Older & Wiser

Nostalgia Endures While Optimism Fades

In the fall of 1998, I was traveling with my family in Italy, doing work for my translation of Torquato Tasso’s epic centered on the first crusade, Jerusalem Delivered. I found a few pirated printings that Tasso had not authorized, along with early printings that came out before he had done with his revisions. Actually, the poor fellow never did have done with those. He was prone to fits of depression and madness, and from the last manifestation of the poem, Jerusalem Conquered, he had scrubbed out almost all traces of romance and charm, as too tempting for young souls.

I recall the time, though, because perhaps some of the poet’s madness had gotten into me. It was the time of the midterm elections, in Bill Clinton’s second term, and instead of the Republican wave I had expected, the Democrats surged; and I remember calling my sister back in the United States, frantic for information, as if the future of the world hung upon the result. Back then, too, I was the head of our state homeschooling organization, and I held out what I might have called hope, though it was really part hope and part optimism, that young Christians not poisoned by the schools would begin to change the whole tenor of our politics and what remained of American culture. John Paul  II was the head of my church, Joseph Ratzinger was the most intelligent and energetic protector of its deposit of faith, my children were young, I had just become my college’s youngest full professor ever; in other words, I was prone to an odd brew of youth and illusion, which I sometimes might mistake for hope, the theological virtue.

It’s a long time since. The Republican party is a queasy and treacherous mess; the Democrats have sold their souls to sexual perversion and mutilation, and to a surveillance regime that makes Orwell’s Oceania look like a libertarian utopia; homeschooling is still on the rise, but I fear that the anti-culture round about us swallows up and absorbs many a young person once trained in the faith; the most generous thing I can say about the current head of my church is that he does not understand the times he is living in; the college I used to be so proud of, where I no longer teach, has given in to that all-devouring beast, the politics of race and sex; and I am cheerfully without the slightest trace of optimism as regards the future.

The Confidence Man

I should have known better all along. It is hard to imagine that all of America was once in a lather of dread and excitement over whether James  G. Blaine or Grover Cleveland would be elected president. Cleveland—the far better man, in my opinion—won, but I cannot tell you what the difference in our lives right now might be had he lost. The Psalmist warns us not to put our trust in men in general, or in princes in particular; and what that means, I think, is that despite our call to work in the world, and to be energetic in our attempts to promote the common good, and, more frequently, to thwart attacks upon it, we must never stake our souls upon what our fellow human beings do—especially not upon what those in positions of power do.

And in this verse I find great comfort. Optimism, I have said, is the confidence man with a gold tooth, making broad smiles at you while he stares you down with his lidless eyes, hanging a confidential arm around your shoulder, and whispering confidential things in your ear as he picks you clean and leaves your bones to whiten in the sun. If you fall to the optimist’s sweet nothings, you will find yourself worrying about many a thing that is not of eternal consequence, and perhaps not even of temporal consequence; you will not be like the lilies of the field, that neither toil nor spin. You will be always toiling, always spinning. The optimist does so with a temporary smile; the pessimist with a scowl.

Let us be clear. The America I wanted to be optimistic about in 1998 is gone. All political outcries and enthusiasms—including that portion of the political which is ecclesiological—strike me now as madness, far noisier than that which beset the scrupulous Tasso, and far more detached from reality. We ought to honor, and we may learn from, those generations before ours that were not quite mad, that built churches that were filled with worshipers and schools that did not stultify and corrupt. We ought to read what they wrote, and treasure what they wrought that was well done. If that is nostalgia, we ought to have more of it, so long as we keep in mind that our ache for returning, which is what “nostalgia” means, has as its goal a place where we have never been.

Our Only Hope

In Christ is our hope. There is no other. Only in Christ is to turn back to ascend. If that sounds like an old man speaking, let it be. For there is a frolic childlikeness in many an old man who no longer takes the political editorials quite so seriously, or sweats over the Dow, but who has taken up his walking-stick and said, “What a fool I have been! Here I am, fretting over who gets to be the preeminent pig in the pen, when the lowliest servants in my Father’s house have real bread and wine to enjoy, and they sing the old human songs and the divine hymns that are always new, and their men are boys at heart and their women are as winsome as girls.”

To the everlasting piggery with optimism, then! Let us hope in God, for still do we confess him, the savior of our countenance, and our God.

Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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