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The word nostalgia is a modern one, but the group of sentiments that it designates is as old as human language. Johannes Hofer (1688), a young medical student at the University of Basle coined the word in his thesis A Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia. This neologism, made up of two classical Greek words (nostos, meaning return and algos, meaning pain) added to the clinical dictionary an illness already known in German-speaking Switzerland, and in particular in the Canton of Bern, by the name of Heimweh. It referred to a condition that was especially widespread among Swiss soldiers stationed at faraway garrisons and in foreign countries. Since the romantic period, the word nostalgia has been freed from its strictly medical meaning and echoed in other languages with expressions such as mal du pays, rimpianto, homesickness, anoranza, and saudade, although never quite coinciding with these terms. Nostalgia underwent a transformation analogous to that undergone by the ancient word ‘melancholy.’ It went from being an illness to describing a feeling.
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To the doctors of the end of the seventeenth century, cases of nostalgia were demonstrated by states of high fever, hallucinations, depression, slow blood circulation, nausea, lack of appetite, insomnia, and delirium. These symptoms were explained by the young Hofer as being due to the concentration of ‘vital spirits’ and to moods generated in the singular location of the mind and around a single idea, that of the fantasy of returning to the homeland. Although the therapy recommended for cases of nostalgia—the patient’s return home—was agreed upon almost unanimously, widely differing ideas were held about the causes of the illness. Following Hofer, observers (such as Scheuchzer and Du Bos) place emphasis on the air. Leaving behind the pure air of the mountains may have been responsible for the fall into the state of nostalgia. However, they also looked for the social causes at the basis of the illness. Rousseau, for example, highlights the link between poverty and nostalgia. Since in the state of poverty in which some mountain villages found themselves the basic domestic element is all that their inhabitants possess, the occurrence of the loss of that element provokes nostalgia. Rousseau also predicts that with the spread of affluence the illness could disappear. An illustrious Swiss doctor, Baron Albrecht von Haller, author of the article Nostalgie in the Supplement of the Encyclopedie (Haller 1777), locates the causes of the illness in the very structures of the Swiss cantons. The resistance of the cantons to contamination due to the arrival of foreigners, and to their being granted citizenship, was thought to be responsible for the strong nostalgia that struck these youths on abandoning their mountain villages where a closed, familiar world was the dominant or exclusive one.
While at ﬁrst considered by Swiss doctors such as Scheuchzer, Zwinger and Tissot to be an illness particular to the military, later nostalgia was analyzed as an illness that can strike further aﬁeld—for example, in young women who enter into service in foreign countries. It also became an object of study in colonial medicine.
The symptoms found in cases of nostalgia are, throughout the eighteenth century and for the ﬁrst few decades of the nineteenth century, those described by the doctor De Sauvages, professor at Montpellier (1763). These are morositas, pervigilia, anorexia and asthenia or, in other words, dullness and lethargy, insomnia, lack of appetite, and weakness. Often, above all in the garrisons of Swiss soldiers, the state of nostalgia was believed to be caused by a pastoral song, the ‘ranz des aches,’ the song accompanying the animals’ return to the stables at sunset. The song was, in fact, later prohibited by cantonal decree. However, for many observers, including Zwinger, Rousseau, and Haller, the very fact of listening to this melody, or other voices that recall the faraway homeland, in a foreign country is what arouses the feeling of nostalgia. This movement that, from the timbre of a voice, from the motif of a song, from a rhyme, from a countryside or mountain lullaby, suddenly shifts towards another voice or towards a face once familiar but now far away, is the very journey of nostalgia. This movement exhibits a similarity to the phenomenon described by Freud as das Unheimliche: the return to familiar images yet under a wave of foreign words in foreign places and times, in sum the return of the well-known from within the strange and the unknown, the perturbed and anguished creation and transformation of the domestic (Heim) into the threatening (unheimlich).
Due to the linguistic nature of this relationship between sound and imagery, and to the even more widespread experience of this turbulent remembering, nostalgia eventually became removed from medical attention. From being the subject for the clinic it moved into the domain of feelings. That is to say, it moved to a weaving of passions that literature—not only that of the romantic variety—elects as its chosen ﬁeld of observation and analysis. The entry on Nostalgie in the Encyclopedie methodique (Pinel 1821), the ﬁrst part written by Pinel and the second by Boisseau, while dealing with the description of symptoms, shifts the illness toward a more general condition of sadness and anguish brought about by being far from home. All those who had experienced being far away from home could be affected by nostalgia. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the clinical framework had been enlarged. The description of the symptoms became so extensive that the positions deﬁning nostalgia as a modern form of the ancient melancholia are justiﬁable. Some, such as Mutel (1849), claim that in order better to deﬁne the nature of the illness, the word apodalgia (apodein: to be far away) would be more suitable. Others include in the diagnostic framework the numerous examples of nostalgia to be found among animals, especially of the domestic variety (although Buffon, in the Histoire Naturelle, had already recounted cases of nostalgia among horses). Although nostalgia disappeared from the treatises of clinical medicine, it remained a term used by psychiatry to explain, in conjunction with other causes, certain pathological behaviours, in particular among adolescents in the metropolises.
