Out of Luck in La Belle Époque
“Nostalgia is denial,” says Paul, the semi-antagonist of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in reference to his rival, Gil Pender, the fim’s hero. “Denial of a painful present,” Paul continues. “The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking — the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in — it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” It’s hard to argue against Paul’s diagnosis. The source of Gil’s chronic dissatisfaction — it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen film without chronic dissatisfaction — is his constant hankering after and longing for life in 1920s Paris. But when Gil is magically swept away into 1920s Paris his romantic dreams are crushed when he learns that his love interest suffers from her own nostalgic preference for La Belle Époque. This leads Gil to the realization that the only way to be happy is to abandon his impossible dreams, his nostalgia for past eras being one of them.
Time is running out for old Prince Bolkonsky to come to this same understanding. In today’s chapter we see that he suffers from a special species of Golden Age thinking: the yearning for a return of lost youth. In what is surely one of the book’s more moving passages he reflects on his days as a young army man:
He put the letter under the candlestick and closed his eyes. And there rose before him the Danube at bright noonday: reeds, the Russian camp, and himself a young general without a wrinkle on his ruddy face, vigorous and alert, entering Potëmkin’s gaily colored tent, and a burning sense of jealousy of “the favorite” agitated him now as strongly as it had done then. He recalled all the words spoken at that first meeting with Potëmkin. And he saw before him a plump, rather sallow-faced, short, stout woman, the Empress Mother, with her smile and her words at her first gracious reception of him, and then that same face on the catafalque, and the encounter he had with Zúbov over her coffin about his right to kiss her hand.
The impossible appentency he has for his past hurts the old Prince. Twice in the chapter he begs death to release him from his old-age misery. He has yet to learn and apply the central stoic insight that, so far as we are able, we ought only concern ourselves with what is under our control. Aging is not under our control. The ability to live well in old-age, however, is under our control. The old Prince can join Gil Pender in abandoning chronic dissatisfaction if he wants to but he needs to hurry. Time is running out.
We must make haste then, not only because we are daily nearer to death, but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations