It has now been over 23 years since Wallace penned the inimitable words: “Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent [and] cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive.” He explained, “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as conceptualized) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” Goo-prone and generally pathetic — now that’s a low anthropology if I’ve ever heard one.

In writing these words Wallace echoed a concern C. S. Lewis expounded decades prior: namely, the emotional decay and spiritual squalor of the mid-20th century, producing “men without chests.” Both authors, through starkly disparate rhetorical styles, concerned themselves with the unfortunate advent of this insipid, hyper-analytic personality, a consciousness redolent of the 20th century’s defining innovation: the computer. Describing this disposition, Lewis elaborated, “It is not an excess of thought but a defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary; it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.” Both authors agree that the modern person has become particularly susceptible to emotional vapidity, and not simply by thinking too much.

Neither Wallace nor Lewis lived to see the full extent of the internet’s and social media’s meteoric ascent, but I doubt either would be surprised. The 21st century (and particularly its adolescents) has undoubtedly been characterized by the irony, feigned indifference, and sardonic humor of the “hip, cynical, transcendent” persona. One need only glance at late-night TV or public political dialogue to recognize the rampant skepticism; credulity is no longer considered virtue, but a token of gullibility. An interlocutor is not believed until they prove that what they think or say is worth believing — doubted until proven genuine.

This skepticism helps engender the irony that is so prevalent in (post)modern popular humor. The funniest part of late night comedy is not the jocosity, but the fact that the host or the comedian must inevitably recognize the absurdity of his own ridiculous position and laugh along, at himself, with the omnipresent Audience. The fourth wall has been irreparably shattered. Noting this, watchers gaze through the broken shards and become immanently self-conscious of their own “watchability.” We are thrown into our lives as the star of our own reality TV show, the main character in a story revolving around us; friends and family assume the roles of supporting characters to accent and facilitate our personal story-arc. And as Audience becomes more intimately acquainted with its own presentation, it gradually becomes less credulous of others’. If I know that much of my own life is often constituted by a mirage of TV-directed, Instagram-filtered snapshots, then I can assume that most others’ are too (even if they aren’t). And thus, the inexorable, self-propagating spiral of cynicism.

For the longest time I was under the impression that being cynical was really just being vaguely contemptuous or mean-spirited. To my surprise (and dismay), I learned that that is not actually what it means and that there is, in fact, a more precise definition. Cynical (adj.): skeptical of another’s intentions. Well, that certainly hits close to home. I might tack on one small addendum: cynicism includes skepticism of one’s own motivations just as well as others’, for the attitude at root often stems from a crippling self-consciousness of our own hollow intentions. We tend to doubt others because we doubt ourselves. But the reverse is also true: namely, in a culture where everyone is skeptical of me, it becomes not only natural but almost impossible not to begin to doubt myself too.

We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naiveté.

— Infinite Jest

How to remedy this lamentable cultural liability? Lewis admitted that what ultimately ameliorated his own cynical tendency was joy. By “joy” he did not mean mere jovial emotion, but a deep recollection of a distinct set of moments characterized by a burst of desire-laden nostalgia. Subtle but transcendent, these memories were to Lewis what the virtuous companions were to the pilgrim Christian — surprising but vaguely familiar signposts pointing to something greater than himself, wrenching him away from his own self-aware skepticism and gently placing him in the hands of a remarkably credulous God.

In fact, Lewis was so confident in nostalgia’s ability to emotionally convict that he pioneered a theistic argument predicated upon its prevailing, existential influence. Premise: Cynicism is the ultimate weapon in the predatory evolutionary repertoire, an unmatched source of self-assurance and safety. It seeks to ensure one’s future security amidst untrustworthy people, but only through suspicion and manipulation. Wallace described this tendency as a “fraudulent, calculating part of my brain firing away all the time, as if I were constantly playing chess with everybody and figuring out that if I wanted them to move a certain way I had to move in such a way as to induce them to move that way.” Nostalgia, comparatively, is totally bereft of practical value and thus detached from the rugged pragmatism necessitated by a survival-of-the-fittest world; it effects no discernible social or biological advantage, optimizes no strategic process. There is no naturally explicable reason for nostalgia to exist. Except, maybe, to evince the eternal desire that can only be satiated by its supernatural creator.

