it was even more humid closer to the water. As we drove in to the village and along the marine basin, I picked out the shape of working boats along the pier, and noted a familiar name.

We had dinner. We talked of many things, and as such conversations go, we—or at least I—layered other things into the talk, not always explicitly nor even consciously, that had to do with recent changes in my life that had affected my writing, my teaching, and my attitudes toward and attachments to place and time.

There was, in fact, much talk about attachment in its many dimensions and about the consequences of its transference and its severance. I won’t say anything specific here about the changes that had led me to be sensitive to these. Imagine any event or transition in your life, and how it both cut you off from a past and simultaneously brought that past painfully forward; how it strained or destroyed ties or relations and routines and set you on a quest to restore or replace them. Doesn’t matter the event. Doesn’t matter the particular objects of attachment. You’ll know the feeling.

We ate far too much, and decided to take a stroll. Down by the boats.

This time, I saw several names. The Jackson Bros. The James D. The compact, rakish Nancy A. Siddall. And more. They were Dover boats: I might as well have been in Dover. I might as well have been home. It was all around me. The humidity that soaked my clothes; the velvet air; the rank, fish-smelling brown water. The lake, present but just out of visibility, cloaked in fog.

I skipped along, babbling a bit to my friend about the history of these boats; then, on impulse, strode toward the nearest one, the James D. She lay impervious and still, the water between her and the pier guttering and lapping almost inaudibly.

I put a foot across the gap at an open net door, patted the pocked and rippled steel flank. Then stepped back, hooking my hand around the door cut-out, and tugging.

“C’mere, you,” I said. And found myself suddenly in tears.

Thankfully, it was dark; the episode was controllable, quiet, and over quickly. I stayed there a moment, though, and stroked the indifferent steel side of the boat, before finally stepping back and into the sociability of the stroll.

It may just have been me, but I sensed a certain tension, possibly resulting from my harping confessional complaints over dinner, start to lessen. Still, I wondered how I had been seen: being who I am, I considered how utterly ridiculous a figure I must have cut.

It would be different if I’d ever worked on the tugs, or even in a fish plant. Retired fisherfolk are nostalgic for the boats they served on or owned; for the crews they were part of; about older and often harder ways of fishing. They’ve earned the right, and risked their lives for it. Some of them suffered, at home or at a local bar table, from post-traumatic images of the bodies of comrades pulled from the water, days, weeks, or months after a turtleback overturned and went to the bottom. Fishing was a hard and dangerous living then and, despite the larger boats, better engines, electronics, hydraulics, safety gear and so on, it is hard and occasionally deadly still.

Were I ever to hitch a ride (unlikely these days because of insurance regulations) on some 3-in-the-morning vessel heading out to the fishing grounds past Long Point, I’d be a liability; an obstacle to be kept as firmly out of working areas of the boat as possible.

So, one might ask (especially one versed in a certain sort of psychology), what was really going on there at the pier? What did the boat stand in for?

Could it be that the small drama of reunion and loss that I enacted had more to do with people than boats; that boats were a safe substitute, a vehicle of transference for feelings generated by a personal encounter?  Well, yes. Entirely possible.

Could it also be that such human encounters—meeting again, meeting anew, parting—always anticipate future losses and re-enact a fundamental, ontogenetic one? Yes again.

To encounter another person is to risk attachment, and thereby to risk a fall every bit as painful as The Fall which, according to Hebrew myth, banished our ancestors from Eden. To fall for another or to fall under another’s sway is to be vulnerable to exposure, wounding, even a kind of death—and every disappointed, frustrated, or unrequited love, whether for parent, child, sibling, friend, or beloved, re-enacts that vulnerability. 

The primordial experience of individuation, of realizing how one is parted from others and separated from the very world one lives in; that one experiences it as if through a pane of glass, is part (do excuse the pun) and parcel of a developing self-consciousness.

The Genesis story may be read as a retelling of this originary drama. In discovering themselves—to be naked, exposed and vulnerable—Adam and Eve are separated from God and the Garden; from that oceanic sense of being “water in water,” as Georges Bataille once put it. That sense becomes a memory, but not one of substance. It becomes a loss of a loss. We go around in our lives seeking to discover what it is we have lost, and the emotional energy of that quest preys on us and latches us to people, to animals, to boats, to place, even to sounds and smells.

