‘Everybody needs memories’
At this point in my life, my past is much longer than my future. So I frequently take trips to my past to enrich my present life. And yet Simone de Beauvior was right when she said: “Nostalgia is not what it used to be.”
Nostalgia was once thought to be a disease — “hypochondria of the heart” — and was characterized by obsessive thinking, bouts of weeping, insomnia and a longing for a place that “no longer exists.” The word itself comes from the Greek – “nostos” (return) and “algos” (pain).
Many years ago, the term was coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer when he first noticed these symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries in the service of European monarchs, far, far from home.
Nostalgia soon became regarded as a form of melancholia. For scholar Robert Burton, the melancholic sees “the world as a theater ruled by capricious fate and demonic play.” Even so, Burton’s melancholic was a Utopian dreamer with many hopes for humanity.
Writer Jan Morris suggests that homesickness is a tasty form of nostalgia and can be gratifying. According to Morris, we cannot return to the past but we can go home again. It is not so much a longing for a place but rather a yearning for a different time.
In her book, The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym suggests that nostalgia is an ache for the past, “A time of our childhoods and the slower rhythms of our dreams.” So nostalgia combines the bitter and the sweet, the present self and the past self, that which has been lost and that which has been found, what is present and what is absent.
In our time, such a combination is difficult to support. We are obsessed with change, whereas in the past, continuity was the more common social-cultural mode.
Our sense of self has been ruptured by many discontinuities such as wars, revolutions, disasters, economic recessions and even technology, which has promised us wider community contact.
Today we have somewhat fragmented identities. Selves more often shaped by fleeting images and by social forces, so we have trouble clinging to a fixed sense of self.
The nostalgia experience is one means of affirming our sense of identity, an identity bruised by the turbulence of our times. And life today is much more linear.
We travel in a straight line rather than in a more intertwined, helical destiny, nostalgia can give us some sense of stability — “I long, therefore I am.”
Immanuel Kant once said that melancholy, nostalgia and acute self-awareness, create a unique aesthetic sense, heightening our sensitivity to the moral dilemmas of life. But today, our memories are often a collection of dusty souvenirs.
Think of the aggressive attempts to reclaim the past in the so-called “nostalgia kick”, wherein old logos and ancient “pioneer” implements are strewn around a shop or restaurant; or the brisk sales of antique toys, all supposedly recalling past eras. Sadly, they remain mere artefacts, devoid of meaning.
In Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Sammler, speaking to Wallace says “I see you have these many recollections.” And Wallace replies “Well… I need them. Everybody needs memories, they keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”
Nostalgia is one of those efforts to keep the “wolf of insignificance” from our doors. In nostalgia, we discover new meanings and understand ourselves a little better by making comparisons between our past and present lives.
As an aged person, I have fewer and fewer tomorrows so I shift some of my attention from future-oriented goals. And while deriving much pleasure from the sacred moments of today, meaning in my life is enhanced by my many visits to the past.
Nostalgia soothes my existential fears, and provides me with an enduring sense of meaning. In nostalgia, the compelling reality of who I was becomes an essential component of who I am.