The Lost Potential of Nostalgia

Presented at the Freud Museum, London, interdisciplinary conference on Nostalgia,  (9th March, 2019): )


Of all the photographs in the old album, this is the one I return to again and again. A girl hugging her dog on a cold snowbank, a winter tree behind her. A whiteout after a blizzard, made whiter by the fading of the image, while on the print itself, some pink staining on the lower right section. I carefully remove the photo from the album to see that there is nothing written on the reverse of the photograph.

Looking closer, I see signs of scratches from the negative, and faint traces of writing next to the pink stain, a list of numbers as far as I can tell. Someone must have scribbled a bit of arithmetic on a piece of paper accidentally laid over the picture, leaving an impression on the print. These flaws and traces, like outward signs of age, pull us to the surface and make our reading of the picture an act of detection, an investigation of the life of the print itself. Where has it been, who held it or tampered with it, who placed it in the old album, what do the near invisible numbers refer to, what caused the stains? By what chain of family historical conveyance did it come to me, and where will it go after me? Will I be the last person to care about it?

The photograph is a glance at the remote history of a strange girl who would one day be my mother. Here she is in the last days of childhood with her Louise Brooks haircut, her face turned away from me. I am a ‘not yet’ in her story. Sometimes while looking at this picture, I am brushed by a feather of guilt at my own arrival. To look is to violate her claim to a life before me, a private moment with her dog, her right to childhood, play in the snow, the chance of free time before marriage and motherhood.

Middleville, Michigan, her hometown, remains outside the frame of the photograph, but it presses on the scene, as hometowns tend to do. I don’t know Middleville; it is not my town. I visited it less than a handful of times during early childhood and have almost no recollection of those visits. Yet each time I look at the photograph, the suggestion of the town is there, a memory so forceful in my parents and grandparents that it passed into me, a sense of place so familiar that I suffer something akin to a bout of homesickness. Can we be homesick for places that are not our home?

The feeling may be partly explained by the strong presence of my mother in this particular photograph, yet it stalks me when I leaf through the other pages in the album, seeing not only pictures of my mother and her family, but scenes without people, the Thornapple River, farmhouses, dirt roads, an old gas station.

We know that we carry our ancestors in our bodies – in the colours of our eyes and hair, our gestures, the tiniest inflections in our voices. It is as though our bodies remember the ancestors. But I have long believed that ancestral memory inhabits not only our bodies, but our bodies in place. We are sometimes surprised to discover the impact of ancestral places, often places unknown to us, on our moods and emotions. A visit to a previously unknown, old family street corner leaves us giddy or melancholy; walking along the pavement, we feel the dent of earlier footsteps, of passages before our time leaving a residue on the surface of things and inside us. Or there is the power of a house that remains in a family for two or three generations, its rooms and stairs and front porch. There are people in whom place memory is so subtly registered that even as children, they sense the trace of dead ancestors in that house, and then decades later from their own last beds in other, newer houses, recall the textures of the old house, now sold and gone. It seems we carry, perhaps more than is commonly acknowledged, memories not only related to our own pasts, but of people and places we may not have known directly in our own lives. Is this too, a form of homesickness?

So the photograph provokes a referred homesickness in me. Not only do I miss my own hometown; it seems I miss my mother’s hometown. Like all homesickness, this is simultaneously painful and pleasurable, a form of longing that once would have been described, and with some accuracy, as nostalgia. Yet to borrow from Yogi Berra, an old baseball player, we can say that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. We still smile at that line, but we forget the truth of it.

The word fails me now; it fails all of us. It continues to enjoy great currency, but it no longer provides an explanation for these particular experiences of memory. Yes, we derive pleasure from its current popular usage. We seek out films, music, memorabilia that allow us to swim in its waters, but then many of us work hard to dry ourselves off and break free from what we see as crass and backward-looking sentimentality. This last view of nostalgia has gained acceptance, as a brief look in any thesaurus will illustrate.  Suggested synonyms for nostalgia include not only sentimentalism, but mawkishness, maudlinism, melodramatics, mushiness – a host of ‘m’ words to make the whole idea quite unappealing.

