Thursday, January 31, 2008


The word nostalgie was coined in 1668 by the Alsatian physician Johannes Hofer. Combining the Greek nostros for "homecoming" with algos for "pain, grief, and distress" Hofer invented a term to describe the disease of "extreme homesickness." At the time, this nostalgie was one ill plaque. It would jaundice the soul, blind the spirit, and wither one to dust if left undiagnosed. Doctors shuddered less even when encountering the similar stiffness of ennui because at least ennui , though an equally arresting condition, had a way of mutating randomly here and there into eurekic snaps back out to languidity; as if the sufferer of ennui, bored to death by life, kept whittling away substance he could no longer find interest in until he'd narrowed it all down to one single dot on the wall, a dot he'd then transfix on for weeks trying to whittle down further still until -- in the fortunate cases -- the force inside this dot propelled by cosmic ebb and flow would then reverse its own trajectory refusing to get caught (think past and future Big Bangs) releasing the ailed into a furious sweat of ideas, and hence, frantic liberation. The sufferer of nostalgie however had no similar simple reactionary hope. He would stare at this same dot transfixed similarly because it was also the end result of his attempt to whittle back to the point he'd come from unable to ever return. Depression came to the nostalgent from the feeling of being stuck on a line oozing pointlessly and joylessly forward, and yet to turn him around would be to place him back in the original direction birth had him running from: nostalgie then was an awareness of the same dot at both opposing ends of that line. And so the doctors were stuck too. No honest treatment could be found for this crippling disease.
Seemingly making matters more complicated, returning home in the Alsace- Lorraine has never come easy. Rarely could a doctor just send the sick homebound to start afresh. Home was often in someone else's hands. The first recorded history of the region has Celts fighting vertical wars with Romans over control of the salt mines; since then some sort of horizontal Franco-Germanic conflict has kept the area inflamed or at a minimum, instantly provokable. A-L (with a naiveté appropriately opposite to that found in L.A.) has been continuously pummeled from every angle. Who knew what language would be spoken in the home you grew up in, assuming your home was even still standing. Well miraculously, it was this same displacement that inadvertently produced the cure. Truth is, Hofer did invent the word nostalgie, but not the condition. The condition was already well researched, documented, and revered in German as heimweh; Hofer was well familiar with it.
Being Alsatian, Hofer spoke both French and German and had formal studies on both sides of the Rhine. In 1668 most of the Alsace was in French hands though, capitulated by the Hapsburgs in the Treaty of Westphalia only a few decades earlier. The Hapsburgs would then lose the rest to Louis the XIV within the proceeding decades therein making French that centuries temporarily imposed tongue (though whether it was by a Franco royal edict or personal preference to speak French, history appropriately does not document), so Johannes Hofer transposing a French word where a German word already existed stumbled him into the recipe for vaccinations one hundred years before the first vaccine was accredited in use for fighting smallpox. In other words, Hofer discovered that the antidote to the virus is always the same virus. The antidote is never very far or different from the original old dote. Dote coming from the Greek didonai which meant "to give" which shares the same Proto-Indo-European root with "grab" which is essentially the same thing as "taking" meant that by fighting heimweh with nostalgie Hofer was able to spin the victim's maligned existential lines into whirlwindic circles that vacillated the victims give-taking between languages thereby losing track of who's on first, what's on second, how will we ever get to third, ad infinitum until being flung from the infirmary on a long slow ginger skip home.
"Wait doctor, so is it heimweh or nostalgie that I suffer from?"
"Well you see, in a word son, both…it was heimweh, it is currently nostalgie, and if I have my way you may very soon carry with you something similar called nostalgia.
"Whatever word we chose to use, this condition which ponders the past exists in all tenses. It is always around us, yet it is also this inescapability that frees us. May I offer you October Fifth as proof? This is a day just deep enough into Fall to begin feeling nostalgic for past summer's follies while simultaneously near enough to the future holiday season you look forward to nostalgically as a summation of all the past holidays enjoyed. On October Fifth both the past and the future are nostalgic. Whatever direction you turn you see the past. This is an impossible equation, no? All things lead backwards? Well if this is the case then we must have mistaken what backwards truly is. Backwards must be forwards as well then. On October Fifth you therefore move forward with no other direction to go. Or better, On October Fifth you are finally just moving unconcerned with direction. It's for this reason you can not recall a single memory from October Fifth {sic: we are pausing while you search}. You were moving forward then, free of memory. You don't remember it, but you were also happy then. The day is so liberated from memory you aren't even sure if it's October Fifth precisely you fail to remember. It may have been the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, or Eighth, who knows! And seeing as you can't remember the day, you also can't recall the date. Yes, you were happy then because regardless of direction, you were heading home to the cradled beginning -- as you are now.
