Nostalgia has a bad reputation in the contemporary zeitgeist. Mentioning it as a creative drive is likely to raise a barrage of criticisms and red flags from almost everyone. Conservative and classical liberal thinkers have given up any attempt to defend the notion, allowing it to be claimed by Frankfurt School theorists who did a great job of exploring and at the same time subverting it to their political end goals.
One cannot begin to understand and categorize nostalgia without first referring to the works of Walter Benjamin, Bruno Latour and other critical theorists. For this purpose I will focus on Svetlana Boym’s book, ‘The Future of Nostalgia’, which sums up the views of said theorists while also providing an invaluable interdisciplinary approach that includes psychology, art history, anthropology, literature and philosophy. I will then turn to the works of more reactionary authors like Roger Scruton, Friedrich Nietzsche and T.S. Eliot in order to identify viable forms of nostalgia that can serve as fertile ground for a robust non-Progressive artistic movement.
1. 2. Origins of Nostalgia – The Industrial Revolution
Nostalgia is a pseudo-Greek word composed of two words: nostos (coming home) and algia (longing). The term was first used in the 18th century to describe the incurable homesickness of Swiss soldiers (Boym, 2002, p13). Considered initially to be a medical illness, it later became known as a condition of modernity. The appearance of the mechanic clock and later the Industrial Revolution created a new perception on time as an objective entity; an immense machine that ticks irreversibly and independent of individual rhythms and priorities. Globalization and technological progress had a similar effect on our perception of space. Systematized, filled with standardized transport systems, it came to be regarded as an abstract Cartesian coordinate system. The modern man viewed these transformations as a great liberation from the inertia of the past. The desire to begin anew, reinvent society and live the moment led to a teleology of progress in which technology was regarded as a miraculous ingredient. This radical rupture with the past and the transience of the modern condition also caused a nostalgic reaction that romanticized the past and aimed to recover its stability and a sense of being at home in the world. Many historians and philosophers such as Walter Benjamin or Bruno Latour have pointed out that the modern myths of progress and the anti-modern longing for tradition are twins who fail to recognize each other, both being consequences of the new conceptualization of time and the irreversible rupture with the past (Boym, 2002, p16).
The 19th century illustrated this reality through the strange juxtaposition of the new monuments of progress (cast iron pavilions, truss bridges, railways) and places of memory (museums, mausoleums, heritage foundations). The overall sense of amnesia was not disputed by anyone. The question was whether to celebrate forgetfulness as a unique opportunity to live the present to the full or rather to start digging for the roots. Not even Romantics or traditionalists could agree on what was lost and needed to be recovered. If the algia was shared by everyone, the nostos differed greatly between groups.
The modern concept of history as a unified phenomenon unfolding gradually, in a darwinian fashion, was clearly influenced by nostalgia. The philosophical systems that shared hegelian roots were also seeking continuity with the past, some immutable laws of history that would set us at home in the world. Nationalism monopolized the homesickness of poets and incorporated their songs in narratives of belonging and collective liberation. Marxists also dreamed about ‘integrated’ ancient civilisations (Lukacs) or the prefeudal ‘primitive communist society’ (Marx). Volkisch movements sought continuity with their ancestral customs while Restaurationist Christians were seeking a return to the early apostolic church.
Instead of analysing all these disparate manifestations of nostalgia, we will follow Svetlana Boym’s proposition to divide it into three categories based on the object of the longing: nostalgia for traditional communities, nature’s eternal return and flâneur’s ‘love at last sight’.
2. Categorization – The Object of Nostalgia
2. 1. Traditional Communities
What is it about traditional rural communities that’s so enticing to the modern nostalgic? One can explain this attraction through the sacred/profane dichotomy proposed by the historian Mircea Eliade. We long for a transcendental order; the hierophany (Eliade, 1959, p11) that manifested itself before the beginning of time and separated order from chaos; the primordial archetypes we strive to reenact; the sacred values that allowed our tribal ancestors to transcend individual gratification and focus on a greater good. The harmony and togetherness of worshipping and chanting together in sacred groves.
