Felipe De Brigard: Nostalgia reimagined

First posted July 26, 2020

Neuroscience is finding what propaganda has long known: nostalgia doesn’t need real memories – an imagined past works too..

“He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. But when he stood at the railing of the ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia” – From Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel García Márquez

The Blue Boat 1892 Winslow Homer.jpg

The other day I caught myself reminiscing about high school with a kind of sadness and longing that can only be described as nostalgia. I felt imbued with a sense of wanting to go back in time and re-experience my classroom, the gym, the long hallways. Such bouts of nostalgia are all too common, but this case was striking because there is something I know for sure: I hated high school. I used to have nightmares, right before graduation, about having to redo it all, and would wake up in sweat and agony. I would never, ever like to go back to high school. So why did I feel nostalgia about a period I wouldn’t like to relive? The answer, as it turns out, requires we rethink our traditional idea of nostalgia.

Coined by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688, ‘nostalgia’ referred to a medical condition – homesickness – characterised by an incapacitating longing for one’s motherland. Hofer favoured the term because it combined two essential features of the illness: the desire to return home (nostos) and the pain (algos) of being unable to do so. Nostalgia’s symptomatology was imprecise – it included rumination, melancholia, insomnia, anxiety and lack of appetite – and was thought to affect primarily soldiers and sailors. Physicians also disagreed about its cause. Hofer thought that nostalgia was caused by nerve vibrations where traces of ideas of the motherland ‘still cling’, whereas others, noticing that it was found predominantly among Swiss soldiers fighting at lower altitudes, proposed instead that nostalgia was caused by changes in atmospheric pressure, or eardrum damage from the clanging of Swiss cowbells. Once nostalgia was identified among soldiers from various nationalities, the idea that it was geographically specific was abandoned….