Tuesday, June 14, 2005

On Nostalgia: Adult Children and Childish Adults

Looking over my previous post (June 12th, "My Golden Age"), I was struck by something strange that I wasn't fully conscious of when I composed it. Why would my Golden Age be marked not by the fabled state of unselfconsciousness (that state of pre-lapsarian Edenic simplicity that is so often attributed both to Golden Ages and to childhood itself) but by an intense and pleasurable awareness of an adulthood that comic books simultaneously held out and held off? Why would this period of intense joy (there's no other word for it) be defined not by its innocence of adult things--death, preeminently--but, on the contrary, be directly bound up in the melodrama of precisely these realities? Why, in short, am I now nostalgic for this "Golden Age" of adult childhood now that I dwell so incontrovertibly in this rather absurd and wistful state of childish adulthood? Why am I not nostalgic in quite the same way, with quite the same degree of intensity for, say, the arguably more genuine (and certainly earlier, more innocent) Golden Age of Donald Duck, of Huey, Dewey and Louie?--those figures that I identified at the outermost reaches of my comic book memory.

There are several things to untangle here.

First, are Golden Ages golden because they are periods of innocence, or does their gleam designate something else? Not some simple myth of Edenic innocence, but a more complex pagan myth in which concepts of innocence and experience are impossibly and permanently blurred? Might such a pagan myth not be a better representation of childhood as a whole, and not simply of what I am calling adult childhood, the weird adultness of children, than the more simplistic primitivism of a certain Edenic version of the Golden Age myth?

Second, and a corollary of this, is it possible (or logical) to make a distinction between the "real" Golden Age of Donald Duck on the one hand and what I have privileged as "My Golden Age" of adult childhood (associated with the strange euphoria produced by the death of comic book heroes, even ones I didn't "know": Kara, the Flash, etc.) on the other? Is Donald Duck really more purely "innocent" of adulthood than these later representations whose ambiguous state of adult childhood is the object of my nostalgia now? Intuitively, I feel the answer must be yes--but how are they different exactly? My favorite Donald Ducks were always set in Sumerian Crypts or ancient Egyptian Tombs where the twin threats of death and mummification were omnipresent... Again, once we begin to look closely, the strange liminal space of adult childhood seems to stretch infinitely back to the beginnings of memory itself. When do we first become aware of death, exactly? Is this knowledge ever really that far away, even in our most innocent "Age"?

Third, regardless of how one answers such questions, what is this peculiar structure of nostalgia by which the childish adult idealizes--actively, creatively--a state of adult childishness, marked off from, yet still ambiguously connected to, some earlier state which he designates (perhaps incorrectly, distortingly) as simultaneously more innocent and less intensely pleasurable than its successor? What is at stake, exactly, in nostalgia for "My Golden Age"?

I won't attempt an answer to all these questions today, except to say, about this last point, what is most obvious: that we construct the Golden Ages we want and, perhaps, that we need. We construct them as consolation, as a myth or fantasy of plenitude, and these myths are inseparable from our present, from our desire, from our disappointment, and from our fear. What then does it mean to construct a Golden Age on the cusp of adulthood, a Golden Age in which one is already brushing up against its most intense objects of desire: adulthood itself, "real" anguish, "real" joy, and the whole dangerous world of mortality and consequence?

What is this Golden Age but the dream of a childish adult who has crossed over and now faces his own mortality, who now seeks refuge in the myth of mastery that comic book death provides? And not fake death, either. In the pages of Crisis there were no reassuring resurrections or last-minute saves. The "consolation" and "mastery" of comic book death were of a different order than what they have since become (here's nostalgia, again). The mastery held out by Crisis (a carnival death if ever there was one), by the death of Terra (a prototype for the adult child, my alter ego perhaps), was, quite simply, the mastery of catharsis: the power of art to represent, release, and purge powerful emotion. To hold up a terrible knowledge before our eyes, and to release us from its crushing weight. Not mastery exactly, or even consolation. More like wisdom, maybe, but wisdom of a blinding sort because it receded again to a bearable place the moment you closed the final page and returned the book to its plastic sleeve.

So why, then, if this process is a general function of comic book art, does its magic seem to have lost its charm? Why nostalgia? Why not simply open a new book? Have the comics changed, or have I? Are they no longer built to perform their cathartic role, or have I just become insensible to it?

Both, I suspect, though not in any simple way. Geoff Johns and his merry band are currently orchestrating a most remarkable and promising rejuvenation of the form precisely by making the Golden Age period of the 1980s central, by putting this nostalgia to work in the present. Again, the paths of the argument branch off in several directions. To keep to the original thread, though, I would say that what's changed most significantly is my relationship to death. To my own death especially, to its inevitability--far off I hope, but one never knows. To the deaths of the people I love (again, one doesn't want to think of it). When I was ten, thinking about death was beginning to become thought about something in which I knew myself to be implicated in some way, but it was still abstract, still an experiment, and the concept of non-being could provide a certain frisson and not just sorrow or cynicism. Nostalgia for this time in which death was not simply unimaginable in real terms (Donald Duck in the kitsch space of the Pharaoh's Tomb), but was simultaneously imaginable and innocent--neither quite one nor the other--is the ultimate consolation and pure fantasy of the childish adult. It is the ambiguity of this state of adult childhood that I desire now, when death itself was a kind of impossible adventure, a merely possible danger. And reading comic books, a blinding wisdom.

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