Human Condition

I Long, Therefore I Am

From a disease to a means of dealing with existential threat, the past and present function of nostalgia is discussed.

In the Spanish army of Flanders fighting the Dutch in the 17th Century, and the Thirty Years War, a handful of soldiers were discharged for el mal de corazon (heart pain). Mentally broken, these soldiers suffered from a condition with symptoms akin to post traumatic stress disorder: dejection, continuing melancholy, anxiety, loss of sleep, bouts of weeping, and in extreme cases irregular heartbeat and anorexia. These symptoms were attributed to ‘demons’ inhabiting the middle of the brain. Those suffering from the ailment were treated with opium, purging, and leeches – nostalgia was seen as a curable disease.

Further into the 17th century, however, a young Swiss student Johannes Hofer collated these medical symptoms and identified a new medical syndrome ‘nostalgia,’ writing about it in his 1688 medical dissertation. This ‘nostalgia’, Hofer purported, was the sad mood originating from the desire for return to one’s native land.

The word nostalgia emanates from the Greek nostos (νοστóς) meaning home and algos (αλγóς) meaning longing. A glance for instance towards Homer and we see Odysseus setting sail for his native land of Ithaca to re-unite with his faithful wife Penelope, “…I long for my home and to see the day of returning.”

Hofer’s thesis, for instance was largely supported by case studies, one of which studied a young student of Berne who falls ill in Basel and becomes feverish and panicked. Severe symptoms ensued, and his death was expected. Ordered by the treating doctor to administer a clyster, the apothecary recognized the man’s condition, diagnosed it as homesickness, and insisted that the only cure would be a return to his native city. The student’s condition then improved day by day and he eventually recovered fully on his journey, and arrived a healthy man in Berne.

The outcomes varied on a case by case basis, while returning home cured some of their ailments, for others, this method was not as effective: doctors of the 18th and 19th centuries failed to find a locus in the patients.

Today we look upon nostalgia has having a nod to the romantic: a longing to rekindle what seem to be faraway realities, be it a desire to return to home, or meet with lost friends. Recent studies have found that nostalgia has a restorative quality – an existential healing power.

Nostalgia plays an important function for coping with existential threat. In a study by Wildschut et al, participants were asked to describe the moments when they felt nostalgic. Frequently, the participants noted that nostalgia was triggered when they wanted to feel better. Participants who began with a negative mood were more nostalgic, having thought of happiness, comfort and existential security of an earlier time. “The psychological significance of nostalgia may reside in its capacity to counteract distress and restore psychological equanimity,” wrote the authors.

Routeldge et al tested undergraduates who had been reminded of their mortality. The most nostalgic participants felt, the more meaningful they perceived their life to be, and the more it assuaged existential threat.

Svetlana Boyn, the Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University, writes that nostalgia isn’t only a yearning for a place or an earlier time, but it is also a prospective yearning. “The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future. The consideration of the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales.”

It was Albert Camus who once said “those who weep for the happy periods which they encounter in history acknowledge what they want; not the alleviation but the silencing of misery.” And yet while some may regard nostalgia as a means with which we delude ourselves, nostalgia plays a far more vital role to assuage existential threat. For the lonely, misguided and unloved, nostalgia will be there — sharing both memories from the past, and the possibilities that the future may hold. It is the glimmer of hope for the hopeless, the comforting arm for the broken.

featured image: Luis Marina//Flickr CC


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