Further to these immediate uses, nostalgia has featured in postmodern theorizing in my own field of History where again, it has regularly been viewed as retrograde and politically unproductive. Yet in these various definitions and interpretations, there is only the occasional reminder that nostalgia – the term – started out as a medical classification coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in his “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia” published in 1688.

Hofer’s piece was a detailed investigation of a malady he characterized as “the sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land.” While allowing that notions of homesickness, the German word heimweh and the French mal du pays all went some way to defining what was in fact, a disease, Hofer argued that a medical name, an agreed set of symptoms and effective treatments were required. He settled on nostalgia – “Greek in origin and indeed composed of two sounds, the one of which is Nosos, return to the native land; the other, Algos, signifies suffering or grief.”

According to Hofer, nostalgia was a disease of an “afflicted imagination” that regularly resulted in death. In its early stages, it manifested as a general melancholy accompanied by obsessive thoughts and images of one’s homeland.  This caused a “continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibres of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling.” The increase in activity through the nerve channels where memories of home were stored resulted in decreased blood flow to the other regions of the brain. So in a self-perpetuating course of illness, the obsessive thoughts of home would worsen, while interest in one’s actual surroundings would diminish. As the disease progressed, diagnostic signs included sadness and anxiety, “frequent sighs,” disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, poor blood circulation, heart palpitations, and fevers.  Finally, declared Hofer, “by consuming the spirits… nostalgia hastens death.”

This is hardly the nostalgia we recognize today. What happened during the subsequent three centuries?  Where is nostalgia the pathology, a set of symptoms in need of diagnosis and treatment? And finally, what might happen if we brought it back, if we countered baseball’s cracker-barrel philosopher by making nostalgia something of what it used to be?


For the first two centuries following Hofer’s dissertation, nostalgia remained a medical concern, although the discourses surrounding it began to change. In physicians’ writings, its meanings crept beyond the immediate complications of homesickness, to include a pathological pining for the vanished past. The typical sufferer of nostalgia, a student, soldier, or other exile, experienced symptoms that belied a confusion between home as a physical, geographical place and home as a remembered, imagined place.  People afflicted with nostalgia might see ghosts, hear the voices of dead loved ones, shift from past to present without being aware of it, or even lose the ability to distinguish between the two.

This link between nostalgia and memory was identified early and most evocatively by Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798). Kant noted that when homesick people revisit the places of their youth, “they are greatly disappointed in their expectations and so cured. Though they think this is because everything has changed there, it is really because they cannot relive their youth there.”  Kant’s point can be read as an anticipation of the widening of nostalgia’s meaning and its symptoms. A century after Hofer’s work, homesickness had morphed into a malady of both space and time, an affliction that had its origins in the normally healthy attachments a person holds for remembered people and places, for cherished objects, distant events, and even for the sense memories that would later be rendered by Proust. An image or a piece of music, a voice, a taste, a texture or smell – all of these might have potent effects on the ‘nostalgiac’. Yet if nostalgia had become more complex as a malady, if it began to incorporate permutations to do more directly with memory and the passage of time, it remained a malady. At least until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, nostalgia would be considered an affliction to be diagnosed and treated by physicians.

The diagnostic challenge was to spot an imminent attack of nostalgia in the victim’s descent from healthy remembering into illness. In the century before Freud and Breuer, treatments included purging, sweet wine, opium, restorative sojourns in the mountains, and the avoidance of affective images or musical strains. Increasingly, nostalgia came to be associated with military experience, with French physicians recording its appearance in soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars.

