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The Good Old Days of Poverty and Filth

Standing in a luxury hotel, cultural historian Luc Sante daydreams about the good old days of homeless alcoholics lighting trash fires in the streets of Manhattan’s Skid Row.

“Over there, next to the flophouse hotel,” Sante reminisced to the Guardian, “is where Nan Goldin lived and worked. Forty years ago there were still lots of vacant lofts here that had been burlesque and vaudeville theatres during the era when storefronts were saloons. There were bars solely inhabited by bums, their heads down on the counter. At night they’d be lined up outside the missions and Salvation Army hostels — veterans from World War Two, from the Korean War, from the Vietnam War. At night, trash fires would be lit in oil drums.”

The French have an elegant phrase for what Sante is doing. They call it nostalgie de la boue, “longing for the mud,” which means a romantic yearning for a primitive or degraded behavior or condition.

The phrase, which was coined by a French dramatist in 1855, has been around for a while and usefully describes the very real way in which the wealthier and healthier inhabitants of modernity look back at the past through a misty, romantic haze.

Rather than ignoring the historical “mud,” nostalgie de la boue actively longs for that kind of unpleasantness.

While it annoys historians when we put a soft-focus filter on history, it doesn’t generally do a lot of damage. We don’t need every medieval romance novel to remind us that the heroine’s breath didn’t smell like cool mint Listerine. It’s probably for the best that the historical re-enactors at Colonial Williamsburg don’t actually use authentic colonial medical remedies for their health problems, and visiting tourists are certainly grateful for modern plumbing and street sanitation. Even the BBC’s determinedly authentic <a href="…

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