Nostalgia ultimately inculcates a desire for the transcendent Other, Lewis suggested. The end of cynicism, conversely, is what Wallace calls anhedonia, a sordid transcendence “in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important.” It is spiritual torpor, a total apathy regarding that which points to something outside the self. Memories take the shape of tools rather than treasures, raw material fed to the mind in a desperate attempt to influence the future towards the most desirable outcome. (One recalls the Mentat of Frank Herbert’s Dune or a chess grandmaster.) “The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” We think of the past so that we might think about the future. But, as Pascal noted 400 years ago, this will inevitably and exclusively lead to despair — the implacable, calculated quest for happiness will yield nothing but anxiety, self-doubt, and further cynicism.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

— ‘Burnt Norton

It seems then that nostalgia and cynicism are inextricably related — two sides of the same spiritual-emotional coin — the former an embrace of “goo-prone” sentimentality and the other its gradual repudiation. This is illustrated beautifully by none other than our favorite 19th-century Russian novelist who is not Leo Tolstoy. In the notoriously abstruse climax to Dostoevsky’s perennial novel The Brothers Karamozovthe gullible youngest brother Alyosha pleads with a group of little boys, charging them to embrace the importance of good memories. He implores,

You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

As he beseeches the children, the reader recalls (as does Alyosha) his jaded older brother, Ivan, the archetype of the cynical persona. Earlier in the novel Ivan launches a tirade, recounting his own deconversion and admonishing Alyosha to follow suit. This persona eventually drives Ivan insane, evidenced by his hallucinogenic conversation with a mild-mannered Satan in his living room. Suffice it to say that Alyosha is wary that his young companions will fall into the same crippling solipsism, a persona so eagerly accepted by the revolutionary socialists of post-serfdom Russia. Himself the epitome of “unsophisticated naïveté,” (still quite like a child in many respects) he recognizes the power of nostalgia to stave off the creeping frigidity of cynicism.

Alyosha acknowledges that memory begets feeling. Nostalgia makes us aware of our own eternal childhood, fraught with futile attempts to shape the future to our own accord. We are reminded through the content of memories with the power of hindsight that we really don’t control much now either. Life remembered is like a dream. Nostalgia permits us to think of the future in the same way we think of the past, with a heartfelt, hopeful yearning, a longing just beyond the reach of words but so intimately familiar to the emotions. This is the profound beauty of nostalgia: that it allows and encourages us to think of the past not in relation to the future but to the present, and the future not in relation to the present but to the past.

Nonetheless, the recovery of nostalgia does not inhibit us from idealizing the past. We reminisce in dusty photo albums, leafing through hundreds of tiny windows into the past. Glossy 4×6’s exude the profound power to bring to mind memories dripping with emotional significance. I see one picture and immediately and vividly recall an autumn night spent in the backyard with my parents and godparents, the cool but not cold air running through my awful but probably self-imposed bowl-cut. I carefully — almost obsessively — outline the floor plans of a two-dimensional house on the dead grass with crunchy, orange-brown sycamore leaves. Garrison Keillor and Nickel Creek echo around the yard from the back porch speakers. The sunset sky fades from vibrant orange to pale blue in a milky coalescence of colors, a translucent grayish-green still barely concealing the stars behind it. I recall these things poignantly, lucidly, and think that I must have been happy — we all must have been happy.

Maybe we were happy, but there’s no way to know now. If anything’s certain it’s that the past contains just as many moments of acrid disappointment and profound sadness as the present does and immediate future will. But what nostalgia allows us to do is look at the future in the same way we look at moments like this in the past: not disregarding the bad or glorifying the good, but recalling it the same way that led Lewis to theism: through a lens of a deep spiritual desire to taste that same joy just one more time — the heaving, simple, gullible, naïve joy of childhood.

In my beginning is my end.

— ‘East Coker

The eternal hope of the Christian is the assurance that she will indeed taste that joy again, and taste it in mouthfuls rather than sips; we will feast on memories of past and future for eternity. For despite all our planning and rambling, our cynicism and anhedonia, we are constantly reminded in the Word and Sacrament that one day our “hideous internal selves, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulse and writhe just under the hip empty mass” will all be well. Once again sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic will we “return home” (Gk. nostos), welcomed and embraced as children of the least-cynical Father at the intersection of future and past. Perhaps time present and time past are contained in time future, just not in the way we might think.

The Dream of Ivan is copyright of the estate of Alice Neel.