"It is only a statement of the power of what comes after": Atomic Nostalgia and the Ends of Postmodernism
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"It is only a statement of the power of what comes after":
Atomic Nostalgia and the Ends of Postmodernism

Don't underestimate our capacity for complex longings.

Don DeLillo, Underworld

The moral question for the United States is whether, during the Cold War, we so accustomed ourselves to threatening nuclear annihilation that it became second nature to us.

Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time

1. Atomic Nostalgia

Early in Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997), Brian Glassic goes in search of the Bobby Thomson home-run baseball that acts as the material trace of the public culture that the Cold War supposedly eroded. He ends up in the home of baseball memorabiliast Marvin Lundy, where their talk quickly turns to the more serious matter of the coming end of the Cold War, because Marvin imagines Brian's desire for the ball as a combination of personal and global anxiety. "You think you're missing something and you don't know what it is," Marvin tells him: "You have a job and a family and a [End Page 308] fully executed will, already, at your age, because the whole point is to die prepared, die legal, with all the papers signed" (170). While Marvin's claim that what motivates nostalgia is a mid-life sense that your life is already effectively over might sound banal, more telling and surprising is the global scale he gives his theorizing. After claiming of Brian that "You see the cold war winding down. This makes it hard for you to breathe," Marvin goes on to specify why the end of an epoch might be such a problem for Brian:

"You need the leaders of both sides to keep the cold war going. It's the one constant thing. It's honest, it's dependable. Because when the tension and rivalry come to an end, that's when your worst nightmares begin. All the power and intimidation of the state will seep out of your personal bloodstream. You will no longer be the main—what do I want to say?"

"I'm not sure."

"Point of reference."

(170)

Marvin's hesitation in figuring out exactly what he wants to say reinforces the counterintuitiveness of his claim that "The cold war is your friend" (170). While one might always greet the imminent end of a political order with a certain amount of trepidation—better the devil we know than the one we don't—Marvin's point depends on more than an understandable apprehension about a new world order. For one thing, the image Marvin offers—the "power and intimidation of the state" seeping out of Brian's bloodstream—suggests a surely positive decoupling of the individual from the claims of the state, and Brian says that he would be "happy" to see the conflict end (170). Likewise, Marvin's account of the dangers that the end of the conflict poses cannot be reduced to a fear of a destabilized world no longer defined by the "stability" of cold conflict (a fear outlined, for instance, in John Mearsheimer's influential 1990 essay "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War"). So what does it is really mean when Marvin asks, wonderingly, "You don't know that every privilege in your life and every thought in your mind depends on the ability of the two great powers to hang a threat over the planet?" (182).

By now we have a well-developed sense of what a capacious nostalgia for the Cold War looks like. "Cold War nostalgia" covers everything from the kitschy interest in the popular culture of the era (those days of "duck and cover" memorialized in the 1982 film The Atomic Cafe) through to longings for a supposedly simpler time when a rigid line demarcated friend from enemy. In the wake [End Page 309] of 9/11, such yearnings were invoked continually to describe George W. Bush's imagination of a world that could be redescribed in Manichean terms. Laments for the "simpler" political realities of a "bloodless" global conflict (the "long peace" as John Lewis Gaddis has called it) were all too common, and generally forgetful of the many lives lost as a...


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