"Patient, allow me to continue extrapolation. You must also understand that to bring you this word for your condition I had to travel to Greece to seek the words the ancients would have used to secure firm footing for my new word. You would have eschewed a proper new word as yet another propigant further forward and an old word would have been but another reminder of just how impossibly distant the past feels. I needed a nonchronistic offspring of them both. Thing is, with imperial forces in these parts toppled as frequently as they are, I also needed a word that would weather any crown. This is how I solved it: from the Alsace to Greece there are two routes to go, the northern and the southern routes. The northern route would take me through German states, through the circle of the central Hapsburg duchies, and across the Balkans to Greece. The southern route would take me over the Alps, into the Savoy, and down through the Italian peninsula where I would embark via boat to Greece from Brindisi. I decided to try them both as 'both' seemed to be the opposite of the singularity your malady has you only seeing now. I chose the southern route on my way there, and took the northern on my way back.
"As I passed through the Italian republics on my southern route I heard the first part of this word nos which they used to mean "our." On my return voyage through the northern route while winding through the Schwarzwald I heard the second part of this word tal which the Schwabians used to mean "valley." This suffix "gie" was used in some way in every language, dialect, and slang I encountered to mean just about anything so let's call this tail to our word "everything." Inadvertently, I discovered by taking this circular trip to and from my destination that I was in possession of a compound word whose separate pieces with entirely different etymologies from the same compound word of the nostalgie from nostros plus algos I invented in Greece share identical meanings to each other! Fraternal twins who happened to plop out identical! You see, in this circular etymology nostalgie translates quite literally to 'Our Valley of Everything.' Whichever homonym you choose we all therefore suffer from nostalgie to a greater or lesser degree. We carry it with us. It is our communal collection. It is therefore not just your disease, dear patient, we all share it -- and if we all share it well then it can't quite be considered a disease at all then, can it? Please, don't burden yourself with the weight of the entire load. It is there with or without your extra burden."
And so through the wordplay of Johannes Hofer the pain was imparted into all of us and nostalgie mellowed into the softer nostalgia and ceased tormenting us as a disease proper. It may continue to exist as a valley of sorts, but if we recognize it as "the valley" doesn't that in the very least say something of our position on the hill? Nostalgia exists like any element does. It is not a force to eradicate. It is yet another element to monitor and ride as it adds its hue to the impartial scene. Luckily, it's also a beautiful word and just to say it keeps its hazards in check. Say it with veneration, nostalgia. Gorgeous even.
Problem is, our northern fear of stagnation and lack of advancement has created an unbalanced cultural focus on all things future tense that clouds our ability to appreciate nostalgia's full spectrum. Our northern goals for our days and what we feel we need to get done during them place such an unbalanced focus on progress and societal betterment that we push nostalgia to a delicate periphery where a fear of retrospection (in the event that a spelunk too far down could suck you into some reminiscent unproductive bog) could cancer nostalgia back into a disease again. It's not necessarily a negative word though; it doesn't even have to be a depressive one. It is a word that demands a certain comprehensive time-sensitive breath to say right, true, but any word that complete should. Perhaps we get nervous around it in the north because our contribution to the word, the valley, the tal, is the heavy side. If that's the case, perhaps we should. Maybe even the jobs allotted for the proper functioning of nostalgia have been divvied appropriately then: judicial monitoring for the north, executive risk-taking for the south where the first part of the word, the collective part, the uplifting part, the nos came from on Hofer's southern trek.