From the perspective of a moral psychologist like Jonathan Haidt, one could argue that the worldviews of traditional societies integrated all human moral intuitions – care, justice, liberty, loyalty, respect, purity, while the philosophical systems of Western industrialized societies focus only on the individualistic ones – care and justice (Haidt, 2013, p111). Sacralizing individual autonomy might not provide a meaning strong enough to replace all the aspects of traditional belief systems; the rhythm of technological change and the quick devaluation of gadgets can easily create unbridgeable generation gaps, preventing the transference of moral values from one generation to another.
Finally, in traditional societies space and time were not mere Cartesian abstractions; they were punctuated by rites of initiation and epiphanies. Pilgrimages, feasts, sacred mountains, sacred groves – they all conveyed a sense of unexplored potential. Allowing space for the transcendent guarantees that exploration will be fruitful; that there are still things to be known, mysteries to be solved; beauties to be discovered.
2. 2. Nature’s Eternal Return
The second type of nostalgia is exemplified by Nietzsche’s notion of cosmic eternal return. It is a paradoxical form of nostalgia because it looks for fulfilment beyond the integrated communities of the past. It is a solitary escape into the metaphysical Universe of pure will – a Universe that transcends the irreversibility of time and uniqueness of experience characteristic of modern transience:
This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not extend itself, but only transforms itself… a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without income (Boym, 2002, p25).
The idea of an irreversible escape from civilization cast its spell on many Romantic authors. Nature or wilderness sometimes seems to promise a definitive cure to our sense of estrangement. If only one could live as a recluse for the entirety of their life, they would escape the treacherous character of ephemeral culture and civilization.
In the words of Zarathustra, the hero at home only in his own soul, Nietzsche wrote: ‘One should live on mountains. With blessed nostrils do I again breathe mountain freedom. At last my nose is delivered from the odour of all humankind’ (Nietzsche, 1997, p181).
The mountain as a symbol of self-sufficiency was also familiar to Karl Jung. Although he relied heavily on Nietzsche’s imagery, Jung believed that a prolonged stay on the peaks would inevitably lead to monotony and sickness.
A man who can no longer climb down from his heights is sick. […] Becoming belongs to the heights and is full of torment. How can you become if you never are? (Jung, 2009, p237).
Eventually, the comforting forgetfulness of the depths of tradition enticed Nietzsche and nostalgia crept into his mountainous landscape where he was hoping to move beyond memory into that cosmic state. The place becomes reminiscent of the Alpine landscape of the romantic Swiss postcards, complete with cowbells (Boym, ibid). Overcome by homesickness, he fails to be at home in a household ‘without expenses and without losses’. He envies the cows for their unphilosophical worldview.
2. 3. The Flâneur’s ‘Love at Last Sight’
Many nostalgics have serious reservations about urban living. The ideal home of traditionalists, as well as the adepts of nature’s eternal return seems to have a distinctive rural component. Cities have always been the vanguard of revolutionary ideas and the sweeping winds of progress, while rural places have remained bastions of stable communities.
When asked about their views on city living, nostalgics often express themselves in apocalyptic terms. After visiting Paris, Dostoevsky declared it to be a symbol of Western decadence: “It is a kind of Biblical scene, something about Babylon, a kind of prophecy from the Apocalypse fulfilled before your very eyes. You feel that it would require a great deal of eternal spiritual resistance […] not to idolize Baal, not to accept it as your ideal” (Boym, p23).
There is, however, one category of nostalgics who love the poetics of urban experience – the flâneurs. These are nostalgics who embrace modernity. The ever-changing qualities of urban crowds excite them; the modern city evokes openness and unpredictability. Baudelaire was one of these poets who celebrated the modern experience for its sublime qualities. His goal was to represent the present, to capture the potential condensed in every anonymous encounter. In his poem, ‘To a Passerby’, modernity is impersonated by an unknown widow of dubious morals, lost in a crowd, wearing a veil and provocative makeup.
trembling like a fool, I drank from [her] eyes […]Lighting… then darkness! Lovely fugitive / whose glance has brought me back to life! / But where is life – not this side of eternity? / Elsewhere! Too far, too late or never at all! / Of me you know nothing, I nothing of you – you / whom I might have loved and who knew it too! (Boym, p20).
