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Branson: Nostalgia and Memoria

My wife and I spent an extended weekend in Branson, Missouri to celebrate her birthday this year.  Although we enjoyed a couple of shows, ate some good food, and purchased a few nice items, I came away reflecting on the difference between nostalgia and memoria.

First of all, it needs to be said that the shows at Branson are definitely minor league.  If you go expecting to see the equivalent of New York theater or Carnegie Hall music, you’re going to be disappointed. However, this is not a criticism.  Just as we can enjoy watching a minor league professional baseball team, so we can enjoy listening to professional music at a price more within the grasp of the common man’s pocketbook.

We attended a musical/dance show with a bit of comedy thrown in performed by Dublin’s Irish Tenors and the Celtic Ladies and a Doo-Wop show in which we heard standard 1950’s songs by a trio distantly descended from the Drifters.  We enjoyed them both, but my experience of both was markedly different.

Now, when my wife is the only person younger than I am in the audience, it is pretty clear that the music is not going to be the trendiest.  This was true of the Doo-Wop show.  The lead singer, who was also something of the emcee, played the nostalgia card for all that it was worth.  He often asked people whether they remembered where they were when they first heard a certain song.  One time, he asked if someone could demonstrate a dance that was popular when the song he was about to perform was first released.

We didn’t mind the nostalgia pitch, but it reached the height of absurdity when my wife bought one of the group’s CD’s and the singer asked her whether the show had brought back memories.  She wasn’t even born by the time the Doo-Wop era had already passed, and she’s from the Caribbean–not exactly a Doo-Wop hotbed.  She had learned to enjoy the style of music from me.  As for myself, I didn’t start listening to pop music at all until the British Invasion was in full swing.  Since then, I have enjoyed exploring American pop music from the fifties and early sixties, but it wasn’t one of my “memories.”

Nostalgia, like several of the Doo-Wop audience were feeling, is a desire to return to former happy times or to relive past happy experiences.  There is nothing wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t kill the possibility of present enjoyment.  It can even serve as a reminder that contemporary society or aspects of it represent a decline from other times and places.

Memoria is different from nostalgia.  I am intentionally using the Latin word rather than the English word “memory” in order to highlight the fact that in the history of Western thought memoria has served as one of the keys to the meaning of human nature and existence.  In order to demonstrate the importance of memoria, let’s take a very brief look at Plato’s Phaedo and G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

In the Phaedo Plato (428-348 B.C.) has his master Socrates arguing that in our experience of the changing world, our souls recollect absolute realities such as beauty and goodness.  Socrates uses knowledge as recollection to argue that our souls exist before we are born into this material world.  As a Christian I disagree with the notion of the pre-existence of human souls, but Plato’s theory of knowledge is important for memoria.  Our experience of changing objects leads us to an awareness of unchanging realities.

Let’s turn now to G. K. Chesterton’s (1874-1936) reflection on the effect that the story “Robinson Crusoe” had on him.  It can be found at the end of the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in his book Orthodoxy.  Chesterton writes that “the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck” (p. 113).  The list made him feel “as if all the order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe’s ship” (p. 114).  As a result, Chesterton concluded, among other things, that “this world does not explain itself,” but as a work of art had some meaning and purpose, that this purpose “was beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects,” and lastly the “vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin.  Man had saved his good as Crusoe saved his goods: he had saved them from a wreck” (pp. 115-116).

Chesterton’s experience of the flaws and fragility of the world’s goods, indeed of the world itself, gave him the impression that it had all been saved from a primordial ruin.  This impression that the world is not as it ought to be, but is still essentially good, leads to the feeling that something has been lost.  I would contend that this sense of loss is a kind of universal human memoria of the fall, the biblical story that God created the world as good but that the original paradise has been lost.  It results in our feeling that good things ought to be unmixed with evil and to last forever.  This memoria of loss should also serve as a hopeful pointer to the restoration and fulfillment of the all good in God’s new heavens and new earth.

But what does this have to do with a weekend in Branson?  How can we end up discussing the meaning and purpose of life after starting with chatting about what I called minor league entertainment?  Let me tell you.

During the Dublin’s Irish Tenor show, one of the men sang, “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.” It is a lovely old ballad in which a lover remembers the joyful times that Maggie and he spent in their youth.  There is the melancholy of lost youth, but also much more than that.  At the end of the first verse he declares,

They say we are aged and grey, Maggie,

As spray by the white breakers flung,

But to me you’re as fair as you were, Maggie,

When you and I were young.

The recollection of the past scenes of youthful joy leads the lover to recognize that something greater has endured time’s ravages.  It is the love of his lover.

I found myself deeply moved.  I had experienced memoria, the bittersweet experience one has of loss in a fallen world, the gratitude that one has even had the chance to enjoy the profound satisfaction of love, and even more that the fleeting pleasure of love points us toward its fulfillment in an eternal love that will never die.  For, as the Apostle John reminds us twice, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).


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