Originally published, with revisions, at Social Matter Magazine.
For those of us raised in the United States, especially in its more rural environs, autumn is a particularly nostalgic season. In part, this is owing to associations formed during childhood: the forest ramblings, the fallen leaves crunching underfoot, the morning fog over the trees, the smell of woodsmoke in the air; the pumpkin patches and hayrides, county fairs and bonfires – all of these thoughts and remembrances come back to us in this season, tinted in shades of red and gold.
Beyond its purely personal significance, autumn has always struck me as the most American of seasons. This may be because the foliage on our Eastern seaboard is among the most brilliant in the world; or it might be because of the association of autumn with the colonial hamlets of New England and the Tidewater region, birthplace of the historic American nation. It could be because the fruits of the harvest most typically associated with autumn – corn and apples, squash and pumpkins – are representative of America’s agrarian tradition. The feast of Thanksgiving, of course, is a cornerstone of the traditional American identity, however adulterated it might have become in recent years. And the festival of Hallowe’en originally signified the beginning of Hallowmas, a time for remembering the saints and ancestors that came before us, the mystical union between the Church Militant on Earth and the Church Triumphant in Paradise.
The Celts, it is said, regarded this day as the beginning of the new year. It is a fitting commentary on the grim ethos of these northern European tribes that their year begins, not with the efflorescence of springtime, but with Samhain, “summer’s end,” when the Earth prepares itself for the long slumber. It is born of the recognition that life begins in death, that what has grown old and decayed must pass away in order that spring may come again – that this is the greatest wisdom of nature, the secret to its eternally recurring beauty. Acknowledging the necessity of this death and dormancy is an affirmation of life, even in its tragic aspects. This is perhaps the primary reason for the inescapable melancholy of this season, extending throughout autumn and into the Yuletide.
As a mood, melancholy is distinct from depression. Melancholia is one of the four classical temperaments, associated with the planet Saturn, the affliction of scholars and rulers. It is rooted in the acknowledgement of human finitude. The realization that we cannot know all, have all, be all; that limitations have been placed upon our attainments by history, family, temperament, and fate (perhaps all aspects of the same thing). This is the tragedy of the human condition, that our reach continually exceeds our grasp. Some would say that it is this very tragedy, the limitations imposed by our mortality and finitude, that gives our lives meaning.
A propensity to melancholy seems particularly characteristic of Faustian mankind, a recurring feature in the painting, literature, music, and philosophy of the West. In Spengler’s analysis, this melancholy takes two distinct forms: a yearning for infinity, to “be alone with limitless space,” to overcome the limitations of the human condition; and, contrariwise, a deep and pervasive nostalgia, “the wistful regard of the Faustian soul for ruins and evidences of the distant past.”
Those of a reactionary temperament are often accused living in the past. It is true, as critics never tire of pointing out, that an excessive longing for a lost Golden Age can easily lead to self-deception and paralysis in the face of an ever-changing reality. Neoreaction confronts this charge by eschewing sentimental nostalgia altogether, looking to the past for guidance but nevertheless focusing resolutely on the future.
However, there are times when nostalgia can be an appropriate and indeed wholesome emotion. The etymological root of nostalgia is an acute longing for nostos, homecoming. Home is not only a place. It can be a person, an object, a season, a song or a taste or a scent, even an idea. Tree limbs in the moonlight, forests and mountains shrouded in mist, Gothic churches and medieval castles. Memories of childhood – the happy ones, at least, hazy and sepia-tinted. Ringing church bells, Chopin nocturnes, falling water, the song of the mourning dove. Woodsmoke, incense, pine needles, autumn rain. For those of a traditionalist bent this desire for homecoming takes both a spiritual form, a longing for a timeless reality transcending mere human experience, as well as a more concrete manifestation, longing for the restoration of an organic and natural social order.
Some people (I would hazard to guess those with unhappy childhoods) are invariably forward thinking, and see the past – both personal and historical – as a diversion unworthy of much thought. Among those who do value the past, there are different means of approach. Some are simply nostalgic about their own personal histories, reveling in the fond memories of auld lang syne; at its best this is an endearing sentimentality and a reminder to be our best selves, at its worst a crippling fixation on our lost glory days. Some move beyond the personal sphere and take this nostalgia further into a yearning for previous stages in human history or social orders. Again, this can be restorative and edifying, expanding our horizons beyond the prejudices of the present, but can also be a paralyzing and merely antiquarian obsession. Both are manifestations of the same tendency, and both risk turning into futile reminiscence unless they are tethered to a vision of the future, a realization that we are preserving the memories of the past in order that they might inspire us and guide us in carrying on what is best in it. To defend tradition is not to preserve the ashes, but to pass on the flame.