The stranger is lost in the crowd; the modern quest for arresting the moment results in erotic failure and gives way to nostalgia; not for the ideal past, but rather for the present-perfect and its lost potential. All that is left for the poet to do is turn this failure into a lasting work of art and encapsulate the transience of modern beauty into the rhymes of a traditional sonnet.
This nostalgia for the present-perfect turned Baudelaire into a critic of the belief in the uninterrupted march of progress, which he regarded as an enslaver of human nature. He cherished the present and new because of their openness and unpredictability. The impurities of modern life were in fact its redeeming feature (ibid).
Walter Benjamin shared Baudelaire’s fondness for the present perfect. That which is lost can be recovered and find new resonances in the future. In the same way that the French poet transformed his erotic failure into a lasting work of art, stories of the marginal or disenfranchised people of the past can be rescued and made meaningful again.
3. Cultural Manifestations of Nostalgia
3.1. Psychological Roots – Mourning and Melancholia
Abstract man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his past and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of a mythic home, the mythic womb? (Nietzsche, 2003, p62).
Our Christian forefathers were at home in the world; their highest ideals – Truth, Goodness and Beauty were crystallized as the attributes of God. Their hope lied in the past sacrifice of God’s son as much as it lied in the coming Kingdom of Heaven. The Christian worldview provided a higher purpose than encompassed all the aspects of life – veneration, knowledge, artistic creativity, suffering with dignity. All these were torn asunder by the traumatic technological changes of the last 3 centuries; it is what Nietzsche called ‘the death of God’ – the annihilation of every coherent worldview, moral system and artistic tradition. The psychological manifestations experienced by those living in the wake of the Industrial Revolution are mourning and melancholia.
Mourning occurs after the loss of a loved one or the loss of an abstraction such as homeland, liberty or any other ideal. It passes with the elapsing of the period required for the ‘work of grief’ (Boym, 2002, p55.) In melancholia, the loss appears to be more unconscious and harder to pin down. It does not pass with time and has less apparent connections with the external world. ‘The complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, draining the ego until it is utterly depleted’ (ibid). Nostalgia encompasses both psychological manifestations, which, in the absence of an integrating artistic movement or belief system, can prove incredibly dangerous.
3. 2. Restorative vs. Reflective Nostalgia
Svetlana Boym identified two distinct cultural manifestations of nostalgia, based on the different ways in which they integrate mourning and melancholy – restorative vs. reflective nostalgia. Restoration is a self-explanatory term; it means a return to an original state, to the time before the fall. The restorative nostalgic sacralizes a particular historical age, which she considers to be of value for the present. The evoked age is a perfect snapshot, without shortcomings or signs of decay. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, is concerned with the passage of time and its irreversible nature. In Nabokov’s words, reflective nostalgics are ‘amateurs of Time, epicures of duration’ (Boym, p49), resisting the modern pressures of quantifiable efficiency.
Restorative nostalgia tends to focus on national narratives, pictorial symbols and folklore. Its goal is to reconstruct the ideal homeland in an attempt to conquer and spatialize time. Although the triggers of restorative and reflective nostalgia can overlap, the latter tends to focus on individual narratives and unsystematic memories. It relishes details, shattered fragments and memorial signs and it tends to temporalise space by constantly deferring homecoming. Restorative nostalgia is often humourless and sees itself in tragic colours. Reflective nostalgia can be humorous and is always capable of self-irony. It proves that longing and reason are not incompatible, as affective memories do not absolve us from questioning our past motives. Nostalgics of this type are aware of the gap between identity and resemblance; the home is in ruins or, on the contrary, has been renovated and gentrified beyond recognition. This defamiliarization and sense of distance drives them to tell their story, to narrate the relationship between past, present and future. Through such longing these nostalgics discover that the past is not merely that which doesn’t exist anymore, but, to quote Henri Bergson, ‘might act and will act by inserting itself into a present sensation from which it borrows the vitality’ (ibid). Both Bergson and Marcel Proust regarded this imaginative form of nostalgia as essential in awakening multiple planes of consciousness with unpredictable outcomes.