Along the Mediterranean on his southern leg, Hofer found the northern and southern uses of nostalgia to be rather different, existing in concentric circles that overlapped in the 'comprehensive time-sensitive breath' quadrant and worded similarly in the dictionary, but with a nuance that rendered them almost different words entirely. The rest of the free space in the southern pie of nostalgia that does not overlap with the northern nostalgia actually leans towards things like progress, the timeless wisdom of masonry, and endless inextricable communion. Hofer came to surmise that this Mediterranean soul surrounded by ruins is raised on his imponderable equation: when every direction leads to the past you find yourself heading towards the future back to home. They don't need to learn it on the Mediterranean, it's in them. The ruins have stood millennia as Vespas, theocratic campaigns, and souvenir crazed tourists whipped within and without. They've been bombed, burned, pardoned, and recently internationally preserved. These people aren't living in the past by carrying it with them, they're celebrating the story of past, present, and future as it happens at once in all directions.
It is our northern inability to wrap our heads completely around this notion that not only impedes our ability to digest and enjoy the ruins as our own ruins but also impedes our ability to appreciate the gaudiness of the modern Mediterranean art being thrown up in seeming contrast around them today. We vacation to Rome to ponder both how a modern city grew around ruins without knocking them down (lazy or respectful?) and how the intellect of Michelangelo could produce something as garish as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We can dig into the gaudiness through irony, yes, but to discuss irony is to discuss a different disease altogether. There is another purer way to value gaudiness. Michelangelo understood it. The Egyptians got it. The Moors of Al Andalus sanctified themselves through it long after both their name and their religion have survived centuries of attempts at vilification. It's simple really, Mediterranean art is meant to ripen. Ripen over centuries with salt from the sea air, curious paws of passing patrons, bullet holes from wars we can't too soon forget. The colors are meant to be too brash, the columns are meant to be overly ornate, the grotesques are not all meant to remain. In Mediterranean art what may first appear as overdone is in fact a great understanding of humility. The artist knows that though he is a conduit for a Muse there is a man in between to contend with. A flawed man. A man who can't possibly get it right. Therefore, the Mediterranean artist overdoes it to allow the immaculate visions of history and the elements remedy his faults.
Interestingly, the Romans never specified which Muse exactly was the Muse of Art. Vermeer believed Clio, the Muse of History, moonlighted as the Muse of Art. Vermeer knew that now is the time to see the Parthenon, for example. It's ripened with history. It may have peaked in the past century, but it was certainly way too much to look at when Iktinos completed it 2,500 years ago. History has finally completed the job. It took away what wasn't meant to stand. I think Vermeer would also agree that Venice's Basilica de San Marco awaits some more. Clio's not yet done. She may be waiting for Venice to sink, when the only way to visit the church is by boat and who wouldn't concur with her then that that would perfect the project.
William Hogarth believed Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, masqueraded as the Muse of Art. He was on to something too. Moving west across the Mediterranean to Barcelona we face a metaphor too blunt, too cheesy, to admit: Antoni Gaudi is both the architect and archetype of gaudy. Painfully so. He's bedazzled Barcelona with eyesores Catalans have no choice but to esteem. It would be too much to expect the Catalans to humble into a confession that their number one attraction, La Sagrada Familia, is downright hideous -- Oh there I go with my northern mind already forgetting why Hogarth invoked Thalia! Yes yes, the Barcelonans are laughing at me! Gaudi's creations are modern history! They have yet to ripen with us and the elements! In due time they will mute, soften, breathe and be breathed upon, occupy a nook in "Our Valley of Everything," and our collective narcissism will both take credit for and adore them as they will be worthy of adoration.
I talk this talk though fellow New Worlders further West and centuries younger than perhaps the spirit of any New Worlder is qualified to do. As I pause for a minute to reflect on my own city I realize how hard pressed you'd be to find a single New Yorker not ready to tear down Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim and start anew. We don't just hate seeing it, we think it's dumb. But am I trying to tell myself that in due time this building will make sense? It's already starting to peel and the renovations made to it this year were the first on the abomination in over a decade. Are the curators already on my nostalgic tip? No, I don't buy it. Just because things go up doesn't mean they should stay up. The Guggenheim should come down and I promise my opinion does not stem from a rash American deus ex machina machismo. It just doesn't work. It won't ripen. We're gradually figuring out how to read these things. Beginning with the transference of the banners of modernity to the newer and taller skylines of Asia and then solidified by the bombing of the Towers, the spirit of New Yorkers is changing. We're almost part of the Old World. We're gaining nostalgic perspective. Even New Jersey is producing a successful organic vineyard these days. As New Worlders we're plowing ahead with our ability to accept the past in the present while attempting to carry with us our own past of a complete irreverence for it.
