Do you ever wish you lived in a different era in history, maybe a different country, a different city, or a different time period? When I was in elementary school, my best friend, her sister, and I took a trip to the Oregon Coast with their family. We joyfully ran through the long grass between the beach house and the ocean, pretending it was the long grass of the prairie in Kansas in the late 19th century. We were Laura, Mary, and baby Carrie, living in our little house on the prairie, the sun beating down incessantly on our mid-afternoon frolicking. Strangely enough, though, our prairie smelled like salt and echoed with the cries of sea gulls. Around the same time, we would sometimes pretend we were homeowners on the underground railroad at recess, harboring escaped slaves in our basements. I would also spend my summer afternoons devouring fantasy novels such as the Alanna series, Dealing with Dragons, or The Golden Compass. I desperately wished that I had magical abilities and lived in the middle ages. As you can expect, nothing much has changed. I still wish I had magic powers and could ride a dragon. And sometimes I even wish I could have a conversation with Thoreau or Walt Whitman, walking the shores of Walden Pond during a weekend retreat into the woods.
Why does this nostalgia, this yearning, this harkening back, seize us with such force? Why do our creative impulses run wild imagining what our lives would be like if we were born in a different era, imagining the worlds of our parents and grandparents as they knew it growing up or even if our parents had settled down in a different city to raise us?
I recently watched “Midnight in Paris,” a 2011 Woody Allen film starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, and Marion Cotillard. In this beautifully imagined film, we traverse Paris with Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, identifying a fascination he has with the past while at the same time, admiring the artistry of urban areas. We begin to realize that humans have an innate curiosity surrounding the timelessness of cities. By observing city life, we are inspired to imagine what daily living would have been like in our current location, just many years removed. The character Gil arrives in Paris on a whim with his fiancée, and becomes immediately fascinated by the creative energy that dominated Paris in the 1920s. Some of his greatest influences include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, and Cole Porter, all of whom associated in Paris during the 1920s. This is a historical period that I associate with intercultural exchange between America and Europe, a shortening of skirts, flirtatious indulgence with flappers, and an era of indisputable creativity. When I watched the film, I was shocked to realize that all of these infamous writers, painters, filmmakers, and photographers lived in Paris simultaneously! No wonder Gil romanticizes Paris through their eyes- it seems like there has not been a similar confluence of creative energy since, barring the constant creative energy flowing through cities like New York. Gil’s curiosity surrounding the working lives of his idols coupled with a vivid imagination and some sort of mystical energy he taps into during nightly walks through one of the world’s most romantic cities transports him to his chosen era. On these forays into the past, Gil exchanges ideas, gets his book critiqued by those he reveres, and parties with his greatest influences, even falling in love with one of Picasso’s muses, Adriana. All while walking the streets of Paris.
Half-way through the film, Adriana vocalizes a concept that becomes one of the film’s major themes. She questions (us) why we are never satisfied with our current situation, commenting on the fact that nostalgia pervades our human minds like a disease. She herself romanticizes the fin de siècle period (1880s-1900s), with likes such as Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, can-can dancers, gas lamps, and horse-drawn carriages. Her comments are quite pertinent, as I see the symptoms of nostalgia manifest everywhere: in antique malls, “vintage” clothing trends, historical preservation projects, and even in the plot of Gil’s novel in the film- a book about a man who works in a curiosity shop. There’s something quite romantic about contemplating what came before us. We can see pictures, even video, or read accounts of history through the words of our favorite writers, but nothing short of a time machine will ever really place us there. I am certainly victim of this nostalgia as well, for many things, and I found myself relating to Owen Wilson’s character immediately.
Whenever I walk through cities, as Gil did, I wish I could see the streets in days gone by. This desire has become more apparent in the past few months of walking Portland, though while living in San Francisco, I did often imagined the bare and desolate sand-dunes that made up the San Francisco peninsula before a city was ever built there. I have begun to check out books from the local library about the history of Portland when it became “Stumptown,” poring over old photographs of streetcars that ran straight uphill on trestles through my neighborhood, the conception of parks that I now visit regularly, and seeing old buildings downtown, their brick antiquity a stark contrast to the glass and steel of modern highrises. I certainly don’t think this romanticism is negative. In fact, I think that nostalgia, a harkening back, can be fuel for our creative impulses. It certainly was the case for Gil, who finishes a novel because of his romantic encounter with the Parisian streets. And I have seen it to be quite the positive influence for me, as my curiosity for the past that lives just below the surface of a freshly-paved street never ceases to inspire a multitude of questions in my constantly swirling mind.
As I have written about frequently, the allure of cities and their constant transitions is magnetic, especially as it stands in the progress of time. A city is made up of a constant swirling and movement of people throughout geography and time, up and down streets, never static in the passing of minutes that flash by as we are hurdled through the present into the future (which quickly becomes the past.) Every part of a city is its own art form, from the contrasts of historical architecture that I just mentioned, to the visual appeal of certain streets, to the cultural forms that humans create just by virtue of living in a certain place. This city identity is formed through how people live out their lives and establish a personality of a place or neighborhood. This formation of city persona has been most recently been demonstrated through the hilarious character development in the off-beat comedy “Portlandia” whose characters have broadcasted “Keep Portland Weird!” and our city’s personality quirks to all of the world. I loved Owen Wilson’s quote in “Midnight in Paris”: “I sometimes think, how is anyone ever going to come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city? You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form […] from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.” He seems to encapsulate much of how I relate to cities and see their dynamic nature as a creative influence on how our brains process the world.
Another concept that “Midnight in Paris” brought up is the almost random nature of creative endeavors. As I have discussed before, the origins of creativity are enigmatic. What is creativity and how are we all inspired to express ourselves and our thoughts in new and original ways? And how do we sustain this creativity, especially if others are relying on us to come up with original work? Especially if this creative expression is part of how we make our livelihoods and/or our own happiness! I remember a fascinating conversation I had in August with Will Whitwam, the lead singer of the Canadian band “The Wilderness of Manitoba” after their concert at the Mission Theatre. My two friends and I were lucky enough to talk to Will for a good hour, discussing the complexity surrounding this issue, especially the constant ebb and flow of creative impulse in our lives.
Unfortunately, we didn’t reach a conclusion of absolute certainty about how to approach our own creative efforts, but we all agreed that authenticity is of the utmost importance more than anything. After all, where is the integrity in creative expression if it doesn’t come from the depths of ourselves? Yes, we will inevitably be inspired by peers, current creatives, or harken back to geniuses in societies past, but we must always come back to ourselves and express what is at the core of our being. We are drawn in and compelled to create, often by a deep curiosity. Sometimes we don’t even know where a certain idea came from and sometimes we seek out inspiration through midnight ramblings. But the most important element of all this floundering, this striving to create beauty in the world, is to realize the power of our own imaginations. Because it is through the cogs of our own brains turning in real time, even through the haze of romanticism or nostalgia, that we are able to realize our own potential for genius.