Incommensurate Nostalgias 2 (Page a Day day 2)

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

Pretty rough stuff here. There are a lot of things I have to get out, on Veidt and Nazism and the tension of that with his progressivism and the connection of that tension with 1) the tension between “Desolation Row” and “The Times They are A-changin'” and 2) the tension rock music as corruptive force in the 1950s and the later nostalgia for that music in the 1980s when music became even more aggressive. In the novel, we see this latter tension illustrated by the reactionary topknots, a gang whose members flaunt swastika tattoos and listen to bands such as Pale Horse and Kristallnacht. Of course Nazism itself was both future looking and tremendously nostalgic.

Just a note, and then the writing. Watchmen is filled with blimps (or airships). These seem to be the invention of Adrien Veidt (or are at least produced by one of his companies). They seem to have replaced the airplane in the world of the novel. And who else was obsessed with the airship? The Nazi’s of course. I am not speaking here with any real authority, but the airship consistently (whether in the context of the Third Reich or elsewhere) seems to refer to transcendence, to an escape from the earth and from the Others who dwell there. This seems to be the case in, for example, Blade Runner (from 1982, just a few years before Watchmen was published) where the airship above Los Angeles advertises the off world colonies more fully discussed in Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep? In any case, the Los Angeles of the film is full of Asians and other Others. Roy Baty in the film (as played by Ruger Hauer) is exactly the Nazi dream of the Aryan superman, and, for me anyway, a dead ringer for Adrien Veidt (and for the male model for his cologne Millennium, introduced at the end of Watchmen as a replacement for Nostalgia). I hope I can make sense of this mess and keep it all in terms of music by the end of the essay. In any case, here is the rough stuff I wrote today:

Svetlana Boym notes that nostalgia originates as a literal disease in the seventeenth century, but by conclusion of the twentieth century had become “the incurable modern condition.” She continues, “The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future was discarded like an outmoded spaceship sometime in the 1960s. Nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension, only it is it is no longer directed toward the future” (xiv).

Watchmen illustrates the nature of nostalgia and presents it as a sort of complement to paranoia as a means by which the contemporary subject might deal with postmodernity. Paranoia allows the subject to create meaning out of the fragments of modern culture and situate itself at the center of that meaning and becomes a sort of ability, a new and necessary affect in a world either liquidated of a meaning that once existed or revealed as never having meaning to begin with. By contrast, nostalgia, directed mainly toward the past, is likewise a sort of ability, but one not interested in making sense of the world around the subject so much as that subject’s origins.

In Watchmen, each and every character constructs for him or herself a past purer than the present, an origin point at which the world still made sense and from which the contemporary has radically and perhaps irrevocably departed. For example: the Comedian longs for a return to the unbridled violence of the Vietnam War, Dr. Manhattan to a time when he still desired his own humanity (a meta-nostalgia), Ozymandias to an ancient past of glory (and, notably, slavery, although he fails to acknowledge as much). For each of these characters, nostalgia becomes a motivation for progress, but progress to past situations incommensurate with one another.

Beginning at the end, consider the second of the aforementioned Dylan lyrics, as reproduced in Watchmen: “The times, they are a’changing.” The lyric, from Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (first performed in 1963 and released on the album of the same name in 1964), appears at the end of an interview conducted by a reporter with Nova Express, a left wing American newspaper in the world of the novel. The reporter, who appears at numerous other points during the novel exposing government cover ups and arguing with The New Frontiersman (a right wing tabloid in the novel), has flown to Antarctica to interview “the world’s smartest man” and former costumed hero Adrien Veidt, also know as Ozzymandias (the Greek transliteration of “Ramesses”). Veidt, born to wealth, gave all of his money away as he came of age and built for himself a financial empire so that he might someday save the world from itself (namely from the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war). As the novel’s eleventh chapter concludes, his complex plan to do exactly that has come to fruition—at the cost of millions of lives (rather than billions).

Throughout the interview and the chapter that proceeds it, Veidt reveals a nominal interest in the future. He is politically liberal, invests with an eye on future events, predicts the future based on immediate images culled from television, and listens to electronic music. Despite all of this, his ideas are firmly rooted in the past, namely the past of ancient kings such as Alexander and Rameses.

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