Kinds of Nostalgia

In reviewing Hadara Lazar’s Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel, (‘Palestine: How Bad, & Good was British Rule, New York Review of Books, 7 February 2013) Avishai Margalit writes

The term “nostalgia” was coined by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, in a dissertation submitted to Basel University in 1688. It was meant to be used as a medical term to describe a depressed mood caused by intense longing to return home. The disease was noticed among Swiss mercenary soldiers yearning to return from flat Europe to their Alpine mountainous perches….In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym draws a useful distinction between “restorative” nostalgia and “reflective” nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia concentrates on the nostos—returning to the lost home; while reflective nostalgia concentrates on the algos—the longing and the sense of loss. [links added]

I’m an immigrant; nostalgia and homesickness are supposed to be my perennial conditions. That is certainly true though their particular shape and form has morphed over the years; appropriately enough, in response to the corresponding changes in myself and my ‘home’–its people and places. (It is also a feature of this immigrant–and perhaps many others–that I cannot write ‘home’ without enclosing it in quote marks, so confused has my conception of that place become).

The restorative nostalgia that Boym notes is most visibly manifest in my active reaching back to the place I left behind: the planning and preparation, the journey, marked by impatient, eager expectancy, the seeking, on reaching home, of  familiar delights and pleasures and haunts left behind, the inevitable disappointments in the loss of romantic, imaginative conceptions of the past. It used to be a constant feature of my trips back to India that a week or so before my flight, I would experience dreams set there; a week or so before I returned, my dreams would return to American locales. The former evoked a wistful disappointment on waking; the latter, an acute anxiety during their occurrence.

The transition from restorative to reflective nostalgia after these trips was always brutal; I would make it through the return to the airport and the flight back in reasonably good shape, but shortly after my flight had ended–a period ranging from a couple of hours to a whole day–I would be crippled by a wave of debilitating melancholia. I use the word ‘crippled’ advisedly; one some occasions I would be physically incapacitated–unable and willing to bestir myself from my seated or reclining position–by the sense of longing for the people, the sounds, lights and tastes I had left behind.

It is the reflective nostalgia that sustains and animates the restorative variety; it infects and colors many dimly perceived and understood instinctive reactions of mine–like a sudden lump in my throat when viewing a documentary clip or listening to a musical fragment.

It is peculiar to think of oneself as always afflicted, always ‘suffering’, and to rejoice in the relief provided by absorption in quotidian ritual. One of the distinct pleasures of growing up has been to realize that such ‘common unhappiness’ is–in some shape or form, to some degree or other–an ineradicable part of the human condition.

Note: I was first introduced to the meaning–and its history of diagnosis among American Civil War soldiers–of ‘nostalgia’ this past April by my friend David Coady; on hearing it, I realized I should have guessed from the -algia suffix and my own personal experiences that the term denoted a ‘painful medical condition’ of some sort.

5 comments on “Kinds of Nostalgia

  1. Noor Alam says:

    Lovely piece!

  2. Megha says:

    The worst times for me after a trip have always been the last few minutes of my return journey – the bus reaching the outskirts of Indore, the descent to LHR airport. Once I reached my accomodation (can’t bear to call it “my home”!), I was usually fine. Slipped into the routine stuff fairly quickly. The next bout of nostalgia was during unpacking..all those goodies from home, which mom insisted on stuffing into my bags despite my protests. During those moments, I always thankful that she didn’t listen to me!

  3. Noor Alam says:

    Megha, that’s exactly right, the departure is almost too sad to bear, and the nostalgia during unpacking is bittersweet. The picture show upon reaching home is always a nice treat in prolonging the time spent with loved ones.

  4. […] often find myself talking or writing about nostalgia. As I said here a little while […]

  5. […] course, this act of restorative nostalgia, this seeking out our missing comfort in the interiors of the past, as domestic comfort, as […]

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