So the James D., several score tons of indifferent steel, stands in for someone loved and lost (in reality or in anticipation: does it matter?). And that someone, in turn, stands in for what lay before the caesura that expelled us from the womb of undifferentiated and unthought sensory wholeness. Any someone can be that stand-in; anyone who, in a moment’s real or imagined indifference, invokes that fear. 

To cleave: to cut, and to bind.

Except, no. The great mythical arc is clear enough, but I resist the reductio ad explanandum which would make boats or friends mere markers of its path. Even for me, the outsider, the boats were always more, and still are more, than a quasi-Freudian or Jungian or Campbellite construct. They were, in their stubborn, steel-clad, fish-and-fuel particularity, these:

—a walk with my dad down the long lane from house to barn at 5 in the morning, feeling slightly sick to my stomach from having been awakened so early. The sky lightening on its eastern edge, not yet pink. And from miles out on the lake beyond the far edge of the farm, the thrumming of diesel engines; the boats rounding the point.

—Adults talking over me about who had gained and who’d lost a contract to fuel the boats.

—Reminiscences about the M & K, named after Mary and Katherine, youthful friends of my mother and aunts, daughters of a sometime collaborator with my grandfather in the experimental freezing of fish and fruit.

—Crossing the roaring, honeycombed steel deck of the lift bridge, high enough on a truck seat to look over the railing and down the long rivermouth harbor lined with net sheds, boatyards and machine shops; reading names off bows and sterns. 

The names, the names.

C. S. Harriel. Ferroclad. Dover Rose. Eau Clipper, Exceleau. Leola Charles. Dyker Lass.

—Their lines; the parting, curving lines of hull and deck housing, instantly recognizable. They contoured the souls of men and women in fishing families. And, along with the fold of field and line of fence-row, they contoured even mine.

—The beach: plunging into the lake as a reward for a hot, prickly mid-day of baling and hauling hay. Lazing in the water, lifted and set down by waves, watching a very late, port-bound shape, hazy in the near-distance and half-obscured by gulls, throttle back to pass the squat lighthouse at the end of the west pier. 

—And, one diamond moment, standing on that pier to watch up close a laden boat, throttle open, shoulder through the chop to pier’s end and cut to idle, the bow relaxing into the low, diminishing swell, slipping past those who gathered every afternoon to watch the fleet come home. An open net door; one of the crew lounging in it, drawing on a final smoke. Until she came abreast of the basin entrance and the diesel rapped, sending up a jet of smoke, giving her enough way to scribe a perfect, gliding J, at the end of which—another bark of the diesel, prop digging and hull squatting—she comes in sternwise to kiss the dock. Just enough, just enough to get her there without standing off five or six feet, nor to bash her into the protective tires hung for such accidents. 

Perfect artistry. Like learning to drift a car on some late-night, unpatrolled piece of tarmac. Going sideways beautifully.

Which, come to think of it, is not a bad motto for life.

These encounters became for me later, gazing out an office window at a prairie city, memories, abstractions, stand-ins. But confronted that humid night by the James D. at pier-side, it was the shock; the puncture of a memoryscape by a visceral re-encounter—sight, smell, sound, solidity, movement—that undid me. Like re-encountering someone beloved long after all was thought lost or done with; falling apart; falling toward; falling in. There’s a likeness between encounter and memory, but they are not interchangeable.

There was love in that encounter, even if unrequited and misdirected. Even if mostly in my head. And that love was neither abstract nor generic; it was there, then, and for that. In the moment, I couldn’t have cared less if it was legitimate.

Now, though, spare a thought for those who mastered and crewed the boats, or worked the fish plants; those for whom the boats came alive when the engines caught; when they began the rhythmic dance to the waves beyond the pier, throwing spray or cutting a V through calm water, calling out the chittering of gulls. Think on those who still do.

“Miss Melissa II and her entourage.”

Miss Melissa II and her entourage.

