Premature Regret

Two things that happened to me the same day have got me thinking about progress and authenticity again.

The first was that I went to a great seminar, where one of my colleagues from the IHR, Courtney Campbell ( and find her on Twitter: @CJCampbell123) was talking about the ideas of modernizing the nation and nostalgia and regional identities in the Brazilian Northeast, which are at the heart of the book she is writing. This is really exciting cultural history, where she looks at events and phenomena as diverse as beauty contests, World Cup football matches, a film Orson Welles never finished, and Carnival organisations where young men dressed up as women who had had relationships with U.S. troops during the Second World War.

One thing I was especially interested in about what Courtney was saying has to do with the paradoxes of regionalism and nationalism. Courtney was making a good case for the uneasy coexistence even within the same individuals and groups of two apparently contradictory beliefs:

  1. that the region of the northeast was a disgrace to the nation, a region that desperately needed progress and modernization
  2. yet also that the region was the site of authentic Brazilian culture

I asked Courtney about the back history of this paradox, since it is one that she rightly points out is common to regionalist and nationalist thinking across the globe. I wanted to know which comes first historically, the desire for progress, or the nostalgia for a purer past. Courtney argued that modernization, or progress, or whatever you want to call it, had to come first. Regret comes after.

Later that evening I was talking to Kate Bennett, who has very recently published a new edition of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, a seventeenth-century antiquarian text composed of short biographical pieces (see: I don’t know a huge deal about Aubrey, but his name does come up quite often among folklorists, since his Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme is often considered one of the earliest precursors to the folklore movement of the nineteenth century.

The name is striking: remains.

Like other antiquarians in the British Isles such as Thomas Percy and James Macpherson, Aubrey’s very title suggested ruin, decay, and obliteration. Percy’s ballads were ‘reliques’ and Macpherson’s poems ‘fragments’.

I would suggest the regret that Aubrey, Percy, and Macpherson express could be called premature in two different ways.

First, they were writing before the social changes historians lump together as ‘modernization’ had really begun. The destruction of authentic, oral cultures they more or less explicitly evoked was not caused by railways, newspapers, and the army, as historians of the nineteenth century have argued, nor the radio and television, as a range of concerned writers claimed in the twentieth. Their nostalgia surely predated the supposed destruction of oral culture in any case. (This destruction is an idea of which I should be clear I am very suspicious in general).

Second, just as the social and technological changes that should supposedly cause this loss had not yet appeared, so too the very discourse of modernity was not born until the nineteenth century.

As Lynn Hunt has recently pointed out, the word was not used in English until the mid-eighteenth century and in French until the start of the nineteenth (see Perhaps these early antiquarians were part of the new interests in the ‘modern’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which Hunt goes on to discuss. But whatever the case, is it not significant that these writers were at least contemporary with (in the case of Percy and Ossian) and even predated (in the case of Aubrey) the rise of a view of history as progress?

Many of the French folklorists I have worked on are seen as reactionaries, in a literal sense. We assume the regionalists and the champions of authentic folk cultures were reacting to social change and to discourses of progress. But it seems increasingly likely to me that their regrets predated the rupture upon which they were supposedly founded.

6 thoughts on “Premature Regret

  1. As an early modernist, I think I can see why Aubrey would be nostalgic. The 16th and 17th centuries were a period of apparently rapid change in England. The Reformation ‘stripped’ local communal culture and the rise of printing created a national/metropolitan culture, all accompanied by major socio-economic realignments (social polarisation, inflation, commercialisation, urbanisation, etc.) and political upheaval in the 1640s-50s. Scholars like Adam Fox and Andy Wood have pointed out that these changes didn’t kill off oral culture and popular memory, but they certainly gave everyone a sense that ‘traditional’ ways of thinking and doing were under attack. In that sense, Aubrey was probably just as justified as his nineteenth-century successors in talking about ‘ruin, decay, and obliteration’. It may have been an exaggerated view, but it had some foundation in reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brodie! Interestingly, this was also one of the things Courtney said to me when I showed her the post.

