Hmm. I began this series a long time ago and never got around to the third part. In Part One I talked about the magic of maps, and Part Two was about reincarnation and past life resonance. Part three is a little slipperier and probably why I had put it off saved it for now. It concerns nostalgia and why we crave it the same ways we do fiction.
Nostalgia is an ugly concept for some people as it tends to represent a fair amount of wistfulness, a sentimentality, a yearning, often of a time and place that in all reality was never as golden as memory portrays it. This the fallacy of back-to-basics thinking, that somehow if we could go back to simpler times that everything would be better. It may be a much deeper psychological desire to break from our current reality in an effort to feel more in control of our lives. And for those who see themselves more pragmatically, more as realists, the nostalgic is nothing short of turning out backs on past in an attempt to ignore the hard truths learned from it. Nostalgia is, to some, nothing less that mindless escapism.
Memory is fiction, a professor once told me in the context of a class on the memoir. Or to quote pop songwriter Harry Nilsson “You see what you wanna see, and you hear what you wanna hear. Dig?” But we tend to view memory and nostalgia as a personal viewpoint. Where one’s memory of events might differ from another’s we see discord, each view colored through the lens of individual perspective. But what if – and ‘what if’ being the key component in storytelling – what if we could visit the past in a way that was physically approximate yet general enough to include all? What could be learned from a backward-looking utopia that can be applied to our current lives, that could tell us something about ourselves?
This is the Disneyland Theory writ large.
Walt Disney unabashedly embraced nostalgia for entertainment purposes, for business purposes, but also as a way of creating a utopic vision of the past that could be experienced the way it might have been. He was clear that he wasn’t attempting to whitewash the past so much as he was trying to capture the essence of it. In this way his amusement park is the visual equivalent of igniting the imagination the same way a smell can rekindle specific memories of time and place. There are some smells that can instantly remove me from the moment and take me back forty years and instantly unlock moments I haven’t thought of since they first happened.
One of Disney’s early visions for the park included a big top circus that would have smelled like sawdust and cotton candy and been void of the rank carnies and drunken clowns. This circus tent never happened for practical reasons but it can’t be ignored that Disney was attempting to actually distort the experience of a big top circus rather than create an inviting fantasy. His personal memory as a child was not of a circus as it might have been but how it really was – full of scary, ugly adults that intruded upon his experience. There was no blind nostalgia, and his attempt to recreate an ideal circus based only on selective details would not have worked. And he had to know this on some level because he didn’t attempt to let his personal nostalgia enter into the design for the rest of the park.
What we do find in Disneyland is a general nostalgia, a composite of ideas from the past presented into a seamless pastiche that allows the South Pacific to merge with Old West which fades into New Orleans. There are details that suggest these different parts of the world, at different times in history, but rather than being sanitized they are simply an armature upon which park guests use their own experiences to complete the imagery. Rather than remain a passive observer of this nostalgia, as with the circus, guests move around and place themselves within the settings. Sitting in a small boat between a galleon and a walled city one doesn’t observe pirates at siege so much as one is caught in the middle of the experience: cannons roar, cannon balls splash the water (and park guests in the boats), the smell of water mingles with the mineral oil smoke in the air. There is no way any park guest could be reliving the personal nostalgia of events from 150 years previous. This is all part of the collective nostalgia.
We call on this collective nostalgia all the time in fiction. We rely on details of time and place to paint a picture in the minds of a reader as a way of gaining entrance to the story. Books that fail to provide enough details are viewed as inferior, books that are inaccurate to our knowledge and sense of setting are dismissed. But fiction is more than a collection of details and facts, it includes emotion evoked through words and actions. We take out own experiences and emotions and insert them freely as surrogates into the fictional characters we read about and, in turn, come to see through the character’s eyes.
It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest by using details to tease out our own personal memories and experiences that Disneyland employs the elements fiction to allow us to view the past through a lens of our creation.
Every time I go to the park I have a strange dissociative moment at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. As the boat leaves the dock and drifts through the faux bayou, with the LED fireflies on wires just above the surface of the water, drifting past the concrete banyan trees, I can’t help but feel like I’m floating though someplace I used to visit as a boy. But I never grew up in the south, never spent any days in my childhood floating in a boat on calm waters at night, never saw a banyan tree or fireflies until I was nearly 30 years old… but I had seen and done all these things before in fiction. The nostalgia of place that the ride provided was built on a base buried deep in stories, and together the fiction of literature and the fiction of place fused to become something that was at once very real and totally imaginary. But I had experienced it, felt it, and it churned up an emotion that was not at all unpleasant.
The memory is fiction, the fiction, memory. The nostalgia becomes the real, and vice versa. And what we learn is the value that can be gleaned from nostalgia is no less “true” as the resonant details of fiction. Nostalgia doesn’t ignore or rewrite history, people do by trying to manipulate nostalgia for their own purposes.
Yes, I know there are plenty of people who hate Disney, Disneyland, and everything the corporate Disney empire touches. Admittedly, I am at times conflicted because I think Disney and Co. get five things wrong for every one thing they get right. Maybe the ratio is higher than that. But where Walt Disney himself was involved the decisions were a little more personal, more intuitive, less calculated, which I think is why the park works on a number of levels for visitors. Granted, cultural mistakes have been made, history seemingly subverted, but not to the point of revisionism. Not initially at least. I’m not a Disney apologist, both the man and the organization have committed grave mistakes in the past. My point is only that, as an idea, using nostalgia as a lens through which people can revisit and experience the emotional truth within the fiction is not a misguided or evil approach. It is simply another way of looking at story.
Disney, the man, was a storyteller, and he knew how to churn up the emotional elements better than most. He understood this in animation and film, and he understood this to the core in designing the park that bears his name. The lasting success of Disneyland comes from a recognition that providing people with a physical location on which guests can overlay their own narratives – or even invent new ones – is a thing that feeds the soul. Stories, connection, memories, sensations, experiences… they are the things we actively seek out, and in doing so we build upon a certain level of nostalgia that is both personal and universal.