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Nostalgia in “The Landscape of His Dreams”

According to the Random House dictionary, nostalgia is “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time. ” Moreover, the root of nostalgia comes from the Greek “nostos,” a return home. For Franco Magnanis, nostalgia is not just the fond or emotional recollection of a distant time and place, but the forcible return to that place in his mental representations.

This operation that happens in imagination bears out an objective correlative in his personal history, as for many years he resists physically returning home but is ultimately compelled to do so. The “return home” of nostalgia is not at all metaphorical for Franco Magnanis but rather the trajectory of his life. His life is nostalgia. As a child Franco lived in the Tuscan village of Pontito, Italy. Life was good there and the population sustained itself culturally and materially. Then the Nazis took over and devastated the town.

Franco’s memories all come from the pre-Nazi period, and it is this version of Pontito that he compulsively recreates, with almost photographic accuracy, in his paintings. Franco was not the only one to lose Pontito, yet his condition is very rare if not unique among the survivors. Additional explanation is required. One cause might be in a genetic predisposition to unusually vivid memory which he shared with his mother and sister (157). This unusual ability would at least lay the structural groundwork for Franco’s later artworks.

But the particular way in which the nostalgic compulsion came upon Franco warrants more than a purely physical of physiological explanation. Sacks speculates on the particular emotional traumas that Franco experienced as a young man that led to his exile from his beloved Pontito. Already gifted with unusual powers of memory, the incursion of Nazism destroyed the place he loved best. Having lost the home he so dearly wanted to return to—and lost irrevocably—Franco began having semi-epileptic hallucinatory visions of Pontito (157-159).

Coupled with this was a vow he made to his mother, with whom “Franco was always very close…. a sort of pre-Oedipal, almost symbiotic intimacy and closeness” (168) that he would create Pontito again for her. The emotional charge that the town of Pontito carried for Franco, then, was doubled by being violated by the greatest psychic trauma of the twentieth century, National Socialism, and the very personal psychical process of a son’s attachment to his mother.

Add to this a gift for recollection and the possibility of frontal lobe epilepsy of the sort that, many doctors and historian have speculated, gripped artists like Dostoevsky, (163-165) and a provisional narrative of how Franco Magnani came to his unique artistic vocation can be formulated. The components of Franco’s artistic genesis provide different commentaries on nostalgia and doubleness. First, we can look at the temporal split, or doubling, that a traumatic event introduces into the smooth flow of time. Franco’s mind recognizes, and exists, two time frames: before the Nazis came to Pontito, and after.

The power of this subconscious recognition is evidenced objectively in his long delay in returning to his home, even when opportunities presented themselves to him. Subconsciously, Franco’s mind wanted to preserve the “before” time from the damages that reintroducing an “after” image would do to it. His goal was not to create Pontito with historical fidelity, chronicling its changes, but to keep the antebellum Pontito intact, safe even from Pontito. Pontito is doubled, then, to keep it in nostalgic suspension.

Franco wants to return to a particular version of Pontito, not to whatever Pontito happens to exist objectively today. There is a denial of reality in nostalgia, and most especially of the constitutive function of unilinear time in a shared and shareable reality. Franco’s nostalgia creates a doubleness within himself, between his experiences of the world today, the constant feed of input into the sensory organs, and the mental representation of Pontito that exists in recollection, and a doubleness between him and the world that splits him off from the socius of forward-moving time.

The way in which Franco’s temporally frozen world of Pontito cuts him off from history and all its ravages—and the loss of Pontito is only one among innumerable devastations wrought by the Nazis—bears a subjective correlative in the significance of his mother as a symbol of safety. She is also a symbol of similarity for Franco, since they share the unusual gift of memory and are emotionally very close. The figure of Franco’s mother holds out the promise that the self can be doubled, or rather that the other can share in the secret world of the self.

Instead of feeling isolated by his talents, Franco’s mother made him feel like a part of a special group—not a singular example, but a member of a class. The psychic significance of the mother is also applied to Pontito in general as the zone of safety that can wrap around him and provide domestic security. The doubling of the self through the mother is, according to oedipal theory, what must be repressed for normal civilized functioning. By transferring or combining the figure of the mother with Pontito, however, an entirely normal symptom is produced that Franco effectively sublimates into his art.

The doubleness of the mother/son relationship is one that entails difference but also a fundamental sameness, especially in this case. Franco’s nostalgia for Pontito expresses both of these currents. In his memory and art, Pontito is the same—the same as it was then, and the same from painting to painting, day to day inside his head. But because it stays the same, Pontito is also radically different from Franco (who must go to work, who ages, who sees his loved ones age and die), from the world (which is always inherently historical), and most pointedly from itself.

Franco’s nostalgia for Pontito illustrates how nostalgia in general can operate as a normal mechanism for negotiating the polarized forces of the different and the same. Even without the particular familial and historical dynamics at work in Franco’s story, every individual must confront these problems because we are always both the same and different from ourselves. Our past, like Franco’s Pontito, remains locked within our memories and unchangeable—except in terms of how we represent it.

We cannot change the decisions we have made or the events that have happened to us, but as Sacks notes, the process of memory is also a creative process (172-173). Through a synthesis of our memories and our present concepts of self, we negotiate the sameness and difference within the individual in a way that serves our present psychological needs. Franco’s case is so unusual because he cannot change the representation of his past. The same and the different are not united into a dynamic, if incomplete and messy, unity, as they typically are.

Instead, his subconscious commitment to the truth of the situation, to Pontito as it once was and will for him forever be, maintains the gap between then and now with unsurpassable fortitude. Perhaps the paradox in this tale is that Franco is considered the anomaly, when he is the one who has a “true” memory, and the rest of us who make the past up as we go along are considered normal.

Works Cited “Nostalgia. ” Dictionary. com Unabridged (v 1. 1). Random House, Inc. 11 Dec. 2008. <Dictionary. com http://dictionary. reference. com/browse/nostalgia>. Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Knopfy, 1995.

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