Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Phenomenon of Retrophilia

Nostalgia has probably existed ever since there have been human beings. With the rise of mass media (which I would say started with the invention of the printing press), nostalgia would even become a big business. The Roaring Twenties saw a nostalgic fad towards the 1890's which produced the Hammerstein and Kern musical Sweet Adelaide. The Fifties saw a nostalgic fad for the Twenties which produced The Untouchables and The Roaring Twenties The Seventies saw a nostalgic fad towards The Fifties, which resulted in the TV show Happy Days and the popularity of rock 'n' roll revival group Sha Na Na.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines nostalgia as "1. A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past" and "2. The condition of being homesick; homesickness." The word was coined by Johannes Hofer in 1668 to render German heimweh, literally "homesickness." "Homesickness" was the original meaning of nostalgia. In fact, it would not come to mean a "A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past" until around 1920. From the fact that the word originally meant "homesickness," it would seem that one could only truly be nostalgic about times in which one had lived. Barring reincarnation, one could not be nostalgic about a time in which one had not lived.

And yet there are many people around the world who long for things, persons, and entertainment of times in which they had not lived. I am a perfect example of this. As anyone who has read this blog knows, I love the culture of the Sixties. That having been said, I lived through part of the Sixties (although I was very young at the time), so I can truly be nostalgic about them. At the same time, however, I love other eras as well: the Napoleonic Era, Victorian England, the Twenties, the Thirties, and the Forties. Since I am pretty certain that I have not been reincarnated, I cannot be nostalgic about those eras in which I did not live.

I am certainly not alone in this. Some of my favourite blogs are dedicated to the past, but written by young people who did not live in those times. Out of the Past is primarily dedicated to films made before 1970, even though its author, Raquelle, was born afterwards. Both Silents and Talkies, which also primarily covers films made prior to 1970, and Flapperdoodle, which features cartoons starring Twenties flappers Eloise and Ramona, are both written by Kate Gabrielle, who like Raquelle was born well after these times (if I can insert an editorial note, I fully recommend these blogs--they are very well written and entertaining). There is even a social networking site, Decades I Love (which I recently joined), dedicated to the love of things past. While many people have lived through their favourite eras at Decades I Love, there are many such as myself who did not.

As a final example, I would like to point out that this love of times in which one had not lived is nothing new. Edward Arlington Robinson wrote about a very tragic case of loving a past era in his poem "Miniver Cheevy," in which town drunk Cheevy longed to be a knight in the Middle Ages. King Edward III of England was so found of the tales of King Arthur (who was a British, rather than English king) that he had his own Round Table built. Of course, King Arthur probably lived in the 5th or 6th centuries, if he existed at all.

Given that the phenomenon of individuals loving past times in which they did not live is a very common one, it seems there should be a word for it. As it turns out, there actually is a word, although I had not heard it before I researched the subject. That term is retrophilia, which derives from Latin retro, a preposition meaning "backward, back, behind" and Greek philia "affection, love." Retrophilia could then be defined as a love of those times left behind. Retrophilia would naturally encompass nostalgia, that condition in which people are homesick for past times in which they lived, but it would also include that condition in which people love past times in which they had not lived. Quite simply retrophilia would be as Wikipedia (not the most reliable source around, but useful in this case) defines it, "A love of things of the past."

As I pointed out above, retrophilia has existed for a long time. Edward III, a king of Angle, Saxon, and Norman heritage longing for the time and milieu of a past British king, is the perfect example of a retrophile. That having been said, I suspect that it was the invention of the printing press around 1436 that made retrophilia more common. Although we like to think of "mass media" as a product of the 20th century, or at most the 19th century, mass media has existed much longer than that. The printing press not only facilitated the mass production of the medium of books, but also allowed for the creation of such media as newspapers and magazines. Mass media grew in the 19th century with the invention of the phonograph, movies, and radio. The 20th century saw the invention of television and the internet.

Among the many things that each of these media have done is create a demand for tales set in the past (often an idealised, romanticised past) or, to put it more simply, to create retrophilia. Sir Walter Scott wrote about adventures set in the Middle Ages. One of the pivotal movies in film history, The Great Train Robbery, was also the medium's first Western. Records (whether we are talking about vinyl or CDs--the technology is different but both are records nonetheless) help preserve the songs of yesteryear--today people can listen to the songs of Billie Holliday (retro) or the songs of Kate Voegele (modern) as they please. There have been numerous motion pictures set in the past, from the Middle Ages of The Adventures of Robin Hood to the Victorian Era of numerous Dracula movies. Television has also fed the fires of retrophilia, with such fare as the Roaring Twenties The Untouchables, the Depression Era The Waltons, and numerous Westerns.

What mass media has basically made possible is not only the presentation of often idealised stories set in the past, but it also preserves the society and culture of the past (again, often idealised). Today one can get an idea of what life was like in the Depression from The Gold Diggers of 1933 and the Sixties (at least in England) from Billy Liar. As might be expected, people who did not live in those eras might well develop a love of those eras from such media. Using myself as an example, I have a love for the Thirties from reprints of pulp magazines ranging from Doc Savage to Weird Tales and movies from that era as well.

Of course, the ultimate question is whether retrophilia is of any importance as a phenomenon. I believe that it is. Retrophiles guarantee that various classic books, records, movies, and so on continue to be produced. The music of The Beatles has not survived simply because of people like me who remember them from when they were recording, but from young people, not born in the Sixties, who have discovered them later. Many of these young people probably became Sixties loving retrophiles who seek out similar groups such as The Who and The Kinks, insuring their music will continue to be produced as well. Much of the reason movies made in the Twenties are still being manufactured is probably retrophiles. Let's face it, many of the people who made up the audiences in that era are probably long dead.

Retrophilia is then important to humanity after a fashion. It insures that pop culture artefacts from the past will continue to be exposed to other generations. If not for retrophiles, the works of Robert E. Howard, Charles Dickens, and perhaps even Shakespeare himself may well have gone out of print long ago.


Raquel Stecher said...

This is a superb thought-provoking post. Thank you so much for writing it.

I've thought a lot about my retrophilia. Was I reincarnated? Did I have a happy life back in these times that's why I long for them? Am I just avoiding living in the present by vicariously living through the past? Am I just an old soul? Is this life too complicated and that life deliciously simple?

I don't know if I'll ever know, but I like to think of all the reasons why.

Thomas Pluck said...

My retrophilia is a common one in the States, the Revolutionary War era, and the pioneer era. I'd love to be a mountain man or in McCabe & Mrs. Miller's camp.

Rupert said...

I'm definitely afflicted with retrophilia (if affliction is even the appropriate term, as I love it!). Like so many others, I was born in the wrong time and love the movies, music and other popular culture from times past.
Great post!