Midnight in Paris and the Pull of Nostalgia

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If the opening chapters of the Book of Ecclesiastes were to take on flesh, the result would be something like Woody Allen. And now the angst-ridden filmmaker is back with a new movie, Midnight in Paris. The movie, while not Allen’s best, still manages to probe some questions that ought to be important for Christians.

In the film, a couple visiting Paris find their impending marriage doomed when the soon-to-be-groom finds himself in some sort of time-travel to 1920s Paris. I don’t think I’m giving much away by telling you he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Zelda), Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. And, of course, he falls in love.

The film is entertaining enough, although not nearly so as Hemingway’s book A Moveable Feast, which takes you to the same setting with more force and more texture. What’s significant though, in my view, about the film is its central theme: the illusory power of nostalgia.

The central character believes he is somehow out of place in the twenty-first century. He thinks his life would be better if only he were born into the magical time of the Paris of the 1920s artistic and literary renaissance. This is a fairly common feeling. Jimmy Buffett, in his iconic song “A Pirate Looks at Forty” reflects on something of the same experience:

“Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late/
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder/
I’m an over-forty victim of fate/
Arriving too late, arriving too late”

What the protagonist in this movie discovers, however, is that a change in time doesn’t negate the pull to nostalgia. He finds that the people he meets in 1920s Paris are nostalgic too, for what they perceive as golden ages before their times.

Nostalgia is at the root of much of what goes on all around us. Some seem nostalgic for the myth of the old Confederacy, some for the myth of the 1960s. Some think we’d be better off if we could just get back to the “family values” of the 1950s, and some imagine a prehistoric feminist utopia somewhere back there when women ruled a peaceful agrarian landscape. And in our personal lives many of us imagine our pasts as being idyllic, and we wonder if we can ever get back there again.

Allen’s movie demonstrates the futility of all of that. Our tendency is to ignore the grace and glory of the present, and to ignore the brutality and banality of the past. That’s true enough. But somewhere in all our nostalgic impulses is, I think, something rooted in the gospel itself.

“Memory is hunger,” Hemingway said, and I think he’s right. Our warm memories, of times we have known or of times we wish we’d known, point us to a deep longing within us for a world made right.

This is the kind of longing C. S. Lewis points to as a sign of the truth of Christianity. Lewis craved heaven, for the great “northernness” he could see in the vast sky above him, but he tied that craving to a longing experienced first in nostalgia—for the changing seasons, for the stories of childhood, for the experience of home.

In the last of his Narnia books, Lewis shows us his vision of the end. It is not an escape from creation or a flight from the past. It is instead a more “real” Narnia, of which the older Narnia was but a shadow. Life in this present Narnia comes to a close but it isn’t “over.” It was preparing one for life in a new Narnia, in which the longings of home come to fruition, ever expanding into eternity.

We all feel nostalgia, and, often, we realize that this nostalgia is all too illusory. But that doesn’t mean we should squelch it. We are made for nostalgia for the future.

Perhaps behind all Allen’s angst there’s a sad longing for there to be a heaven. Allen seems to be saying, “Vanity of Vanities, all is vanity.” That’s an important word, a word we have. But there’s a Word after that.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).