Great Lakes fishing is an immensely productive industry, but now undertaken, as with farming, by fewer families, working heavier, larger boats. The fishery on the Canadian side (larger these days than its remnant counterpart along the American southern shores) is heavily regulated. You cannot fish without individualized, transferable production quota, and you cannot overfish that quota. Everything you catch is subject to detailed audit. As in any other sphere of working life, those in the fisheries must become experts at more than the arts of landing nets on heaving steel decks or navigation through treacherous currents and past sandbars. They must know their forms and calculations.

The boats they take out on the lake these days are major investments. Many are older hulls, bearing old names, but the boats have been lengthened, widened, with modern Caterpillar, Volvo, or General Motors engines replacing the slow-turning Bolinders or Kahlenbergs of the past.

Gill-netting has been supplanted by trawling and the shape of the boats punctuated by A-frames and then by hydraulic net hoists, and by antennae. Even their once-sophisticated electronic Loran-C navigation systems are now superseded by GPS. The cost of boats, gear, quota and regulations ensures that vanishingly-few newcomers break into the business without access to significant amounts of capital—and there are other ways to put capital to work these days. Thus, the fishing families around the lakes become smaller in number and tighter-knit, but the boats they crew range farther. It is not uncommon to find an old Erie boat working on Lake Superior or Huron.

Just as in farming, the increase in scale, sophistication and accountability has not necessarily guaranteed a stable and prosperous living on a lake plagued by algal blooms from agricultural runoff, by the consequences of industrial and residential sewage, by the threat of invasive species, by rising water temperatures and lowering water levels. Closely-managed as the lakes fishery is, it is not well.

Thus, even amongst those active in the fishery today there is opportunity to experience, feel, and to articulate both continuity and loss. The rise of social media gives an outlet to the impulse to communicate these in song, story, poetry, carving and painting. So do the small maritime museums that become gathering-places of people as well as memories, artifacts, and documents.

Is it not a good thing that those who worked the boats and those who watched and heard them from a distance, instead of competing over the legitimacy of their memories, can gather and ally themselves to make art of a shared heritage and their present condition? Can talk through and post documents about a collision in which an icebreaker improperly piloted in fog sent the Captain K. to the bottom? Can criticize the forces of kitsch which would impose a generic Atlantic-coast architectural simulacrum pier-side in villages historically foreign to it because that’s what tourists would expect, or call for vigilance about the potential walling-off of locals from the water by luxury condominium developments or fenced monster homes?

No, clocks can’t be turned back. But the passage of time can be charted in different ways, and the past can be attended to, not simply made-up, and these things can be done with people rather than for money. And it is possible to be open, singly and together, to the possibility that history can present itself, intruding sharply on memory-construction and redirect it to history-making.

Derelict fish-processing plant, Port Dover Ontario. On the wall, a poster depicting the condominiums that will replace it.

Derelict fish-processing plant, Port Dover Ontario. On the wall, a poster depicting the condominiums that will replace it.

To be nostalgic is to long for something—or someone, or a world—that was and cannot be. This world-that-was also becomes, paradoxically, a never-was whenever it is turned into a memory, whether that’s done by kitsch-architects, or by me, writing this column.

The making of memories does not satisfy the longing of nostalgia; it provokes it. This is the secret of the nostalgia-industries which accompany the change-is-necessary dogmas imposed on the world like bulldozers, piloted by creative-disruptionists, innovators bold and nimble, thought-führers and international consultancy stars.

But I want to suggest that nostalgia can open on to something else by enacting a refusal that is both rebellious and political. The other way of experiencing nostalgia—of living nostalgically—is to insist that its object can act; that this is both impossible and impossibly real and particular. That was, is, a real man, or woman, or place, or boat, that you caught yourself, too late, loving; that came toward your pull or did not. Real, and always departed.

Eyes across a table can undo you, as can a flicker of fingers, a tone of voice, a suggestion half-made, an embrace. At the sharp point of time, and again as they intrude, unbidden. So too can a boat at dusk, a semblance of a sound no longer made, the feel of air or water on the skin; smells.

You can cultivate these, recall them, bid them return. Tell stories of them to yourself or to others, and in the process knit yourself back together. But the thing itself departs; the encounter ends.