4. Towards a Non-Progressive Artistic Movement
4.1.The Failure of Postmodernism
Svetlana expresses a clear preference for the reflective type of nostalgia, the only one marked safe in the wake of WW2. Longing is acceptable only if you defer homecoming indefinitely. Homeland is an illusion anyway, according to the postmodern consensus. Our ancestors were never at home in the world; the only beneficiaries of this longing are political hierarchies who monopolize it in order to divide us into us versus them, so they can control the masses. The ambitious project of critical theorists was to appropriate nostalgia as a decentralized tool of the marginal and disenfranchised, never allowing the powers that be to lay hands on it again.
The psychologists Vygotsky and Bakhtin coined the notion of ‘shared social frameworks of memory’. Vygotsky suggested that what characterises us all is not an individual memory similar to perception, but rather a memory of cultural signs that encourages the generation of meaning without the influence of external stimuli. Remembering is thus interlinked with thinking (ibid). The British psychologist D. W. Winnicott suggested the notion of a ‘potential space’ between individuals and their environment, that is first formed in early childhood. Initially this space contains the play between the child and the mother.
‘Culture has the potential of becoming a space for individual play and creativity, and not merely an oppressive homogenizing force; far from limiting individual play, it guarantees it space. Culture is not foreign to human nature but integral to it; after all, culture provides a context where relationships do not always develop by continuity but by contiguity. Perhaps what is most missed during historical cataclysms and exile is not the past and the homeland exactly, but rather this potential space of cultural experience that one has shared with one’s friends and compatriots that is based neither on nation nor religion but on elective affinities. Collective memory will be understood here as the common landmarks of everyday life. They are folds in the fan of memory, not prescriptions for a model tale’ (Boym, 2002, p53).
Realizing that culture is not entirely oppressive and paternalistic is a step forward for postmodern thinkers. However, right after this admission Svetlana is quick to point out that collective memory should not be confused with national memory even when they share the same triggers. National memory tends to create a single teleological narrative, in which the gaps and incongruities of everyday recollections are mended through a coherent triumphal tale of recovered identity. On the other hand, the scattered frameworks of collective memory and reflective nostalgia will never form a single plot, although they might share a certain syntax, even intonation. She cannot overcome the postmodern reflex to expose worldviews and metanarratives as great dangers to civilization. This tendency is exhibited by many cultural critics who celebrate art only to the extent to which it challenges hierarchies, structures of power and commonly held beliefs. According to their expectations, art should provoke aesthetic interest merely as deconstructive jouissance, without relying on any religious or philosophical notion of beauty or sublime. ‘Just as those who lose their religion have an urge to mock the faith that they’ve lost, so do artists today feel an urge to treat human life in demeaning ways and to mock the pursuit of beauty‘ (Scruton, Why Beauty Matters).
This narrative has lost credibility. The postmodern appropriation of nostalgia on behalf of marginalized groups proved just as oppressive and paternalistic, now that the defenders of the disenfranchized cannot be distinguished from the status quo. Besides constantly eroding existing cultures and pitting groups against each other, the movement’s creative energies have been exhausted in its first two decades of existence, leaving a vacuum of hopelessness and cynicism. Even Svetlana, writing in 2002, admitted that postmodernists rehabilitated nostalgia only to reduce it to an element of historic style. They never longed to recover a different temporality. ‘Treated as fashion, post-modernism became demode’ (Boym, ibid).
4.2. Traditionalism Revisited
Powerful artistic and cultural movements cannot exist without an ethos; unguided collective memory and tongue-in-cheek intertextuality are insufficient to provide one.
Traditional or classical civilizations shared our algia but instead of directing it to an earlier historical period, they saw it as reflecting a divine order not of this world. In Western civilization, from its inception in the Greek states, artists and philosophers have seen the experience of beauty as a calling to the divine. Plato believed that humans are mere pilgrims in this world headed towards a transcendental, eternal realm in order to be united with God. In this life we can only glimpse that heavenly sphere through the experience of beauty. The love of beauty originates in eros, a cosmic force that flows through us in the form of sexual desire and which presents us with a choice between adoration or appetite; love or lust. To reach the source of beauty we must overcome lust. In Plato’s words, ‘beholding beauty with the eye of the mind you will be able to nourish true virtue and become the friend of God’ (Scruton, ibid).
