Saturday, 2 June 2018

Nostalgia 3


When Johannes Hofer coined the term 'nostalgia' in 1688, he was attempting to diagnose and give a name to the widespread homesickness which was afflicting many of his contemporaries.  At a time when mercenary soldiers in particular were travelling far from home, he and others observed physical symptoms including lethargy and even fainting.  It was the effect of a paradox: that many seemed to be living in a permanent state of transience.  

It's a challenge for me, as a medievalist interested in 14th-century nostalgia, to acknowledge that the term was not invented before the 17th century.  But emotions are, of course, more complex than the terms which attempt to circumscribe them.  And, more interestingly, what Hofer named 'nostalgia' was not really what we nowadays term 'nostalgia'.  One of the most striking differences is that nostalgia now tends to refer to a longing for a lost time, whereas Hofer was using the term to indicate longing for a lost place.  It's interesting to trace how the word 'nostalgia' has come to refer to time rather than place in the three centuries since it was invented.  So I thought a little experiment might be in order to try to pin down what I feel when I am myself nostalgic.

So last week, I treated myself and Baby to a visit to my old home.  In the early morning sunshine, we walked slightly tearfully past the old house, nodded to the spreading walnut tree, and wove our way along the hedges to the green lane. This was the walk I did every single day after school.  These were the trees and the hedgerows that comforted me when life felt terrifying, and that shared my exuberance at the wondrous ways life was unfolding.  I sat down in the green lane with Baby, and breathed in the soft haze of cow-parsley and spring blossoms.  I felt I was swimming in a delicious sea of melancholy, bittersweet beauty.  This was nostalgia.  It was a feeling infused with a sense of loss - loss of the sense of innocence and security which comes with a sheltered childhood, loss of my parents' happy marriage, loss of a particular vision of how life would turn out.  The feeling was even more powerful because there was such a sense of presence of all these things: it was as though my grandmother might beckon over the hedge that coffee was ready, that the cat might stroll past with a mouse in her mouth.  Nor were these memories deluded - it wasn't just a golden haze, but far more real than that.  And it certainly wasn't sad - whilst it made me tearful, it was intoxicating - addictive even.

What have I learned? I think I have proved the point to myself that historical semantics only gets us so far.  There are a constellation of emotions associated with nostalgia - linked to place, to time, and to people - and it doesn't really matter that Hoefer only invented the term rather later than my period of study.  I know the feelings I'm looking for, and my task is to think about what provoked them in the fourteenth century, why, how they were expressed, and what were their effects.

1 comment:

  1. Great to read this blog again. Has the absence been due to "solastalgia"? As defined by Glen Albrecht as "emplaced or existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation (desolation) of a loved home environment" due to the ongoing loss of sense of place in the political conflicts of UK?

    In your time of study, after the Black Death there must have been hundreds of ghost villages and as people wandered past, they surely felt a dreadful sense of loss of place whilst physically being in place. Now we feel the same sensation in urban Australia as the cityscapes of old towns such as Newcastle undergo rapid dramatic physical transformations and loose their old charm.

    Your evocation of an English childhood is highly emotive and the image of the verdant early summer foliage ... well, I can almost breathe in the warm fragrant air.