Medical interest in nostalgia increased during the early decades of the nineteenth century, with most physicians agreeing that it bore some resemblance to melancholia, but that it derived, more specifically than melancholia, from the first bonds to people and places in the child’s world.  Moreover, nostalgia continued to be viewed as a potentially fatal disorder, one that left discernible post-mortem changes in its victims.

During the American Civil War, doctors diagnosed more than five thousand cases of nostalgia on the Union side alone, a number of these ending in death. In 1863, Doctor Dewitt Peters, a military surgeon, provided a detailed list of its symptoms and progression: “First, great mental dejection, loss of appetite, indifference to external influences, irregular action of the bowels, and fever.  As the disease progresses, it is attended by hysterical weeping, a dull pain in the head, throbbing of the temporal arteries, anxious expression of the face, watchfulness, incontinence of urine, and a general wasting of all the vital powers.”

In military camps, activities that risked triggering an outbreak of nostalgia – such as writing letters home – might be forbidden. Camp bands were instructed not to play the 19th century American favourite, Home! Sweet Home!  Individual treatments varied from the granting of brief periods of convalescence to the infliction of physical punishment or a swift return to battle, for what some officers considered to be malingering. In this context, nostalgia appears almost as a variant of what would later be termed shell shock or soldier’s heart in the First World War, battle fatigue in the Second World War, and post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam.

After the Civil War, medical interest in nostalgia declined, as did the number of recorded cases. One reason for this may be that advances in transport and communications such as steam engines, a faster mail service and telegraph lines, promised to prevent the kinds of extreme separations that seemed to trigger outbreaks of acute nostalgia. But another reason may be that physicians had begun turning their attention to the study of hysteria.

By the late nineteenth century, and continuing throughout the twentieth, while humanity busied itself with railways and ticker tapes, advanced weaponry, war, stocks and shares, advertising, buying on credit, moon landings, and oil prices, nostalgia gradually lost its status as a medical term and disappeared from the professional literature. Johannes Hofer and his treatise were left behind in the dark ages before Freud. But is it remotely possible that in his seminal Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Freud passed up what may have been a last opportunity to rescue the lost affliction from obscurity? Here, nostalgia and homesickness might have been reinvented for the age of the “talking cure,” granted a place in our individual and collective experiences of memory and loss, in the pathology of melancholy and the psychology of mourning.

Certainly, the term did not entirely disappear from psychoanalytic literature, particularly in works of a historical bent. H.A. Kaplan (1987) noted that in light of Freud’s work, “nostalgia changed to become a variant of depression, an acute yearning for a union with the pre-oedipal mother, a saddening farewell to childhood, a defence against mourning, or a longing for a past forever lost.” Erich Neumann (1949) suggested that nostalgia is a form of alienation, perhaps the result of a longing for company and bearings during the Jungian project of individuation. As he put it, “being oneself is a wearisome and painful experience.”  Donna Bassin (1993), a photographer and psychoanalyst, widened the definition of nostalgia to include an incomplete form of mourning for a past that has been idealized.

However, for most of the 20th century and especially during the fifties when Freudian theory was, in its own turn, sometimes crassly popularized, the historical meanings and usages associated with nostalgia were finally mangled beyond recognition. As a lay term, its chief purpose became the performance of sentimentalism, the parcelling out of discount memory via television, advertising, heritage theme parks, and souvenir markets, all aspects of what we might call the ‘nostalgia industry’. As such, nostalgia became kitsch, trivial and often reactionary: hardly the stuff of a meaningful engagement with the past or the workings of memory.


Today, if we search medical or diagnostic manuals, we don’t expect to find nostalgia listed as a disease. This may not be an altogether negative outcome. As a historian, I see little benefit in returning nostalgia to these manuals, especially if that means fixed sets of quantifiable symptoms, diagnostic tools or treatments. I tend to side with French physician Charles Lasegue who as early as 1875, signalled the eventual demedicalization of the term, declaring that as nostalgia lacked any “pathological unity”, perhaps it had always been more of a medical fantasy than a disease. “Mal du pays,” Lasegue wrote, “has more to do with poetic elegies than with medical descriptions.”

