Notes to the Future: From the Distant Past

Reading Friederich von Schiller’s (1795) almost continuously magnificent “Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” I encountered the sentence.  (I have grammatically modified his pronoun use to avoid the exclusive “he”):

All peoples who possess a history have a paradise, a state of innocence, a golden age; indeed, every individual has their paradise, their golden age, which they recall, according as they have more or less of the poetic in their nature, with more or less inspiration.

I can imagine many adoptees disagreeing with this vociferously, that with the loss not only of our specific histories (individual and communal) we thus also get stripped of any paradises or golden ages that we might recall. However, Schiller then goes on to say:

For this reason [such a history or a paradise or a golden age] remains always a beautiful, an elevating fiction, and the poetic power in representing it has truly worked in behalf of the idea (emphasis added).

For me, this reminds me of what “Russia” meant in my childhood, as the place I’d have defected to had I been able to figure out how. In Michel Tournier’s The Ogre, the boys at a Nazi boys’s school conceive of “Canada” as their would-be paradise, if only they could get there.

Schiller’s point, then, retains its merit if we recognize that our elevating fiction may arise from (as Schiller puts it) actual memory or (as I put it) invented memory; I might add involuntary memory as well, i.e., in dreams.

This reflects back to earlier posts asking what our most compelling selves consist or the experience of xenalgia, now further added to by Schiller’s next point:

For, to the individual who has once deviated from the simplicity of nature and is delivered over to the dangerous guidance of [civilized] reason, it is of infinite importance to perceive once again nature’s legislation in a pure exemplar [in a paradise or golden age, i.e., an elevating fiction], and in this faithful mirror to be able once again to purify themselves of the corruption of civilization.

If Schiller speaks truly, the impulse at the root of xenalgia (to recover the actual history of our past) finds another variety in the desire to identify for ourselves such an elevating fiction.

I’d like not to reprise Schiller’s whole argument here or its bases, but the painfulness of the gap or disparity we encounter between an ideal and the actual (history) we experience and have experienced in life Schiller would call elegaic and hostile commentators would dismiss as (our) nostalgia. By contrast, to find comfort in an elevating fiction Schiller would praise as idyllic, a point which seems doubly pertinent because he sees the use of the idyll as pointing toward the future, not the past. He means (if I understand him) that one recalls the golden age (the elevating fiction) because it becomes recoverable (actually embodies a genuine goal of civilization) in the future, however distantly (and whether in our specific futures or the futures of those who come after us).

This may all seem technical or too diffuse, but it shows a way to ground the platitude that we need to root ourselves to heal and other like statements. Obvious as this may be, the question is how–and especially (as against xenalgia) when those who could provide actual histories to us have died or simply refuse to speak on it, what do we do then? Schiller paints a picture that exposes as rational what (our) hostile opponents call retrogressive, nostalgic, or arrested.

This pathologizing of elevating fictions–not only for adoptees, but for Occidental people generally–shows (from Schiller’s argument) why nostalgia, psychological arrestedness, &c., becomes so key to maintaining a colonizing discourse here and abroad.** It makes nostalgia seem to be about the past–admittedly, much idyllic poetry veers in the same direction–but Schiller’s construction of it points toward the future. Reagan’s (appeal to) nostalgia laid the groundwork for current neoliberalism, for instance.

No wonder discourse wants to disable the kind of forward-looking character Schiller names in his idyll, his elevating fiction. Forward lies hope, backwards despair, and despairing subjects make pliable subjects.

In the absence of others honoring or answering our (legitimate) xenalgic impulses so that we can move forward, we can rely alternatively on the idyll of an elevating fiction to move forward, individually and communally.

**I stopped a couple of sentences too early with Schiller. A few lines later, he wrote (regarding the tendency in nostalgia to be backward looking as opposed to the best sense of the idyll, which looks forward): “Only for the sick in spirit can [nostalgia] providing healing, but no nourishment for the healthy [like the idyll, properly speaking does]; they cannot unify, only assuage.”

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4 thoughts on “Notes to the Future: From the Distant Past

  1. The gennaion pseudos, or “magnificent myth” or “noble lie”, has been put to use for a very long time. It can operate as a motivational tool when no one is around that “knows” of the underlying falsehood, but begins to unravel once the falsehood(s) are comprehended.

    I do not believe I need, or that I can even put to good use, any more fictions in order to heal and move forward — but maybe this is also a fiction…

    • Brent: I did not intend to imply that the justness of xenalgia or the idyll as an elevating fiction exhausted the modes by which we might seek healing, progress, moving forward, call it what one would. Only simply that in the case where the distinction offered by xenalgia doesn’t do the work one wants confronting those who keep the truth to themselves, the elevating fiction offers one more alternative.

      Schiller also speaks of biting satire, rooted querulously in the painful gap between the ideal and the actual. Where the elegiac receives this as a correspondence, and thus a source of sorrow, longing, sadness, &c, for the satirist it reads like a contradiction occasions bad-natured or good-natured complaint, i.e., essentially, the attempt to resolve the contradiction, whether in an agreeable or disagreeable mood, as it were.

      Also, all of this applies only to sentimental poetry, an thus shows its greatest affinity (I think Schiller will/would say) with sentimental temperament, as opposed to what he calls the naive temperament. So that’s still another category where “solutions” might be found.

      Very roughly, naive and sentimental temperaments link with Jung’s extraverted and introverted modes of consciousness.

      • I think I understand what you have presented here. Still, it seems that each one of us, whether by individual or collective effort(s), will arrive at one or more ‘truths’ that suit us or else we will remain in a suspension that is somewhere ‘twixt and ‘tween. The key issue may be in the realization that there are no contradiction, only different beliefs and viewpoints…

        After obtaining factual information within the past several years, the “truth” I have about my so-called adoption is but my interpretation. My interpretation is quite different from that of those-who-raised-me and, as it happens, from the “normative” interpretation generally given the facts by/under/through the sociocultural framework within which I live.

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