This is obviously no easy task. Thalia's been our Muse since conception. We've been tearing mansions down to build skyscrapers in their stead. We've been consuming everything that floats ashore and claiming it as our own creation. We've proudly sold shirts proclaiming things like "Welcome to New York Mother Fucking City, Now Duck Bitch." We've been laughing at ourselves.
That's not our city anymore though, and yet we're cautious to welcome Clio in as our new Muse. These are tricky times, go easy on us. This flux of Muses has left us debating helter-skelter things like whether to or not to tear down the legendary "punk" club CBGB's. The lease is up and the new one's got an extra zero. In the last century this debate would have never even existed. Goodbye Cotton Club. So long Copacabana. We awaited the next step. Goodbye Filmore East. Goodbye Cat Club. Couldn't wait to see what came next. The dance clubs in West Chelsea have changed names and hands a hundred times. The Palladium became an NYU dorm. Christ! Can you imagine if they all still stood? How old would that make us? CBGB's, though once seminal, still stands and hasn't supported a non-referential act in over a decade. Last call to define the genre boundaries of the bands that play its stage closed at a hardcore matinee in 1988. Of course, newness isn't an essential element of goodness, but packaging redundancy and selling it as newness is reason enough to support that new lease. Yes, love our northern minds for studying the ways of the south, the nos, by trying to officially make CB's "ours", but pity us for being stuck in the classroom still unable to get down to the curb. Eager to get the nos we've tried to lose the tal, yet you need them both to form the word and there are other ways to fill the valley than leaving all the ruins up. The air holds memories as well as the soil does. If we buried CBGB's in the soil of the Fresh Kills landfill rest assured the ocean air would breeze across Staten Island as it does now and bring CB's and all its original smells back to us everyday. CBGB's is everybody's now. Time to offer her up.
So aged Jersey rocker Little Stevie of E Street Band fame has been spearheading the movement to preserve CB's with the inane claim that "it's the last rock and roll club in the universe." Good god how my heart aches for all the good people behind La Sala Rosa in Montreal, The Earl in Atlanta, Kafe Kult in Munich, Mono in Glasgow, The Replay Lounge in Lawrence, Kansas and the myriad other crusaders across the globe losing money dealing with the petty idiosyncrasies of musicians because they believe in it when they have the nagging option all along of just turning on the jukebox and simply selling booze. Muddy Waters is spinning in his grave embarrassed by the hacks that consider themselves his offspring. Muddy Waters was tearing walls down, rockers, not putting them up. Where was Little Stevie in 1971 when Caetano Veloso released the song "Nostalghia (That's What Rock and Roll Is All About)"? Where was Little Stevie when Tim Yohannon led a parade of casket bearers carrying effigies of hippies down Haight Street proclaiming the Death of Flower Power in 1967? And could Little Stevie have possibly made it through school without reading Leo Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata" wherein the revolutionary grip of music causes infidelity amongst the refined against their greater will? Tolstoy managed to never use the words "rock and roll."
Yes, it is time to close CBGB's, but more importantly we should applaud ourselves for at least debating it. In debating it we've created something new; a debate where none would have existed in the past. And seeing as this debate truly is something new, I propose we offer up this newness as our appropriate eulogy to the newness CB's once spawned. We're looking back to our musical past for advice and it tells us to start a revolution towards the future, but to tear the building down is contrary to our architectural past which is on one hand ashamed we tore down masterpieces like Penn Station but proud we're rebuilding it in the future according to plans similar to those of the past. In other words, it is October Fifth or thereabouts today and I expect it to remain this way all year long. Savor this transference of Muses on our trip home because if things work out we won't remember it when we arrive.

{Postscript: In the summer of 2008, despite two years of benefit concerts and protests, Thalia's comedy overlapped with Clio's history and the doors of CBGB's closed for good. Thank god.}


Bryan Duffy said...

Never use the word jiff in my presence again...

I find that hillarious! Im excited about these Z writings. Is this part of Carnation or is this something else?

Anonymous said...
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Not said...

Casually found your blog as I was looking for some of your music... and instantly got trapped in your hilarious, witty writing! You're great!

Anonymous said...
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manic hispanic said...

this piece had an endearing meter. I'm curious your line: "now I want stage. More stage." reminds me of: "You want more fans, I want more stage" and now I want to listen to that song.
Anyway, you're writing is very lyrical. So, I suppose that makes you a lyrical gangsta.