The story nostalgic longing can tell and should tell is that things fail us, and we them, and we fail each other; collapse into and away from each other at the same time. That time does not pass so much as we do. That death is as real as life. That the charms of kitsch and the hubris of the new are alike in their mad quest for solutions to insoluble contradictions of human consciousness and human life. (My grocery store now sells lifestyle solutions rather than food to be consumed daily.) There is no solution that could marry past, present, and future; marry experience and its representation; marry us indissolubly and without remainder or disappointment to each other. Save on some other plane, as some of us say to each other, wistfully.

I tried to pull that boat toward me that evening; I called to it, knowing that it, and its freight of affect, would not “come here,” just as an old friend who had died several years earlier, a day before I’d meant to phone her, would not come back, even if her emails still reside, ready to ambush, in the ghostly present of my slice of the university mail server. Just as my parents will never again be vigorous and protective. Just as those I’ve fallen for or failed will never return and, if they do, by some miracle, will not return the same, nor to the same me.

The cultural theorist Walter Benjamin wrote of a particular character—one is tempted to call it a type in the medieval theological sense; a “destructive character” which . . .

. . . knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.

The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears away the traces of our own age; it cheers, because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed a rooting out, out of his own condition [my emphasis]. Really, only the insight into how radically the world is simplified when tested for its worthiness for destruction leads to such an Apollonian image of the destroyer. This is the great bond embracing and unifying all that exists. It is a sight that affords the destructive character a spectacle of deepest harmony.

The destructive character is always blithely at work. It is Nature that dictates his tempo, indirectly at least, for he must forestall her. Otherwise she will take over the destruction herself.

The destructive character sees no image hovering before him. He has few needs, and the least of them is to know what will replace what has been destroyed. First of all, for a moment at least, empty space – the place where thing stood or the victim lived. Someone is sure to be found who needs this space without occupying it.

The destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is creative. Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy.

Much of the work deemed by cultural and educational bureaucrats to be “creative” these days is, in fact, destructive in this sense, and it is no accident that destruction and disruption are words often now paired with creation. The thing is to clear the space where the old and intransigent stood. What will be constructed after is at the whim of those who need the space: stakeholders for whom conventionalized pattern-breaking can be done in the name of spectacle and profit.

Those who make and experience the spectacle, who collect the kitsch, who populate the spaces, who accumulate the profit and seek to grow it further like hothouse plants on the artificial fertilizer of speculation—they are the faces of character in our day. The point is to amass and to fortify, knowing full well that, as you do so, you become a target for destruction by competitors, whether the game is money or prestige. So you must periodically clear away yourself.

In popular psychology and certain popularizations of eastern religions, the latest watchword is minimalism and the denigration of attachment. Baggage and stuff, whether material or emotional, is out. To be torn apart by attachment forged too early, too unrealistically or against lifestyle or status codes, is to make a mess, to trespass boundaries, to show dependency. Attachment to other people or to “stuff” means taking on and carrying a burden, cluttering rather than clearing space. Keep only what you can use. Only what “fulfills” you.

To become powerfully attached to, and then to lose, a place, a time, a material environment, a family or culture, a person, is to undergo amputation. Boundaries are slashed, blood spilled, messes made. Bodies and psyches mingle, destabilize, fuse. And then tear and divide. The separation that reinstates autonomy and eliminates clinging leaves its survivors with phantom pain that they are told they must get over. Change happens, and because it happens, it is sovereign. That is the new Natural Law, and tradition is its enemy, to be repulsed and called its opposite—dead weight.

Before being tagged, preserved, and exploited for heritage design.

So—do you find yourself barely breathing from a loss of someone or something once loved? There are stages of grief, and a healthy tempo to get through them, established by accountants who run employee assistance plans. The point of grief is not to hang on but to let go—and to clear out.

Those who insist, “No: Her eyes. His breath. Their arms. That boat. This place,” miss the point of the modern. “Move on! Nothing to see here. Abrade and cover the wound.” There are services to help. Cut yourself free, but do not cut yourself. Hold others, but appropriately and responsibly, by choice.

