Nostalgia and its discontents

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Author: Svetlana Boym
Date: Summer 2007
From: The Hedgehog Review(Vol. 9, Issue 2)
Publisher: Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture
Document Type: Essay
Length: 5,845 words

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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 "nostalgia" comes from two Greek roots, 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.

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. (2)

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...

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Source Citation
Boym, Svetlana. "Nostalgia and its discontents." The Hedgehog Review, vol. 9, no. 2, summer 2007, pp. 7+. Accessed 27 Nov. 2021.
  

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