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  • Cultural Trauma and the “Timeless Burst”: Pynchon’s Revision of Nostalgia in Vineland1
  • James Berger

Nostalgia has a bad reputation. It is said to entail an addiction to falsified, idealized images of the past. Nostalgic yearning, as David Lowenthal writes, “is the search for a simple and stable past as a refuge from the turbulent and chaotic present” (21). The political uses of nostalgia are said to be inevitably reactionary, serving to link the images of an ideal past to new or recycled authoritarian structures. And it is true that nostalgia has played major roles in many of the reactionary and repressive political movements of this century—in Nazism’s reverence for the “Volk,” in socialist kitsch, and, in the United States, in Reaganism’s obsession with idealized depictions of family life in the 1950s. Most recently, nostalgia has been described as a masculine response to feminist threats to patriarchal privilege.2

Nostalgia has certainly kept some bad company. And yet, it seems to me, the critiques of nostalgia have not addressed important questions concerning the mechanics of how the past is transmitted into the present and how it might best be used. Postmodern texts and readings, as Michael Berube has noted (with reference to Gravity’s Rainbow), place great emphasis on problematics of “transmission and reinscription; not on overturning the hierarchy between canonical and apocryphal but on examining how the canonical and apocryphal can do various kinds of cultural work for variously positioned and constituted cultural groups” (229). In this essay, I will reevaluate nostalgia as a form of cultural transmission that can shift in its political and historical purposes, and thus bears a more complex and, potentially, more productive relation to the past than has generally been allowed in recent discussions.

I will reconsider the possibilities of nostalgia through a discussion of Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel, Vineland, a book whose low critical reputation parallels that of the term in question. In fact, Vineland has been criticized precisely for its nostalgia, for a politics that exhibits an overly comfortable longing for those good old days of the Movement and the attempt at revolution.3 Indeed, Vineland seems, in its story’s emphasis on repairing the broken family, to veer toward an almost Reaganesque nostalgia. The novel ends with a family reunion; its final word is “home.”

Vineland works its way, however, to a very troubled home, and its “sickness”4 is not a conventional nostalgia for idealized sites of origin. Its concern, rather, as it returns to the 1960s from the vantage of the Reaganist 1980s, is with how cultural memory is transmitted, and it portrays the ideological distortions, marketing strategies, and the variety of nostalgias through which Americans in the 1980s apprehended the 60s. Central to Pynchon’s conception of how the past inhabits the present is the notion of trauma. Vineland returns to the 1960s not as to a site of original wholeness and plenitude, but, rather, as to a site of catastrophe, betrayal, and cultural trauma. Moreover, the past in Vineland is not simply a place to which a nostalgic text may return. Rather, it is the traumatic past that persistently leaps forward into the present.

And yet, as Pynchon presents it, along with the traumatic return of the past into the present (a return which is necessarily marked according to the prevailing Reaganist and consumerist ideologies) is another, utopian, element. The utopian, or revelatory, moment is simultaneous with the traumatic moment. And so, in effect, Pynchon’s nostalgia is a nostalgia for the future, for possibilities of social harmony glimpsed at crucial moments in the past, but not ever yet realized. Pynchon’s portrayal of this congruence or simultaneity of trauma and utopian possibility resembles Walter Benjamin’s use of the term jetztzeit, the critical moment of historical, redemptive possibility which continues to erupt into the present even after many previous failures. Like Benjamin’s use of jetztzeit, Vineland’s nostalgia possesses an ethical and political urgency, an imperative to use its glimpse of utopian potential to try to change an unjust history. And, like the jetztzeit, Vineland’s utopian/traumatic vision constitutes a kind of pivot or wedge by which a given...

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