105. Wither Nostalgia

Only recently have I begun to recognize that when people speak wistfully of the past, they often wax more optimistically about the future. Partially this is because nostalgia can increase one’s perceived meaning in life. Most of us have occasional yearnings to return to the past: a time or era when children were more innocent, when hitch-hiking was a hobby, when both men and women were more trusting, the tempo of life was slower, the skies bluer and the politicians more reputable.

In actuality, nostalgia expresses a yearning for a different time, the time of our childhood, with its slower rhythms and longer days. Nostalgia has become a form of protest against our modern idea of time linked to progress, speed, encumbered by appointments, demands, efficiency and competition. Nostalgia feeds the increasing belief in both American and British electorates that the past was better than the present and that the prospects for the future make them uneasy. Politicians like the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, are picking this up by looking backwards into the future on such issues as the education of children.1

As I started to look into the psychology of nostalgia I learned from a brilliant book by Harvard Professor Svetlana Boym that there are two main types of nostalgia: The restorative and the reflective. The restorative stresses nostos (the Greek word for a homeward journey) and the desire to return to our former “home.” The reflective focuses on algia (pain and longing) cherishing the fragments of memory and savoring all the details and memorabilia. At its ironic and humorous best, the reflective can present an ethical and creative challenge while temporalizing space. Boym contends that in this mode, critical thinking and longing are not in opposition. On the other hand, restorative nostalgia is not just about the historical past, but about universal values such as the homeland, family, nature and trust. It gravitates toward song and oral culture, as well as photographs and pictorial symbols – all of which it guards seriously.2

In the 21st century we are experiencing a global epidemic of nostalgia which encompasses an affective yearning for community and continuity in an increasingly fragmented world. However, there is not much that is new about our current nostalgia, even though the actress Simone Signoret entitled her autobiography: “Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be.”

Despite the inroads of Facebook, digital technology and startling pharmaceuticals, today’s nostalgia remains an engagement with a moment or moments one wants to preserve. As such, it is an existential resource which makes one feel that one’s life has roots even in an era which has lost touch with the mythical worlds of the past and all their enchantments.

One of the dangers of nostalgia is that it can confuse the past “home” with an imagined one. Such unreflective nostalgia can lead to aggression and war. The mourning of displacement and its irreversibility, as in the case of Gaza, the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the Brexit phenomenon, all are examples of the tragic aspects of nostalgia invading politics. Such slogans as, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” expose how widely nostalgia is being exploited.

Nostalgia has a long history in Western culture. In Virgil’s epic, Odysseus was most nostalgic about his lost friends, his wife and his Greek homeland. The hero made his sentiments accessible to homesick readers for centuries. However, by the 16th century nostalgia had come to be regarded as a dangerous but curable disease. Leeches, opiates or even a trip to higher altitudes were often prescribed, but none was believed to be better than a return to one’s birthplace. During the French Revolution of 1789, Jourdain Le Cointe, a doctor, held that terror and pain could cure nostalgia. Later another doctor was to claim that nostalgia was the result of hypochondria of the heart! Much as today genetic researchers seek to identify genes for sexual orientation and medical problems, so the doctors of the 19th century sought without success to discover the pathologic make-up of nostalgia.

Many 19th century thinkers believed that enlightenment and progress would stop people suffering from nostalgia. Instead, these very forces were to exacerbate it. The rapid pace of industrialization and the higher speed of railroads and steamships increased the yearning for the slower ways of the past. The spread of nostalgia was pushed both by the changing conception of time and the relocation of people from the countryside to cities. Nostalgia also became established in national museums and celebrated in urban memorials. This caused the past to be transformed into part of our “heritage” and to be popularized on a mass scale.3

Looking back on nostalgia, as I have done above with a degree of longing thrown in, can also help us in planning for our future and that of our progeny. The known past, the understood present, and plausible possibilities for the future are together helpful in guiding us. It assist us to consider that progress and nostalgia are mirror images of one another. While futuristic utopias are currently out of fashion, I have to admit that nostalgia itself opens many utopian dreams. As Professor Svetlana Boym has written: “The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future.” Nostalgia, then, can also be prospective.

Drawing on retrospective nostalgia, I shall now boldly try to look ahead some two generations (or 50 years) at how future members might look back as us with bewilderment, envy, resentment and nostalgia. This is similar to how we look back 50 years on the introduction of color television and cheap travel abroad as aspects of the “new” for our parents in the 60s, and consequently, much as they looked back on the glamour of the roaring twenties with its introduction of automobiles and telephones. So here go some advanced comments of the 2070s:

  • “The last shopping mall in our city closed recently. In films we have seen, it looked like people had such pleasure just wandering around years ago.’’
  • “It must have been wonderful to have lived in the era of low air pollution and clear blue skies.”
  • “It’s amazing to think back that many of our grandparents lived in a world purportedly based on “liberal values” such as “enlightenment.” What a challenge that must have been for them!”
  • “How exciting it must have been in the old days when people used to drive with steering wheels!”
  • “Could our grandparents really have enjoyed using their memories? Memory just gets in the way of our ever-helpful robots.”
  • “We often wish we were not so electronically addicted. A non-electronic world is hard to imagine, but it could be relaxing.”
  • “Did people in the early days of the 21st century really lead such varied and humane ways of life?”
  • “It must have been wonderful to live in a world which was real.”
  • “We may consider “the truth” as held by our grandparents as somewhat boring, but lying and fantasy are much more fun and challenging. So maybe we are less than nostalgic about the old-world realm of the mind and communications.”
  • “We wonder, and sometimes envy, how people back then really believed they could improve the world and hailed the promise of a better tomorrow! But then they had not yet lived according to our well-established and binding social networks.”
  • “What fun it must have been to have had “money!” In our nano-electronic era, none of us has ever experienced cash.”

1Martin Kettle, “On left and right, politics is now led by nostalgic gestures,” The Guardian, August 26, 2016.
2Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (2001)
3Foster’s historic song seemed to me the essence of popularizing nostalgia

All up and down de whole creation

Sadly I roam

Still longing for de old plantation

And for de old folks at home.


— S C Foster, “Old Folks at Home” (1851)

3 thoughts on “105. Wither Nostalgia

  1. greetings Yoric
    you might listen to this bbc iplayer radio program..
    Andrew Graham-Dixon on the naming of art movements
    Word of Mouth
    Listen in pop-out player
    Michael Rosen and art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon take a tour through the naming of art movements. Surrealism, Impressionism, the Renaissance, the Pre-Raphaelites, Modern, Contemporary – how did they get their names and what does that tell us? Which terms have entered the language? With linguist Dr Laura Wright.

  2. Great blog!

    Have you come across the concept of “Hiraeth”? Its a Welsh word with no english translation that suggests a nostalgia that is more pleasurable in its remembering than the thing that it recalls.

    Would you consider contributing to the Woolf Institute blog as a guest author?

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