Longing for a past that never was


Pauline Hunt and Ronald Frankenberg wrote an academic analysis about Disneyland titled “It’s a Small World” several decades ago, before Disneyland became the multibillion dollar company it is now. Today, their analysis is still on target. The authors’ reflections on their own experience visiting Disneyland (as a couple) in the nineties illustrate a sense of “infinite nostalgia” that today’s visitors might also experience. In Disneyland, they write

insofar as the visitor suspends adult disbelief, the world is her or his oyster . . . A deep nostalgia for one’s own past is engendered because one cannot fully enter into the pretense. Rebecca, our 6-year-old daughter, sighed as she left Disneyland. ‘I wish I were still a baby! I wish I were younger!’ Would she then have experienced it as totally real? We think not. Even for a toddler, a longing for a past-that-never-was is likely to be created . . . Disneyland is intricately interwoven with elusive memories of a golden era, an example of how Disneyland both serves and is used to re-enforce conventional values and practices.

Notice the authors’ choice of the old fashioned term “re-enforce” over “reinforce”, which highlights the qualities of enforcement as an obligation, constraint, or imposition. According to an online dictionary, the term re-enforce is also used in psychology to indicate the use of reward or punishment to increase the likelihood of a specific behavior being repeated. In this case, it could be argued that Hunt and Frankenberg conceived Disneyland as a project designed to impose the value of certain kinds of childhoods . . . making those without the evoked experiences feel incomplete.

It is understandable for adults to feel nostalgic, but having young children long their brief past is impressive. The authors sum up their ideas in the following reflection:

Few [people] have the means to engage in worldwide travel, and no one, however rich and free, can see everything at first hand. Modern life tantalizes by communicating the existence of many inaccessible worlds and turns the passage of time into a roll call of lost opportunities.

— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Associate Editor

To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here. For an exploration of children’s lives between two worlds read Alexia’s article “Children Challenging Borders: The physical and psychological journeys that the children of immigrants make for their families,” published by Zeteo last fall.

Credits & Endnotes

Top and cover image is Disney copyright.

“It’s a Small World: Disneyland, the Family and the Multiple Re-representations of American Childhood” first appeared in Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood, a compilation of articles edited by Allison James and Alan Prout, published by RoutledgeFalmer in 1997.

Further in the article, Hunt and Frankenberg quote David Lodge’s novel Nice Work, where, they claim, he expresses his longing for lost opportunities through the mouth of a male character:

When he came back from the bar with their drinks, he said, ‘I’ve never bought draught bitter for a woman before.’
‘Then you must have had a very limited experience of life,’ she said, smiling.
‘You’re dead right,’ he replied, without returning the smile. ‘Cheers.’ He took a long swallow of his pint. ‘Some times when I’m lying awake in the small hours, instead of counting sheep, I count the things I’ve never done.’
‘Like what?’
‘I’ve never skied, I’ve never surfed. I’ve never learned to play a musical instrument, or speak a foreign language, or sail a boat, or ride a horse. I’ve never climbed a mountain or pitched a tent or caught a fish. I’ve never seen Niagara Falls or been up the Eiffel Tower or visited the Pyramids. I’ve never . . . I could go on and on.’ He had been about to say, I’ve never slept with a woman other than my wife, but thought better of it.
‘There’s still time.’
‘No, it’s too late. All I’m fit for i work. It’s the only thing I’m any good at.’
‘Well, that’s something. To have a job you like and be good at it.’
‘Yes, its something,’ he agreed, thinking that in the small hours it didn’t seem enough; but he didn’t say that aloud either.


One comment

  1. William Eaton

    “The World of Yesterday” is also the title of the English translation of Stefan Zweig’s memoir in which he writes, inter alia, about how “in its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the straight and unfailing path toward being the best of all worlds. . . . [I]t was merely a matter of decades until the last vestige of evil and violence would finally be conquered, and this faith in an uninterrupted and irresistible “progress” truly had the force of religion for that generation. . . . At night the dim street lights of former times were replaced by electric lights, . . . Thanks to the telephone one could talk at a distance from person to person. People moved about in horseless carriages with a new rapidity; they soared aloft, and the dream of Icarus was fulfilled. . . . Hygiene spread and filth disappeared. People became handsomer, stronger, healthier, as sport steeled their bodies. . . . [A]nd all of these miracles were accomplished by science, the archangel of progress. Progress was also made in social matters; year after year new rights were accorded to the individual, justice was administered more benignly and humanely, and even the problem of problems, the poverty of the great masses, no longer seemed insurmountable. The right to vote was being accorded to wider circles, and with it the possibility of legally protecting their interests. . . . Our fathers . . . honestly believed that the divergences and boundaries between nations and sects would gradually melt away into a common humanity and the peace and security, the highest of treasures, would be shared by all mankind.
    . . . We of the new generation who have learned not to be surprised by any outbreak of bestiality, we who each new day expect things worse than the day before, are markedly more skeptical about the possible moral improvement of mankind. We must agree with Freud, to whom our culture and civilization were merely a thin layer liable at any moment to be pierced by the destructive forces of the ‘underworld.’”


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