      I wonder two things about the early-modern parallel to the nineteenth-century.

      1. Is it really about the social or economic changes you suggest, or whether it is about a different set of ideas, which are really ideas about antiquity (classical, religious, or the ‘invention’ (in some broad sense) of porto-national or ethnic antiquities). Because the antiquity question has really dropped out of the discussion in the nineteenth century, in my reading of it, as everything becomes about a romanticised pre-industrial world.

      2. And how is this line of thought transmitted? Do the nineteenth-century folklorists know about the long history of regret and nostalgia, or do they just inherit it in a sense? I know the man whose papers I used extensively for my doctorate gets some of his floweriest nostalgia from reading romantic writers, but I don’t think he had any sense of an early-modern nostalgia, which would have made no sense to him, since for him change happens after 1789, while the old regime was a broadly undifferentiated period (I think).

      I don’t know if you or anyone else have answers to these questions. What I should do is look back to my notes on Fox and Wood, though. I remain somewhat suspicious of how powerful this nostalgia is and whether it really is a reaction to progress or change, or whether it effectively jumped the gun…


      1. I’m not sure I can help on the second question, but on the first, I think that many people in the 17th century pointed to specific events (much like 1789) when ‘everything changed’.

        The first was the Reformation, especially the Dissolution of the Monasteries, for which see Duffy, Stripping of the Altars; Walsham, Reformation of the Landscape; Wood, Memory of the People. This was seen as both a ‘cultural’ change, but also a socio-economic one as it led to much redistribution of land and resources.
        The second was the ‘Great Rebellion’ of the 1640s and 50s, which again was seen as a watershed when suddenly old beliefs were thrown out and radical ideas were widespread. Despite the Restoration in 1660, I think many people believed that the ‘old ways’ were never truly restored.

        If I remember correctly, Aubrey repeatedly used both of those moments as reference points when talking about what had been ‘lost’ in his own time.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this, Will! It is such a great experience to read the thoughts that my paper inspired and great to keep the conversation going. I’ve been thinking, after reading your post and giving you my initial non-public reply about earlier moments of nostalgia in Brazil. I had mentioned to you by email, if I remember correctly, Rebecca Earle’s ‘The Return of the Native’ as a wonderful book that looks at how the trope of Indianness is picked up, remembered, forgotten, and re-remembered in Latin America. Within this, I think, we can include in Brazil writers like José de Alencar, who in the 19th century wrote a trilogy about the early days of interaction between the Portuguese and Indians in what we now know as Brazil. His concerns were different though. He was writing a narrative for the emerging nation (as in Sommers’ ‘Foundational Fictions’). There was also, in the 1920s in Brazil, an obsession with cannibalism. Artists (referred to as Brazilian Modernists) were concerned with ‘cultural cannibalism’ (as in the ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’, which I believe is online translated to English), but they referred back to stories of cannibalism among the Indians along the coast, often narrated in the travel diaries of Europeans (see here, also Carlos Jauregui’s ‘Canibalia’). Their concern was less about retaining and more about creating something new. I feel arrogant shouting myself out here, but I also have an article called ‘From Mimicry to Authenticity’ that looks at a group of intellectuals in the late 1950s/early 1960s in Brazil that are concerned with the tendency of Brazilian culture to look outside of itself for inspiration and propose an ‘authentic’ Brazilian culture. It’s in the ‘Luso-Brazilian Review’ and available on my

    All of this makes me realize that I am generally more concerned with the function and motive of the nostalgia/authenticity/modernity/mimicry/tradition debates, to the point that I don’t pay as much attention to causality as I should. When forced, like you said, I default to the ‘modernity generates notions of popular culture’ argument, but I’m glad to be giving it more thought now.

    And now I need to pay attention to the next speaker at this workshop! I’ll be checking in on the comment section here though!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s