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Lately, I have been obsessed with nostalgia. I do not mean that I have been extraordinarily nostalgic—I mean I have been captivated by the history and politics of nostalgia. While people most likely view nostalgia as an ordinary human emotion like love or hate and, therefore, an eternal fixture of humanity, the truth is that nostalgia as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon (from a historical perspective). It is also something that has not always been viewed as an ordinary, healthy, human emotion. “In 1688 the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer published a tract in which, after considering the terms nostomania and philopatridomania, he settles on a combination of the Greek words nostos and algos to describe the pain resulting from the desire to return to one’s home. […] Throughout eighteenth-century Europe, the word would gradually be adopted by specialists and laypeople alike to describe a disease provoked by excessive attachment to a distant homeland. […] The fact that Hofer considered previously existing terms to be inadequate and felt the need to create an entirely new word, a word that, in turn, gained increasing currency in Europe, suggests that something new—a new way of feeling or a new way of thinking, about an old feeling—was entering the world.” (History and the Politics of Nostalgia by Marco Piason Natali, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 5 [Fall 2004]) For many scholars, the French Revolution would be the trigger to a surge in personal and public nostalgia, and indeed, nostalgia would become a permanent part of the personal and public lives of people. Diaries, souvenirs, the fetishizing of old things would explode after the massive, world transformation of the French Revolution where modern democracy would shut the door on the ancient feudal order. “So conceived, nostalgia may be interpreted as a modern sensibility. Its emotions, experienced personally and privately, underpinned a visceral awareness of unpredictable, sometimes menacing realities of rapid and transforming historical change in an age whose public discourse favored rising expectations for the coming of a better world.” (Reconsiderations of the Idea of Nostalgia in Contemporary Historical Writing by Patrick H. Hutton, Historical Reflections Volume 39, Issue 3, Winter 2013) One could easily read the above quote and see our own time in the world as we are both flooded with nostalgic television shows and movies and constant promises from the political and technological spheres that we are surrounded by revolution and change for the better.
Private and Personal Nostalgia
It is my guess that most, if not all, people (including myself) have had bouts of nostalgia—of wanting to go back to another time. Sometimes, the back is even farther than the period we have lived. I have always been obsessed with the Modernist artistic movement and would have loved to have seen first-hand Hemingway’s Paris in the 1920’s. I am lucky in that never has my sense of nostalgia overwhelmed me with crippling depression; however, for some, the feelings of loss and missing home or a better time has profoundly pained them, even to the point of death. Indeed, the Swiss doctor who coined the term did so when he was caring for soldiers far from home who felt so homesick and alienated that they eventually stopped eating with some dying. Vulnerable groups are the exiled, imprisoned, or refugees that have been forced from their homes. However, periods of chaos and rapid change in one’s life can also trigger a very painful form of nostalgia. In the past, nostalgia was viewed as a medical term and wholly negative. Today, we have come to accept nostalgia as a part of life. Sometimes the pang of wanting to go back is agonizing, and sometimes it is gently wistful. Scientists today have a different view of nostalgia than doctors of the past. It has been found that nostalgia might be a very healthy thing. “Through experiments, he and his fellow researchers were able to show that nostalgia, instead of being a disadvantage, has overall positive effects. In a world in which our sense of meaning is constantly threatened, nostalgia provides a natural defense against threat, a sense of sociability and decreases our mortality awareness. As a meaning-making machine, it increases our perception of meaning.” (Nostalgia: Historicizing the Longing for the Past, 11-10-2015, nost.hyupotheses.org)
While personally experiencing nostalgia has, for the most part, changed from being viewed as a mental illness to perhaps even a healthy strategy, public nostalgia remains a hot-button issue. The Age of Enlightenment (which would bring on both the American and French Revolutions) would be the beginning of arguing that nostalgia or longing for the past was a bad thing. The enlightenment thinkers viewed wanting to go back as not wanting to go forward and changing an unjust world into a just one. Later in the nineteenth century, an anti-nostalgia sentiment would be expressed by (and paradoxically) colonialists, capitalists, and communists. Essentially, it was important that we all let go of the past and view it as a bad time. Society is not going to get on board with the death, disease, and hardship that comes with violent revolutions if they have one foot still very attached to ‘how things were.’ One of the underlying reasons for their arguments came from the idea that history was a ‘narrative of progress’ that people and societies become increasingly better and more just as they moved through time. The opposing idea is that humanity is increasingly departing from Eden—that we are becoming increasingly evil as time progresses and farther from our more innocent historical past. (History and the Politics of Nostalgia by Marco Piason Natali, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 5 [Fall 2004])
Public nostalgia is also found in artistic expression from movies to books to fashion and even fashionable trends like a resurgence of handicrafts. Traditionally, critics and historians have derided artistic and popular trends that were nostalgic. It was argued that nothing valuable was in nostalgic art or activities (like swing dancing) as it was always historically inaccurate (seeing the past with rose colored glasses) and rooted in delusion and escapism. However, recently many historians, social studies scholars, and art critics are relooking at artistic and public nostalgia. While nostalgic art or fashion or popular trends like raising chickens or the nostalgic Edison light bulb seen in every trendy restaurant today do not accurately express the actual history for which those things arose, scholars are beginning to see that public nostalgic expressions might be revealing a great deal about the present. The past we pine for publicly might be revealing what we are upset about or missing in our present. “In 2018, however, as good old-fashioned bicycles and scooters are becoming ever more common on city streets; as increasing numbers of young people take up knitting, canning, home brewing and other supposedly ‘obsolete’ forms of DIY culture; and as backyard chickens and farmer’s markets sprout up in record numbers, we might start to wonder whether it’s entirely fair to dismiss such backward-looking, yet creative responses to over-consumption and climate change as expressions of politically vapid, escapist nostalgia.” (The Challenges of Writing a History of Nostalgia Set in the Age of Democratic Revolutions by Seth Cotlar, ageofrevolutions.com)
Should we feel bad about wanting to go back? Are rosy expressions of the past a sign of escaping reality and not wanting a better future? Is there any value to nostalgia? I think nothing is more normal or healthy than to do a little time traveling. Problems only begin if yearning for the past—something that one can never return to—begins to genuinely take over one’s life. In studying public nostalgia, I can see how it can be dangerous to glorify a past and dangerous to glorify the future. The past should not be tossed out—it can hold some important lessons and even lost wisdom that should see a revival. And it should not be assumed that progression is always towards improvement. It is not a given that things will improve—things can get worse. I have loved the study of nostalgia. It has opened my eyes to see my private longings as well as the longings of my era in a whole new way, and I heartily recommend taking up the study of nostalgia.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.