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The meaning of nostalgia

vendredi, 15 janvier 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Neel Burton (La Chât '96)
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By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion —Psalm 137

Nostalgia is sentimentality for the past, typically for a particular period or place with positive associations, but sometimes also for the past in general, ‘the good old days’ of yore. At the end of André Brink’s novel, An Instant in the Wind, the character of Adam memorably says, ‘The land which happened inside us no one can take away from us again, not even ourselves.’ Nostalgia combines the sadness of loss with the joy or satisfaction that the loss is not complete, nor can ever be. Mortal though we may be, whatever little life we have snared from the legions of death is forever ours.

‘Nostalgia’ is a portmanteau neologism coined in 1688 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer from the Greek nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain, ache). Nóstos is, of course, the overriding theme of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus strives to return to Penelope and Telemachus and his native Ithaca in the aftermath of the Trojan War. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas, another survivor of the Trojan War and the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, gazes upon a Carthaginian mural depicting battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his kin. Moved to tears, he cries out, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: ‘These are the tears of things and mortal things touch the mind.’

Mal du Suisse

Hofer coined ‘nostalgia’ to refer to the homesickness of Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lowlands. Military physicians attributed this homesickness, also known as Schweizerheimweh or mal du suisse, to ear and brain damage from the constant clanging of cowbells. Recognized symptoms included pining for Alpine landscapes, fainting, fever, and even, in extremis, death. In the Dictionnaire de musique, Rousseau claims that Swiss mercenaries were forbidden from singing their Swiss songs so as not to exacerbate their nostalgia. By the 19th century, nostalgia had become a topos in Romantic literature, inspiring a fashion for alpinism among the European cultural elite.

From the 1987 La Châtaigneraie Yearbook; Neel Burton is on the left hand side of the front row.

Today, nostalgia is no longer looked upon as a mental disorder, but as a natural, common, and even positive emotion, a vehicle for travelling beyond the deadening confines of time and space. Bouts of nostalgia are often prompted by feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, or meaninglessness; thoughts about the past; particular places and objects; and smell, touch, music, and weather. When I was a child, I kept a lock of fur from my English sheepdog Oscar after he got run over by a tractor and had to be put down. Like the toys and books of our childhood, or our childhood home, the lock became a sort of time portal, which, for many years, helped me to nostalgize about Oscar.

I say ‘help’ because nostalgia does have an unexpected number of adaptive functions. Our everyday is humdrum, often even absurd. Nostalgia can lend us much-needed context, perspective, and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life (and that of others) is not as banal as it may seem, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been—and will once again be—meaningful moments and experiences. In that much, nostalgia serves a similar function to anticipation, which can be defined as enthusiasm and excitement for some expected or hoped-for positive event. The hauntings of times gone by, and the imaginings of times to come, strengthen us in lesser times.

Memoria praeteritorum bonorum

It is a strange thing: a vivid memory from the distant past, haunted by people who have grown up or grown old or are no more, doing things that are no longer done in a world that no longer exists. And yet it all seems so vivid in our minds that we can still picture the glint in their eye or the twitch in the corner of their mouth. Sometimes we even say their names under our breath as if that could magically bring them back to us. Nostalgia is nothing if not paradoxical. In supplying us with substance and texture, it also reminds us of their lack, moving us to restoration. Unfortunately, this restoration often takes the form of spending, and marketers rely on nostalgia to sell us everything from music and clothes to cars and houses. Many of our social connections endure solely or mostly out of nostalgia, so much so that inducing or sharing in a nostalgic moment can at once revive a flagging relationship. Nostalgia is more frequent in uncertain times and times of transition or change. According to one study, it is also commoner on cold days or in cold rooms, and makes us feel warmer!

On the other hand, it could be argued that nostalgia is a form of self-deception in that it invariably involves distortion and idealization of the past, not least because the bad or boring bits fade from memory more quickly than the peak experiences. The Romans had a tag for the phenomenon that psychologists have come to call ‘rosy retrospection’: memoria praeteritorum bonorum, ‘the past is always well remembered’. If overindulged, nostalgia can give rise to a utopia that never existed and can never exist, but that is pursued at all costs, sapping all life and joy and potential from the present. For many people, paradise is not so much a place to go to as the place that they came from.

Neel Burton

- Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions by Neel Burton.



Neel Burton (La Chât '96, pictured right) is a psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and wine lover who lives and teaches in Oxford, England. See:

A longer version of the above post was previously published on

>> Previously on the AlumBlog by Neel Burton: 21 things we should have been told at graduation 



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