This is not mere antiquarianism or sentimental longing for what is irrevocably lost. Nor is it impotent romanticism. Nostalgia is a visceral mood and, in its truest sense, represents a longing for a state of being, an age of lost purity and wholeness. Nostalgia does not signify merely the pleasant memory of things past but the longing for a time when we were closer to the primordial. The wholesomeness and wonder of the child is probably the closest man can get in this life to that elemental purity. We feel nostalgia for childhood because this was the time in which our experience of things was least adulterated, when we experienced the greatest joy in simple existence, before our souls became fragmented; a memory of that original nobility and all the high ideals we held before the yawning corruption of adulthood set in. This is probably the reason why “you can never go home again.” Attempting to recreate the scenes and experiences of childhood, without the proper state of mind, inevitably ends in vulgar kitsch and disappointment.
Despite its wistful connotations, nostalgia can serve a restorative function, reconnecting us with a past that is personal, familial, and world-historical. Visiting places, telling stories, and reveling in the sights, sounds, and myths of older times is what can help us recover our purity of mind and purpose. It can also impart the strength to continue struggling to recover the essence of this mythical Golden Age in the present. As Evola wrote, “Some men return to their past, so that new forces may arise for the reconquest.”
Nostalgia can also, it is true, be a harmful impediment to action. If it does not serve to restore our strength for the battles ahead, if it instead only leads us to wallow in impotence and futile longing for days past, then it is functionally no different from alcohol, drugs, or any other form of modern narcotics. Returning to the scenes of childhood, or histories of a nobler time in order to recapture the purity and vigor and beauty of those days is likely quite beneficial. Relying on the memories of an idealized past to fill a void in the present is likely the opposite.
Respect for the past, willingness to learn from it, and affirming life in spite of the tragedy of human finitude is therefore a defining trait of the reactionary. It sets him apart both from the progressive who rejects history (because “formerly all the world was mad”) as well as the conservative, who merely wishes to maintain the status quo. Nietzsche believed that the romantic German philosophy of his day – the contemporary iteration of the perennial philosophy – represented a kind of homesickness, a rejection of modernism and longing for the greatest that ever existed. Perhaps this is an accurate description of what is best in philosophy, which attempts to show mankind where it went wrong and point us toward a Golden Age, where we might overcome the deconstructionist, materialistic, and leveling tendencies of modern philosophy.
In short, while nostalgia can indeed be paralyzing, remembering and honoring where we came from is essential to knowing where we are going. Reaction, even Neoreaction, isn’t just about shining cities and space colonies. It requires learning and seeking renewal from the past, both social and personal. Like Nietzsche’s German philosophy, it must be a nostalgia for the best that has ever existed – for in truth our Restoration does not merely wish to turn back the clock to the 1950s, or the seventeenth century, or the twelfth century, or even the fourth century BC, but to combine all that is best in Western governance and culture going back to the earliest Indo-European societies. This is the meaning of the Golden Age, which exists not exclusively in historical reality but in those inherited ideals that persist in the Western collective unconscious.
Samhain was believed to be a liminal time, when the boundary between worlds was more easily crossed. This perception survived the Christianization of Europe and All Hallows’ Eve became a time for honoring the dead, our ancestors, those who came before us. On a day such as this we must reflect on how we are upholding their legacy and consider whether or not they would look upon our accomplishments with pride. Would they see us loving and defending our families and culture, working to the betterment of ourselves and our society, living in truth and dignity and honor? Or would they see us engaged in shameful acts of weakness, cowardice, dishonesty, and cruelty, squandering the inheritance they bequeathed to us?
On this day we must also reflect upon our connection to place: to the homeland, to the village, our rootedness in the soil and duty to preserve it. Indeed, our ancestry is not exhausted by the direct transmission of the genealogical table, but consists of the trees and the grass, the wolves and the eagles, the rivers and the sea, the Earth itself and the stardust surrounding us. We emerge from this holy cosmos, we are connected to it and to the God who made it. We must honor the memory of our human ancestors, and we must honor the spirit and the laws of the whole.
This is a day for rededication, for the purgation of old and harmful ways, of shame and fear and cowardice and weakness. This is the new year, and it is a time for new beginnings.