I am reading a book, The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant, where early in the novel, a young, successful couple have these yearnings to chuck it all and to move to Ireland. They are intelligent and aware of the commonness of this trope–they intentionally nickname their street “Revolutionary Road” after the Richard Yates’ novel. Earlier, before the dream of starting afresh in Ireland, the couple had wished to live in the time period when the novel Revolutionary Road takes place–a Cheever-esque world where pitchers of martinis and pyramids of cigarettes punctuated each evening. That glamorous “Mad-Men” world had not work out for them, but the dream of emigrating does: the husband wins a pub in County Cork, Ireland. Needless to say, the paradise/excitement/vigor of the new life they imagined in this other world does not pan out they way it had in their dreams. And like in Richard Yates’ novel, the marriage suffers more than greatly.
What is it about us that makes us often wish we were in some other place, some other time? In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen wrestles with this question. The protagonist wishes he lived in 1920s Paris, but the 1920s woman he meets wishes she lived in the Paris of the 1890s? And in fact, the life he is already experiencing in 2011 turns out to be full of promise. Why is this nostalgia for a world other than our own, for an imagined place and an imagined time, so strong? Is it general among everyone? Or only with a certain type of person?
I walked out to get a coffee today and on my walk home I cut down an alley. Looking around me, I realized that I could have been walking in any foreign city with any foreign adventure around the corner. I could have been in Paris, in Cork, but I was merely a short stroll from my own house. I took a picture with my phone. The concept of a more exotic, romantic other place is just a whiff of smoke–it is always around us if we keep our eyes open.
Now it is often said that one doesn’t appreciated one’s home until one is separated from it. Joyce gave us a loving, photographic picture of Dublin, but only when he was writing in Switzerland and Paris. Beckett too gives us an unnamed but undoubtedly Irish landscape in his novels and several of his plays and he too was across the sea. But that is different than romanticizing a place one wishes for, a place that does not exist. What Joyce and Beckett do is understand what they had left, see it without the distortion of being so close within. This is not the same as dream-manufacturing, as imagining a better world through the kaleidoscope of nostalgia and generalities.
Nevertheless, there are still many days when I wish I was somewhere else, when I don’t appreciate the vitality of the world around me. But in these daydreams, it seems that I am never working, that there is no concern about putting food on the table or where the next dollar is coming from–who wouldn’t find that attractive. And that’s what makes it all somewhat of a sham.