We all make choices, after all. Fishing crews trapped and drowned by a giant freak wave over the stern, slamming the boat straight to the bottom in a second or two, chose to go out that morning. Chose that “career.”

Why choose the James D.? You had no connection; it makes no sense. “How is that working for you?”

There will be other lovers to choose. Other places. Other opportunities. Lots of fish in the sea.

But the crews of lake boats know that the supply of their fish is not inexhaustible, and that it’s a supply only in the sense that they are supplicants. Likely, they also suspect that the strictest and most scientific management may save neither fish stocks nor a way of life. The boats sit idle when quotas are reached.

Some species—the blue pickerel, for example—are gone forever; others, like sturgeon, hang by a thread. Different species are never straight swap-ins. Nor is other work. Other gear and other ways of catching fish bend bodies, minds and the relations of crew to their will; they are not simply interchangeable tools and techniques. Only the economic system that turns them all into commodities makes it seem that gear, fish, crew, methods, deaths, are mere units of exchange.

When exchange severs itself from connection, it becomes sleight-of-hand; then theft.

Nostalgic melancholy may seek connection uselessly, but perhaps uselessness is precisely the point; the puncture.

George Baker:

. . . melancholia, we might say, is above all a form of connection. It is a recalcitrant insistence on attachment, a passionate embrace, but to an object that is in fact gone; this is a connection staged around loss. Melancholia thus embodies a form of impossible connection.  . . . To seize upon connection at the point of loss: Freud once insisted, in “Mourning and Melancholia” (1915), that melancholia was not only a fixation, but also a “taking flight,” a mysterious passage of the lost object into the ego, so that—just perhaps— “love [might] escape [. . .] abolition.”

Along with love, what else, perhaps, escapes abolition?

You, whom I have ignored, or walled off in a particular kind of memory. You, whom I pursued injudiciously.

You, boat. You, dinner companion. You, glimpsed from a distance or held too close. You, former lover; you unrequited love. You, friend or ex-friend; spouse, ex-spouse. You, parent, child, animal. You, texture of hair that I kiss; you, skin; you, gentle tone and modest lilt of voice. You, curve of cheek or brow or hand, of valley or rising hill. You, line of nose; line of fence-row trees, meandering line of hill or creek; hull-line unfurled from prow to stem. You, homestead or fish plant sold to developers, exiled apartment, abandoned furniture, books, scraps of paper, lines of juvenile poetry. You, perished forest. You, crew member, having your smoke at the net door as you glide past me in memory.

You, the past.

You, smell of oncoming rain at night. You, damp clothes, damp eyes, tears. You, tearing and torn away. You, water’s gap between step and step. You, bravery, fear, failure.

I fall into you, hold you, part from you. Always. That is my loyalty, my end. 

Author’s note: It should go without saying, but one can never be sure. I included the account of my half-step aboard a fishing tug because it made sense as a pivot within the larger narrative. But description does not equal incitement. I was, as I noted, undone, and my step-across was foolish. I am obliged to warn anyone walking about a harbor in which there are working boats to stay away from active work areas, and not to board or place a foot on them without permission, even when they are at rest.

Acknowledgements: This column owes a very great deal to conversations I’ve had over the summer with at least five different people. I’ve chosen not to name them here, but hope that they will recognize my debt, accept my gratitude, and forgive my misinterpretations.

Photo credits: Images 1, 3, and 5, by the author; Image 2, author’s collection; Image 4, photo by mikequozl on Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miss_Melissa_II_and_Her_Entourage.jpg.

References:

“The first chapter of Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto; Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Destructive Character’, and Filippo Tomasso Marinetti’s ‘Manifesto of Futurism’…”

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#007

http://www.revistapunkto.com/2011/12/destructive-character-walter-benjamin.html

http://www.italianfuturism.org/manifestos/foundingmanifesto/

“Perhaps second only to sex, nostalgia sells.” 

– Jim Lane, “Painting Nostalgia,” Art Now and Then, 2014. http://art-now-and-then.blogspot.ca/2014/04/painting-nostalgia.html

“. . . Georg Simmel, noted this in the glad rush to enlist in the early days of the first World War, as did Modris Eksteins a hundred years later.”

—Georg Simmel, “The Conflict in Modern Culture,” in D. N. Levine, ed., Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms (University of Chicago Press, 1971)

—Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Mariner Books, 2000)

“. . . nostalgia, as Wendy Brown assures us, is devoid of critical political possibility.”

—Wendy Brown, “Resisting Left Nostalgia,” boundary 2, 26(3), 1999. http://www.commonhouse.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/brown-melancholia-of-the-left.pdf

“We knew the stories of the disasters . . . collisions . . .” 

—See “Recovery of Captain K from Lake Erie,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/tsbcanada/16734075880

—See also Jacob Robinson, “Ceremony at Port Dover Harbour Museum honours commercial fishermen,” Simcoe Reformer, May 11, 2015. http://www.simcoereformer.ca/2015/05/11/ceremony-at-port-dover-harbour-museum-honours-commercial-fishermen

“. . . to find among them musicians, poets and artists. . .”

—See, for example, “Devil’s Hole” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBoukFnIfWU, and also “Bruce ‘House’ Milner” http://www.folkartcanada.ca/Ont_HM.html

“The Genesis story may be read as a retelling of this originary drama.”

—See Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious (Schocken, 2011)

“. . .individualized, transferrable production quota. . .”

—Ontario Commercial Fisheries’ Association: “Quotas.” http://www.ocfa.ca/fisheries-industry/quotas

“Gill-netting has been supplanted by trawling. . .”

—See William G. Gordon and Keith D. Brouillard, “Great Lakes Trawler Conversion,” U. S. Department of the Interior, Fishery Leaflet 510, 1961. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/Fishery%20Leaflets/leaflet510.pdf

“Closely-managed as the Lakes fishery is, it is not well.”

http://www.asiancarp.ca/SitePages/Default.aspx

—Debora Van Brenk, “Eel-like fish once threatened to ruin the multibillion-dollar Great Lakes fishing industry,” The London Free Press, June 3, 2015. http://www.lfpress.com/2015/06/03/eel-like-fish-once-threatened-to-ruin-the-multibillion-dollar-great-lakes-fishing-industry

—Peter Meisenheimer, “Those Old Great Lakes, They Ain’t What They Used to Be,” The Ontario Green News, n.d. http://www.uoguelph.ca/~whulet/OGN/Vol1Issue1/Peter_Meisenheimer.htm

—K. S. Pagnucco, G. A. Maynard, S. A. Fera, N. D.Yan, T. F. Nalepa, A. Ricciardi, “The future of species invasions in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin,” Journal of Great Lakes Research 41, Supplement 1, 2015: 96-107. http://redpath-staff.mcgill.ca/ricciardi/Pagnucco_etal_JGLR.pdf

—George Baker on melancholia:

“Some Things Moyra Taught Me,” frieze, issue 130, 2010. http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/some_things_moyra_taught_me/

For Further Reading:

On attachment, homesickness, melancholy and mourning (and the work of Walter Benjamin, central to a cultural discussion of these themes), see these:

—John E. Baker, “Mourning and the Transformation of Object Relationships: Evidence for the Persistence of Internal Attachments,” Psychoanalytic Psychology, 18(1), 2001: 55-73. http://www.griefcounselor.org/articles/prof-article-mourning-and-transformation-baker.pdf

—Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Verso, 2009)

—Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Selected Works of Walter Benjamin, Vol. 1 (Harvard, 2000)

—Judith Butler, David L. Eng, and David Kazanjian, eds., Loss: The Politics of Mourning (University of California Press, 2002)

—Josh Cohen, “Phenomenologies of Mourning: Gillian Rose and Walter Benjamin,” Women: A Cultural Review, 9(1): 47-61. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09574049808578334

—Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Harvard, 2008)

—Beatrice Hanssen, “Portrait of Melancholy (Benjamin, Warburg, Panofsky),” MLN, 114 (5), 1999: 991-1013

—Michael A. Holly, “Patterns in the Shadows,” In[ ]visible Culture, 1999: https://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/issue1/holly/holly.html

—Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (Columbia University Press, 1992)

—Francesca Mari, “On Homesickness,” The Paris Review, November 2, 2011

http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/11/02/on-homesickness/

—Max Pensky, Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning (University of Massachusetts Press, 1993)

—Eric L. Santner, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

—Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious (Schocken, 2011)

This column also pulls on two rapidly-developing fields of academic inquiry known as affect theory and postmemory.