The pursuit of virtue (paideia) and beauty, made possible by the belief in an eternal realm, were the essential cohesive factors in classical and traditional societies.
4.3. Romanticism Revisited
This view on art that dominated Western thought for over 2000 years ended in the 17th century, in the wake of the Scientific Revolution which brought about the Newtonian view of a clockwork Universe. No place was left for gods and spirits, values and ideals. What was the purpose of art and beauty in this Universe, then? This was one of the main concerns of many philosophers. The 3rd earl of Shaftesbury provided a new perspective which was later adopted by Kant, Schopenhauer, Schiller and others. According to Shaftesbury, the empirical method employed by scientists explains many things but its account of the world is incomplete. We can see the world from another perspective – not seeking to use it or explain it, but simply contemplating its appearance as we might contemplate a landscape or a flower (ibid). Beauty need not have been planted by God; the world is still intrinsically meaningful, full of an enchantment that needs no religious doctrine to perceive. Instead of being illustrators of the sacred stories, artists could discover them for themselves by interpreting nature. Landscapes, which used to be backgrounds to biblical scenes, became foregrounds with the human figure often lost in their folds.
In Kant’s view, a disinterested attitude underlies our experience of beauty. In Schopenhauer’s terminology, this is the world as representation instead of will. ‘Enjoyment of this spectacle constitutes aesthetic pleasure’ – (Schopenhauer, 1851, p172). Roger Scruton uses a similar dichotomy in his book ‘Culture Counts’ – that of leisure versus work. According to him, we are at rest when we experience aesthetic emotions.
‘Fulfillment does not come through purpose […] but only when purpose is set aside. And for Schiller, the paradigm of fulfillment is the aesthetic experience […] – the disinterested contemplation of appearances, the self-conscious alertness to the presented meaning of things. […] And just as a child learns through play, so do we learn through the aesthetic experience, by exercising our feelings in imaginary realms, enlarging our vision of humanity, and coming to see the world as imbued with intrinsic values, meaningful in itself and without reference to our self-centered interests’ (Scruton, 2007, p18-19).
This notion lied at the core of the Romantic movement, which, despite its many shortcomings, proved incredibly fertile from an artistic perspective. As the container of the sublime character of our late metaphysical systems, art speaks through images and archetypes, pointing to truths of a transcendental nature. In order to seek creativity, one must, at least in practice, entertain the idea that beauty and the sublime are not of this world; that their experience connects us with the ultimate mystery of being; that through them we are brought into the presence of the sacred.
‘We all know what it is like […] suddenly to be transported by the things we see from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. A flash of sunlight, a remembered melody, the face of someone loved – these dawn on us in the most distracted moments and suddenly life is worthwhile. These are timeless moments in which we feel the presence of another and higher world’ – (Scruton, Why Beauty Matters).
It seems that genuine art is intrinsically linked to the experience of nostalgia. These moments in which we have glimpsed the sublime character of the world will no doubt be treasured as precious memories. Their uniqueness will make us long for their rhythms and we will aim to encounter them again in one form or another. The only way one can banish nostalgia is by deriving pleasure exclusively from the expectation of a Utopian scenario that will supposedly materialise in the future; one is forbidden to mourn the lost or latent potential of past experiences; mourning and melancholia are regarded as acts of treachery by the ideologues of progress. In their view, one should only celebrate forgetfulness and the approach of what is to come – to which there is no analogy, no past feeling, only the tenets of their ideology. Those who exhibit this attitude are not at all concerned with aesthetic experiences, which is why their artistic manifestations are indistinguishable from propaganda.
4.4. Cultural Heritage
We have so far identified two aspects of nostalgia that can serve as the basis of a non-progressive artistic movement: the virtual space of collective memory and the aesthetic experience as a harbinger of the divine realm. The third essential factor present in all robust communities is a form of heritage that can serve as a guide to virtue and aesthetic experiences.
