Grieving and Nostalgia

What is the difference between nostalgia and a real grief for a loss of a time or place? (We may find it necessary to collapse space and time here, because what is a place you miss if not a specific time at a place?) Nostalgia was originally an illness that affected French soldiers stationed in the colonial possessions of France, a sort of deep homesickness. In this sense, its affiliations are with the Powerful, longing for . . . what, exactly? A more innocent time, when they didn’t have to kill brown people? Let’s leave the Powerful to their nostalgia. A real grief for a time may look something more like the perennial Jewish longing for a destroyed Jerusalem, or the deep cultural memories indigenous peoples of America hold for their world before the arrival of the whites. A construction of Utopia, not in the distant future, but in the past. Where then to place our own personal longings for distant times, of childhood, of safety and joy? This is a feeling that we must own, alone and vulnerable, and know that it is the desire for Home. For Home is nothing more than an instance, a remote series of events in our personal mythologies. This is what Wolfe meant by, “You can’t go home again,” the very same wisdom as the expression, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

Yamadeva and Ling Look


There are two graves in the Happy Valley of Hong Kong. They belong to the Gueter brothers of Buda Pesht, who came to that land swallowing fire, in the act of the great pre-Houdini magician, Dean Harry Kellar. Houdini himself relates their deaths in the Miracle Mongers, his vast exposé on all those who would make magic seem magic, and not science, as Houdini himself believed. The Gueter Bros., David and Louis, performed under racist pseudonyms, in yellowface make-up, as Ling Look and Yamadeva, respectively. Ling Look was the more impressive of the two, having combined his appetites for swords and fire into a startling display of swallowing a flaming blade. But the brother’s loved each other equally, communicating in a trademark whistle. When Yamadeva died of a rupture on the boat from Shanghai to Hong Kong, it was this whistle that was eerily heard by all on the ship. As the whistle faded, Ling Look turned with misery to Harry Kellar, (who years later related the story to a dispassionate Houdini) and said his brother was calling to him. Sure enough, David Gueter died in Hong Kong and was buried next to his brother, Louis. Houdini records a strange coda to this ghost story. In London, two years after his death, Ling Look reappeared, swallowing swords and fire and caustics as gaily as he ever had. Kellar investigated, and told Houdini he found a third Gueter brother, carrying on the family legacy, in his deceased brother’s make up. 

This explanation satisfies Houdini the rationalist, but did it disturb the soul of Houdini the Rabbi’s son? For surely Houdini knew of the Eternal Flame that burns, yet does not consume. Did he know that that Fire has its own priests, its own worship, that apes its own harmless flames? Does Ling Look not still live, whistling for his brother through scorched lips that have known the caress of swords?