Affect theory acknowledges that human emotions are socially and culturally-coded, but it attempts to account for or to give voice to the forces or feeling states which drive emotive responses. Above all, it involves seeing humans as more than, other than cognitive beings who, for example, make choices out of rational self-interest based on situated observations of their environments.

Further, it emphasizes that human collective life, including its political and economic dimensions, cannot be understood adequately apart from the feelings roused, dampened, or denied in us and between us as we negotiate social life.

And finally, affect theory works with a model of human being and feeling that is permeable. Affect theorists do not treat emotions as welling up only from within, but as communicable, shared, and co-produced—and also as invasive and subversive of the individualized selves we try to build, narrate, protect, and shield. Our feeling-states, further, are not fully under our rational control (does that even need to be said?).

On affect theory, see the following:

—Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Routledge, 2014)

—Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Duke University Press, 2010)

—Sara Ahmed, Wilful Subjects (Duke University Press, 2014)

—Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011)

—Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love (Lightning Source, 2012)

—Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Duke University Press, 2012)

—Heather Davis & Paige Sarlin, “No One is Sovereign in Love: A Conversation Between Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt,” Nomorepotlucks, 2011. http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/no-one-is-sovereign-in-love-a-conversation-between-lauren-berlant-and-michael-hardt/

—Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America (Princeton, 1996)

—Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, The Affect Theory Reader (Duke University Press, 2009)

—Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Harvard, 2007)

Postmemory refers to the retrospective construction of memories at one remove from experience of actual events. Marianne Hirsch, who coined the term and applied it to the second-generation experiences of children of Holocaust survivors, defines it thus:

“Postmemory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before—to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory´s connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.

http://www.postmemory.net/

The memories I’ve chosen to describe here are not particularly traumatic; nor is my separation, both from the worlds of my childhood experience and from people who’ve told me stories about their own, different pasts. But such memories do shape an uneven, gradual pain of separateness. And they are an amalgam of my own personal experience with stories I’ve heard others tell, in past and present. They create for me a remembered world with an emotive force, even at a remove. Memory is a work of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together, gathering fragments to provide a vessel for emotion. But when one is surprised by affect; when one falls apart “for no reason” at the sight, sound, or smell of something from the past, that’s a different thing. Such feelings can stab memory in the back. Memory may construct a path for them, but does not create them.

On postmemory, and related subjects, see these:

—Tonya K. Davidson and Ondine Park, eds., Ecologies of Affect: Placing Nostalgia, Desire, and Hope (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011), especially Section 1, and most especially, Tonya K Davidson, “Nostalgia and Postmemories of a Lost Place: Actualizing ‘My Virtual Homeland’

—Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

—Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Createspace, 2012)

—Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (Columbia, 2012)

And finally, for those who want to know more about the Great Lakes fishery, its people, and the boats, I can recommend the following:

—Two excellent photos by Shaun Vary of the James D., docked in Port Stanley, Ontario, where I saw her (by an idiosyncratic Great Lakes nomenclature convention, vessels are female, but tend to receive male names). The James D. was involved in the search for the legendary ore carrier, Edmund Fitzgerald, and recovered one of the latter’s lifeboats.

See here: http://boatnerd.com/pictures/fishtugs/images/James%20D.%20PS09.jpg, and here: http://boatnerd.com/pictures/fishtugs/images/James%20D.%20PS.jpg

A beautiful head-on of the Nancy A. Siddall, by George Wharton, may be found here: http://boatnerd.com/news/newsthumbsb/images-11-3/1.NancyASiddall83011gw4015.jpg

Another by Dave Noordhoff, taken abeam as she turned, is here: http://boatnerd.com/news/newsthumbsb/images-11-3/4-NancySiddall-8-8-11-dn.jpg

—Margaret Beattie Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783–1933 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000) http://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/3053.htm