Linguistic dictionaries began to contain the term nostalgia rather late, and in many languages the French word nostalgie is often indicated as being its source or original root, rather than the Greek composite derived in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a student of Johann Jacob Harder. The Dictionnaire de l’Academie Francaise added the word in 1839, and the Italian Vocabulario degli Accademici della Crusca in 1863. Yet, as far back as the second decade of the nineteenth century the use of the term, not only for the designation of an illness, but also for indicating an internal condition and state of mind, became diffused throughout the Europe of exiles and emigres. Through this, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and little by little throughout the twentieth, the word nostalgia has been added to dictionaries of the Romance, the Anglo-Saxon, and the Slavic languages. Curiously, however, the word entered much later into Greek language and culture despite its origins in the myth of the Odyssey, the classic hero of return, or nostos.
Entering into the language of narration and poetry, nostalgia opened out into a fan of meanings and was contaminated by the forms originating in romantic reverie or in the spleen, and from perplexing, turbulent, and undeﬁned forms of memory. In Victor Hugo’s writing, nostalgia is linked strongly to the experience of exile. However, in the case of Baudelaire who, even in his youthful journey to the tropics had felt the wound or, according to his mother’s account, the disease, as an emptying of his self of all content: the distant country that one is longing for is the country never to be known (‘nostalgie du pays qu’on ignore’). After Baudelaire, nostalgia may still preserve the reference to distant times and places, yet at the same time may make this link fade into emptiness, and into the undeﬁned and vague sensation of distance and foreignness.
In separating itself from pathology and progressively inhabiting the forms and modes of feeling, nostalgia incorporates multiple, and often undeﬁned, semantic areas. Its objects can at times be Eden and at others, the language that comes before a Babylon, childhood, the good old days, the frugality of customs, or the unknown. Yet, above all, the speciﬁc notion of nostalgia relates to the separation and distance from one’s own country and language, and from the faces of acquaintances and friends. The feeling of nostalgia often arises from the representation of the ‘birthplace’ as a faraway point in space and time. But beyond the evocation of place, poets have established a relationship and link with the mother tongue, which then becomes the very root of poetry.
Nevertheless, in the representation of nostalgia, the re-rooting of a physical and delineated place hides that which is in fact distant, unreachable, and lost: the ‘time’ lived in that place. It was Kant who, in a passage of his work Anthropology, suggested that it is not a place that is sought in the desire to return but a time, the time of youth: the therapy of returning home advised in clinical cases of nostalgia leads to both delusion and recovery as, in returning to the homeland, one is faced with the realisation not only that the place has changed, but that the times passed therein are over forever. The real object of nostalgia is the ‘irreversibility of time’: ‘the object of nostalgia is the misery of the irreversible’ wrote the French philosopher Jankelevitch in his (1974) book dedicated to the subject.
On the dark threshold of a time never to return, nostalgia tours the shadows of the interior, becoming a silent, painful conversation with the that which once was, and no longer is. Literary writing feeds on this conversation: both the ‘remembering’ of which Leopardi speaks, as well as the ‘memoire involontaire’ that is the theme of Proust’s Recherche are connected in this sense with nostalgia. In the irreversible and in oblivion memory opens passages, searching for the language for the representation of what is lost, and which only language may bring back to life. This journey taken by literature transforms nostalgia from a closed and regressive element into an open, fantasizing, and meditative one.
The ambivalence of nostalgia—obsessive and fantastic, anguished and creative—also crosses into the condition of exile and emigration. The literature of exile—from Ovidio’s Tristia to the works of the Russian Emigrantkaja Literatura—entertained an inventive and profound relationship with the language of origin, and with the images arising from loss and irreversible separation. Nostalgia is able to transform the experience of disorientation in the experience of the encounter with the other.
However, against this development of language and knowledge, there is, or there can be, a mode of nostalgia that believes in the possibility of returning to that which once was, or that is imagined to have been. In reference to this regressive trend, some languages have registered the use of the adjective ‘nostalgic’: nostalgic people are those who mourn a regime or political system after being taken over by a new order. The view of the past can become an illusion of the return and rebirth of the past itself. This working of the imagination can feed fantasies of origin, or obsessive searching for roots, either by individuals, or by a groups. But the fervour of belonging—of ethnicity, language, custom, and ‘civilization’—can lead nostalgia into the exercise of discrimination and violence, as the twentieth century has witnessed tragically. Forms of racism and persecution have looked for their bases in nostalgia and belonging, either to an epoch, or to an abstract or mythical principle. On the other hand, the emergence and development of the feeling of nostalgia in language, in the representation of fantasy and memory tell a different story, one belonging to literature, music, the arts, and linguistic forms of internal experience.
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