The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Essays

Nostalgia and Its Discontents

Svetlana Boym

“A Very Serious Case” (c. 1905). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary. The word “nos­ nostos meaning “return home” and algia “longing.” I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.11xThis essay is adapted from my book The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic, 2001), which includes a more thorough discussion of the topic.

The word “nostalgia,” in spite of its Greek roots, did not originate in ancient Greece. “Nostalgia” is only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek. The word was coined by the ambitious Swiss student Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation in 1688. (Hofer also suggested nosomania and philopatridomania to describe the same symptoms; luck­ily, these failed to enter common parlance.) Contrary to our intuition, “nostalgia” came from medicine, not from poetry or politics. It would not occur to us to demand a prescription for nostalgia. Yet in the seventeenth century, nostalgia was considered to be a curable disease, akin to a severe common cold. Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches, and a journey to the Swiss Alps would take care of nostalgic symptoms. Among the first victims of the newly diagnosed disease were various displaced people of the seventeenth century: freedom-loving students from the Republic of Berne studying in Basel, domestic help and servants working in France and Germany, and Swiss soldiers fighting abroad. The epidemic of nostalgia was accompanied by an even more dangerous epidemic of “feigned nostalgia,” particularly among soldiers tired of serving abroad.22xHofer believed that it was possible “from the force of the sound Nostalgia to define the sad mood originat­ing from the desire for return to one’s native land” (Johannes Hofer, “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia,” trans. Carolyn Kiser Anspach, Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, vol. 2 [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1934] 381). Hofer concedes that “gifted Helvetians” had a vernacular term for “the grief for the lost charms of the Native Land,” das Heimweh, and the afflicted Gauls (the French) used the term la Maladie du Pays (380). But Hofer was the first to give a detailed scientific discussion of the ailment. For the history of nostalgia, see Jean Starobinski, “The Idea of Nostalgia,” Diogenes 54 (1966): 81–103; Fritz Ernst, Vom Heimweh (Zurich: Fretz & Wasmuth, 1949); and George Rosen, “Nostalgia: A Forgotten Psychological Disorder,” Clio Medica 10.1 (1975): 28–51. For psychological and psycho­analytic approaches to nostalgia, see James Phillips, “Distance, Absence and Nostalgia,” Descriptions, ed. Don Ihde and Hugh J. Silverman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 64–75; Willis H. McCann, “Nostalgia: A Descriptive and Comparative Study,” Journal of Genetic Psychology 62 (1943): 97–104; Roderick Peters, “Reflections on the Origin and Aim of Nostalgia,” Journal of Analytic Psychology 30 (1985): 135–48. For a very interesting study of the sociology of nostalgia that examines nostalgia as a “social emotion” and suggests the examination of three ascending orders of nostalgia, see Fred Davis, Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia (New York: Free, 1979).

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, an historical emotion. Hence I will make three crucial points. First, nos­talgia is not “antimodern”; it is not necessarily opposed to modernity but coeval with it. Nostalgia and progress are like Jekyll and Hyde: doubles and mirror images of one another. Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that makes the division into “local” and “universal” possible.

Second, nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the past of nostalgia, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not even past. It could be merely better time, or slower time—time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.

Third, nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future. The consideration of the future makes us take responsi­bility for our nostalgic tales. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory. While futuristic utopias might be out of fashion, nostalgia itself has a uto­ pian dimension—only it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes it is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space.

In fact, there is a tradition of critical reflection on the modern condition that incorpo­ rates nostalgia. It can be called “off-modern.” The adverb “off” confuses our sense of direction. It makes us explore side shadows and back alleys, rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narratives of history. Off-modernism offers a critique of both the modern fascination with newness and the no-less-modern reinvention of tradition. In the off-modern tradition, reflection and longing, estrangement and affection, go together. Moreover, for some twentieth-century off-modernists who came from traditions that were considered marginal or provincial with respect to the cultural mainstream (from Eastern Europe to Latin America), as well as for many displaced people from all over the world, creative rethinking of nostalgia was not merely an artistic device but a strategy for survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming.

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