Moreover, it is clear that a growing number of psychologists are beginning to examine nostalgia as a feature of the self that can have therapeutic value. This indicates another shift in the history of nostalgia, moving from its construction as disease and medical label in Hofer’s work, to a somewhat fading disorder in psychoanalytic discourse, to something that may ultimately be viewed as an adaptive response to loss and change. In other words, as a source of healing, rather than disease.

Yet while I hope for that therapeutic recasting, I remain nostalgic for nostalgia-the-ailment, or shall we say, condition.  This may be, in part, to do with the fact that nostalgia gives both pain and pleasure – in what is often described as its ‘bittersweet’ character. The Italian-American psychiatrist, Pietro Castelnuovo-Tedesco, captured this character in an essay on reminiscence and nostalgia (1980):  “Nostalgia is sweet because the original object or event gave pleasure and because the pleasure is enhanced through idealization. It is bitter not only because it cannot be made to come back, but also because, even in its original setting, it contained conflict and disappointment.”

This, to me, recalls the tenebrous complexity of nostalgia and preserves its role as ailment, even as it may also lend itself to healing. So I miss the condition that with or without a proven pathological base or unity, may still be experienced as Johannes Hofer first described it: an “afflicted imagination.” A condition that precisely because it is poetic and elegiac, makes history itself the stuff of life experience. A condition that speaks to each person’s unsung passages in time and space, recognizing the intense meanings we attach to home, childhood, family, community and place. Like it or not, nostalgia attends us – in our leave takings and returns, our weathering of continuity and change, and our inevitable losses. For all these reasons, and more specifically because it is about the strange entanglements of history and memory, nostalgia should be as interesting to historians, as to psychologists and psychiatrists.

We might ask what became of its sufferers when nostalgia disappeared from the medical literature. My suspicion is that the world is full of what we used to describe as nostalgia cases.  They live in the countryside and in towns and cities, loosely strung like blinking fairy lights. There may be acute cases, triggered by life events such as loss, grief, trauma or exile, but there may also be chronic cases, people constitutionally predisposed to an obsessive attachment to the past. Their symptoms have been subsumed under new diagnostic categories, so this is not to say that people suffering from nostalgia cannot find help. However, this particular experience of memory – still so widespread – has lost importance in the treatment rooms and we are left searching for spaces to speak about it.

Finally, collective nostalgia may assume highly political form, affecting groups or nations at particular historical conjunctures. Long before Brexit, before Trump’s toxic slogan (“Make America Great Again”), most political players knew how to tap their citizens’ nostalgic tendencies. Here, nostalgia becomes a dangerous shorthand in which the past is idealized and its violent inequalities are erased. So if we are to use nostalgia productively, we need to understand its political potency, and use it critically to engage our pasts – good or bad – in the present.

But for me, nostalgia’s lost meanings remain worth recovering. After all, what Hofer described was a manifestation of our all too human predilection for longing. More specifically, our longing to be less alone. Our longing for something/someplace larger than ourselves and before ourselves. A chance to contemplate our irrecoverable past times, places and people, some directly remembered, some only traces felt when we encounter the old rooms and houses, old photographs, the historical debris of those long gone.

If our nostalgic longings might be reconceived as memory with its critical healing powers restored, in other words, as the working through of what we have lost, then nostalgia may yet prove a condition worth having.

About Amy Kenyon

Amy Kenyon is a historian, writer and photographer.
This entry was posted in Days. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Lost Potential of Nostalgia

  1. Absolutely brilliant essay. Our culture’a current eye roll reaction toward nostalgia seems to ignore basic human emotion and cognition. So much to contemplate after reading this. Thank you.

  2. Mary Sayers says:

    Absolutely riveting. Wonderfully illuminating. So glad to have read this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s