Legacy and nostalgia

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I just received my copy of the Last Will and Testament of Peter MacLean. He left me books ― two of the ones we used to pore over together. I am touched by this last gesture from him, which seems in keeping with his sharing of personal artefacts and souvenirs on our many visits, but in receiving these physical objects that I will doubtless treasure I am also prompted to think about the role that nostalgia plays in the practice of Gaelic singing.

Svetlana Boym writes that nostalgic longing is “defined by loss of the original object of desire, and by its spatial and temporal displacement.”[1] Nostalgia, however, is not sentimentality, or need not be, and how it inspires us to reflect and act is quite different. Boym writes that the exiled state which gives rise to nostalgia is intrinsically outward, and so the exiled “cannot be retroactive (i.e., merely nostalgic); he has to be reflective, flexible toward himself and others.”[2] This attitude seems especially apt for Gaelic singers today (or any time, perhaps?). We cannot simply reproduce the practice of those who precede us, not only because it is impractical but also because it is unproductive.

Peter MacLean asked that we be ‘faithful to the song’ and its bard’s wishes, and to sing it in a way that is inspired by great singers we have heard. He left us his books, and he left behind recordings, and those of us who knew him will carry his words and uphold his standards. We must also, however,  consider in which outward direction we will carry his legacy, and how his voice (and those of other friends and culture-bearers) might be best presented and shared with future singers and listeners.

[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), 38. [2] Boym, 341


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