4.4.1. Perceptual Congruity
Contrary to Svetlana’s postmodern claims, Roger Scruton argues that there are in fact unifying factors that structure the artistic pursuit and collective memory, and that these are not imposed in a top-down fashion by hierarchies of power.
Aesthetic interest is such a factor. Anything is art if someone sincerely believes it to be, for art is a functional category. This doesn’t mean we cannot judge the object of art to see if it performs its function, or if it performs it poorly, in a crude or vulgar manner. The category of art is not arbitrary because there is such thing as a distinction between good and bad art. Therefore, aesthetic interest is always linked to judgement. Can we find a solid ground for judgement?
‘Works of art, like jokes, are objects of perception: it is how they look, how they sound, how they appeal to our sensory perception, that matters. In aesthetic interest we see the world as it really seems. […] We then encounter a unity of experience and thought, a coming together of the sensory and the intellectual for which “imagination” is the everyday name.’ (Scruton, 2007, p12)
The first grounding for judgement is, therefore, perceptual congruity. The object of aesthetic interest is required to conjure up this ‘coming together of the sensory and the intellectual’.
Scruton then argues that this unity is not enough for a genuine work of art. There are appearances that might capture our aesthetic interest and even fascinate us, although we ought to avoid them. Roman games are such an example. Slaughtering animals, crucifying prisoners and tormenting innocents for the sake of the spectacle has a gruesome and degrading meaning. On the other hand there are appearances which reward our interest with knowledge, understanding and moral elevation. The Greek tragedy is such an ennobling work of art, in which myths with deep significations are enacted in sophisticated poems and in which the alluded deaths take place out of sight and unrelished by the public. ‘A high culture aims […] at preserving and enhancing experiences of the second kind, in which human life is raised to a higher level – the level of ethical reflection’ (ibid).
The third factor that serves as a grounding for aesthetic judgement in Scruton’s view is truthfulness. This goes beyond art to the sphere of culture, which comprises our aspirations and ideals, jokes, works of art, dialogues, works of literature, manners, clothing and patterns of behaviour.
‘A culture consists of all those activities and artifacts which are organized by the “common pursuit of true judgment,” as T. S. Eliot once put it. […] Some of those things will be works of art, addressed to the aesthetic interest; others will be discursive works of history or philosophy, addressed to the interest in ideas. Both kinds of work explore the meaning of the world and the life of society. And the purpose of both is to stimulate the judgments through which we understand each other and ourselves’ (ibid, p14).
Over time, this pursuit of perceptual congruity, moral elevation and truthfulness leads to artistic and philosophical traditions which serve as the base of our paradigm(s) of culture. And the principle that structures a tradition also separates the wheat from the chaff, establishing the canon of masterpieces, the built heritage, the touchstones of our spiritual endeavours. The depth and richness of this body of works is sublime; we do not do it justice by reducing it to the product of past hierarchies who aimed to impose their values on the masses. Instead of treating the Western canon as raw material for our deconstruction, we can choose to follow Shaftesbury’s advice to stop using, explaining and exploiting cultural artefacts but look at them instead. Apply Kant’s disinterested attitude and simply perceive them. Only then will we understand what they mean and discover the sublime character of our heritage.
This is not nostalgia for its own sake; as T.S. Eliot observed, without a reliance upon heritage and historical depth, an artist will never obtain an original voice.
‘Our tendency [is] to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. If we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. […] Tradition […] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer up to the present has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order’ (T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood).
Svetlana coined the term ‘off-modern’ to describe this view on art. The main object of off-modern art and lifestyle is to explore the hybrids of past and present. Fortunately the monomaniacal project of modernity did not entirely erase the richness and depth of our cultures. Mainstream fashions and philosophies who withstood the test of time are not necessarily better or morally superior to the extinct ones and the technological possibilities of our age could allow us to explore the back alleys of history, salvage valuable ideas and unrealised potentials from the past or present-perfect and make them relevant once more.
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Jung, Carl Gustav – The Red Book – Liber Novus, W.W. Norton and CO Ltd. London, 2009
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– The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Blackmash Online, 2003
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