— “Commercial Fish Tug Photo Gallery,” at Boatnerd: http://boatnerd.com/pictures/fishtugs/Default.htm

— “Commercial Fishermen Review Year,” Port Dover Maple Leaf, November 27, 2014. http://www.portdovermapleleaf.com/commercial-fishermen-review-year/

— “Extreme winter puts $100M Great Lakes fishing industry behind schedule,” CBC News, March 18, 2015. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/extreme-winter-puts-100m-great-lakes-fishing-industry-behind-schedule-1.2999514

—Sharon Hill, “$244M economic impact shows importance of Lake Erie commercial fishery,” Windsor Star, March 25, 2015: http://blogs.windsorstar.com/news/244m-economic-impact-shows-importance-of-lake-erie-commercial-fishery

—Ronald E. Kinnunen and Phil Moy, “Great Lakes Commercial Fisheries,” NOAA. http://fshn.ifas.ufl.edu/seafood/sst/33rdann/ppt/day2/12_moy_phil.pdf

—Kristin Ohlson, “Figuring out the Lake,” art | sci magazine (Case Western Reserve University), 11(2), 2015. http://artsci.case.edu/magazine/2015/figuring-out-the-lake/

—Port Dover Harbour Museum. http://www.portdovermuseum.ca/

—Port Dover—Then Gallery (History) —Norfolk County. http://www.escapetodover.com/photo-gallery-then.htm

Plus a few videos of varying quality:

—Commercial Fishing – Norfolk County – Lake Erie – Port Dover.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feAqB6UzmkI

—Ice Breaking In The Spring. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rOct1SP6pg

—Ploughing through ice into the harbour at Goderich, Ontario. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjBii9dSi3E

—and a piece of fervent, amateur nostalgia (start at 0:56, and also read the comments): the L. R. Jackson, at Port Stanley, Ontario. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jT9n0s2Jv2Q

About William Ramp

William Ramp teaches sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, Canada. He’s bemused to find himself in his sixth decade, nursing both a long and faulty memory, and age-inappropriate attitudes. He is fortunate to be organized, inspired and kept in line by dear friends and cheerfully-irreverent children. He contends as best he can with a host of garden-variety demons, imagining that some day he will beat them all, but suspecting he really should invite them in for coffee and a chat at fireside. Though trained in academic prose, he’s returning to a love of creative and incidental writing left behind in high school. That love is now his lifeline; a way to retain a footing on new paths and to contribute to uncaged and free-range conversation.
His interests tend to be intellectual, but he delights in poring over antique machinery, grafting strange sprigs onto unsuspecting trees, listening to frogs in spring, watching thunderstorms outside and in bare feet, and talking to crows and magpies. He bumbles at night around the porch-lights of culture and ideas, and gravitates to redolent old things left at the curb of modern life. He tries not to let frustration with bad politics and worse news eclipse his sometimes wayward and over-ardent affections for the things of this world. Banner(1) photo used by permission of photographer Penny McCoy: www.pennyphotographics.com; banner(2) photo used by permission of photographer Bradley Rawlings; headshot photo by Louis-Philippe Valiquete, Laboratoire d’études durkheimienne, UQAM.

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2 Responses to Of Nostalgia & Going Sideways Beautifully (Best of WH)

  1. Anita Sullivan says:

    Will, this is so incredibly rich, I want to read it again, in chunks next time. I have spent so much time wrestling with nostalgia (I used to joke that I would die of it one day). I especially love “there is a likeness between encounter and memory, but they are not interchangeable.” Also, I think your piece illustrates that metaphor comes first — it is the primal and primary way of truly experiencing anything that has meaning. And history can, as you say, “present itself.” Thanks for taking me again into that necessary crucible!

  2. William Ramp says:

    Thanks Anita…you have seen through to the core of the piece: it is very much about wrestling with nostalgia, from a place between nostalgia and encounter. I wrote it in two modes. Part of it seemed to write itself, as if I was being overwhelmed (or smacked in the face) by words that were no longer quite my own. In other places, I was struggling –perhaps too much– to make sense of it all.
    There is a certain grace in realizing that, as you say, metaphor comes first.

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