Nostalgia and Modernity

Our syllabus lists the theme of this week’s lectures as “The Problem of Dutch New York,” and that might be a good title for the lecture that I’ll be giving tomorrow on Washington Irving’s burlesque of Dutch New York in his famous History of New York, first published in 1809.

But, as  I suggested during yesterday’s lecture on E. B. White’s Here is New York, a better title might be “History, Modernity, and Nostalgia.” Nostalgia for the past marks both Irving’s and White’s texts, and one of the ideas that we’re asking the students to think about this term is the relationship between the drive to be modern and nostalgia for past — or lost — New Yorks that marks writing about the city.

In our opening lecture, Bryan quoted Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life:

Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future. A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs. The spectator can read in it a universe that is constantly exploding.

When you read Here is New York, however, you get the sense that New York’s relationship to its past is a little bit more complicated than De Certeau would have us believe. Here’s White:

New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant. It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.

“The unexpungeable odor of the long past.” What a phrase! Maybe what New York has learned is the art of growing young by playing on all its pasts. We’ll be talking a lot more  about the paradoxical nature of New York’s sense of its modernity as the term progresses.