Words: Ryan Waring
Art: Steph Holm
It’s been a lifelong goal of mine to coin a neologism. Yeah, I’m aware that 22 years typically only qualifies as ‘lifelong’ for freakishly healthy cats. And yeah, it’s an accomplishment really only somewhere between “connecting my beard and mustache” and “writing a New York Times crossword puzzle” on my Neutrogena ® Life Priorities Scale. With however misplaced delight, I introduce “parthenalgia,” a wistful or sentimental yearning to re-experience a first encounter, according to my infantine dictionary project.
I know I have made it easy for the hater in all of us to say, “Hey, you basically ripped off ‘nostalgia’,” because that’s totally what I did. I even pilfered some of the diction straight from Merriam-Webster because I lack that much respect for my elders. But really, parthenalgia precisely describes a more refined kind of nostalgia.
In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means “the pain from returning home.” And while my flawed antihero Don Draper might not have a canonistic classical source, I cannot deny the salesman-prized pathos his “delicate, but potent” evaluation evokes. Nostalgia merely involves a sensational, fragile trigger to the past. The sight of an old gramophone or the sound of an old 78 might arouse some alluringly romanticized vision of a ballroom social my grandparents could have attended. Or a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo and vintage pop magazine ad might conjure up the cultural crossroads of excess and minimalism inundating gen-Xers like my parents (probably overshooting their ages).
Parthenalgia keeps the pain, the root word ‘algos’, and adjoins it to the Greek ‘parthenos’, or virgin. Thus, parthenalgia describes a more specific and lived moment: a first encounter. Unlike nostalgia, it’s never borrowed (or the insufferable ‘faux,’ if you must) and it strictly extracts from a personal rather than social history. The beauty is in the intimate details rather than the generalized signposts of the times.
Maybe I’m biased because I write about and experience music much more frequently than other media, but I find the effect to be strongest in song. There’s a switch flipped on the first listen of that track that you instantaneously know you’re going to love for the rest of you life, that song that freezes you in space like the hackneyed deer before headlights. And like the pea-brained deer who revisits the road where it was previously waylaid by that blue 2006 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 with the obnoxious grill guard, instinct shirks all duties for a replay.
Appropriately, “Always Crashing In The Same Car,” especially that pre-chorus build-up of synth and pitch-altered snare, can always carry me back to the scene of my first accidental listen behind the wheel of a Macbook Pro in my dorm room. But most instances transport me to more peculiar locations. Put on Wilco’s “Candyfloss” and I’m waking up from a nap on a coach bus ride through Tuscany. Play Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” and I’m a tyke casing the cake table at my grandparents’ 50th anniversary party. When I hear Vampire Weekend’s “Walcott” I’m pushing a rusty lawn mower against a cavalcade of oppressive humidity and backyard crabgrass. And while Paul Simon might be falling, flying, tumbling onto New York City’s Human Trampoline when he’s reminded of “Graceland,” I couldn’t be any comfier lounging on my back in bed.
But parthenalgia isn’t only effected by the best stuff, because emotion doesn’t recognize quality like game recognizes game. It’s a phenomenon like a GOP primary, where any song is a legitimate candidate no matter how brain dead, unintuitive, scientifically-resistant, or homophobic he or Alaskan she might be. Take for instance Blink 182’s unfortunate “I Miss You,” which unfortunately popped up in my unfortunate Yahoo Media Player the night my grandma died, leeching itself to a poignant moment in my life and forever situating myself in front of my basement computer screen with each unfortunate, subsequent listen. In parthenalgia, like Soviet Russia, you don’t pick the song. The song picks you.
And that’s why some of my favorites never qualify. Because not every great song is inherently parthenalgic. If it’s not on Bowie’s Low, it’s going to have a harder time overcoming that mundane moment when I heard it first; such is the fate of some of my all-time dearest tracks. But that’s what happens when a sense like sound is only carried on the strong, whimsical winds of time and place. Some songs just happened to find me in a time when I felt most vulnerable or most inspired. Some might have tagged along on a road trip. Some might have forged tokens in the heart that a woman had kindled. Some might have just caught me on a happy, sunny day. But all of them caught me in a moment they allow me to vividly relive with just another listen.
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