The Future of Nostalgia

The Future of Nostalgia

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by Svetlana Boym

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What happens to Old World memories in a New World order? Svetlana Boym opens up a new avenue of inquiry: the study of nostalgia.See more details below


What happens to Old World memories in a New World order? Svetlana Boym opens up a new avenue of inquiry: the study of nostalgia.

Editorial Reviews

Eva Hoffman
. . . this moving meditation on the vicissitudes of time, loss and longing will provoke us to think anew. . .
Marjorie Perloff
Boym's brilliant, witty, ironic, penetrating dissection of "nostalgia," in all its manifestations—nationalist, diasporic, exilic, literary, personal—is, above all, deeply moving.
Luc Sante
A fine book. —Bookforum
Book Forum
In its distilled essence,... this is a fine book.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The future of nostalgia isn't what it used to be, or at least it won't be once this book starts making its way through academic circles. A sort of training manual for the wistful, Boym's book alternates "between critical reflection and storytelling, hoping to grasp the rhythm of longing, its enticements and entrapments"; along the way, the author not only gives new life to an old idea but also offers a number of original terms that can be used to describe the experience. The first part of Boym's study surveys the history of nostalgia as a disease and introduces two varieties, a "restorative nostalgia" that may contain conspiratorial elements (the notion that a certain "they" have destroyed "our" homeland, for example), and a "reflective nostalgia" that leads to a sense of not being able to go home again. Part two deals with postcommunist cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg (where Boym, now a Harvard professor of Slavic and comparative literature, worked as a tour guide in the late '70s) and may be of more interest to pure Russophiles than to intellectuals in general. The book's third and final section examines the work of Nabokov, Brodsky and other artists whom Boym calls, in her most useful contribution to critical vocabulary, "off-modern." Neither modern nor postmodern, these artists (and their ranks include such odd ducks from the last century as Igor Stravinsky, Walter Benjamin, Julio Cort zar and Georges Perec) "explore side shadows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress." Thus the past may be conceptualized in any number of ways, and apparently, at least according to the author, the only truly pernicious nostalgia is the prefabricated, Disney-fied kind that keeps one from thinking about the future. Otherwise, says Boym, the sky, whether it's the one you see overhead or the one you remember, is the limit. (Apr.) Forecast: This is an interesting addition to cultural history, but a bit esoteric, and is unlikely to find a readerhip outside of the literati. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The current U.S. craze for nostalgia runs from automobiles (the PT Cruiser) to fashion (the return of bell-bottoms) to television (TV Land reruns). Despite modern technology and conveniences, we enjoy looking back to yesterday. Boym (Slavic and comparative literature, Harvard Univ.; Death in Quotation Marks) divides her study of nostalgia into three parts. In the first section, she examines the history of nostalgia, once seen as an ailment to be cured. The second part focuses on cities, specifically Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Berlin, and on post-Communist memories. In Part 3, Boym probes what she calls the stories of exile, looking at the writings of Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, and others who wrote of lost homes. She also examines how nostalgia affects us today, citing movies like Jurassic Park and the subsequent interest in dinosaurs. This multifaceted work gives the reader much to ponder in regard to what we hold dear. Recommended for larger public libraries and academic collections. Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
In her tour de force study of a "hypochondria of the heart," Boym (Slavic and comparative literature, Harvard U.) observes that "nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals." Combining memories of life in St. Petersburg with tours of several post- Communist cities, and historical, philosophical, and aesthetic analyses, the author explores the ironies of collective nostalgia (even for dinosaurs), national myths, and personal stories of exiled Russian writers and artists (e.g., Brodsky, Nabokov). Illustrations include Soviet era and post-Berlin Wall art and monuments, and immigrants' souvenirs. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Chapter One


The word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots, yet it did not originate in ancient Greece. Nostalgia is only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek. The word was coined by the ambitious Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation in 1688. He believed that it was possible "from the force of the sound Nostalgia to define the sad mood originating from the desire for return to one's native land." (Hofer also suggested nosomania and philopatridomania to describe the same symptoms; luckily, the latter failed to enter common parlance.) Contrary to our intuition, nostalgia came from medicine, not from poetry or politics. Among the first victims of the newly diagnosed disease were various displaced people of the seventeenth century, freedom-loving students from the Republic of Berne studying in Basel, domestic help and servants working in France and Germany and Swiss soldiers fighting abroad.

    Nostalgia was said to produce "erroneous representations" that caused the afflicted to lose touch with the present. Longing for their native land became their single-minded obsession. The patients acquired "a lifeless and haggard countenance," and "indifference towards everything," confusing past and present, real and imaginary events. One of the early symptoms of nostalgia was an ability to hear voices or see ghosts. Dr. Albert von Haller wrote: "One of the earliest symptoms is the sensation of hearing the voice of aperson that one loves in the voice of another with whom one is conversing, or to see one's family again in dreams." It comes as no surprise that Hofer's felicitous baptism of the new disease both helped to identify the existing condition and enhanced the epidemic, making it a widespread European phenomenon. The epidemic of nostalgia was accompanied by an even more dangerous epidemic of "feigned nostalgia," particularly among soldiers tired of serving abroad, revealing the contagious nature of the erroneous representations.

    Nostalgia, the disease of an afflicted imagination, incapacitated the body. Hofer thought that the course of the disease was mysterious: the ailment spread "along uncommon routes through the untouched course of the channels of the brain to the body," arousing "an uncommon and everpresent idea of the recalled native land in the mind." Longing for home exhausted the "vital sprats," causing nausea, loss of appetite, pathological changes in the lungs, brain inflammation, cardiac arrests, high fever, as well as marasmus and a propensity for suicide.

    Nostalgia operated by an "associationist magic," by means of which all aspects of everyday life related to one single obsession. In this respect nostalgia was akin to paranoia, only instead of a persecution mania, the nostalgic was possessed by a mania of longing. On the other hand, the nostalgic had an amazing capacity for remembering sensations, tastes, sounds, smells, the minutiae and trivia of the lost paradise that those who remained home never noticed. Gastronomic and auditory nostalgia were of particular importance. Swiss scientists found that rustic mothers' soups, thick village milk and the folk melodies of Alpine valleys were particularly conducive to triggering a nostalgic reaction in Swiss soldiers. Supposedly the sounds of "a certain rustic cantilena" that accompanied shepherds in their driving of the herds to pasture immediately provoked an epidemic of nostalgia among Swiss soldiers serving in France. Similarly, Scots, particularly Highlanders, were known to succumb to incapacitating nostalgia when hearing the sound of the bagpipes—so much so, in fact, that their military superiors had to prohibit them from playing, singing or even whistling native tunes in a suggestive manner. Jean-Jacques Rousseau talks about the effects of cowbells, the rustic sounds that excite in the Swiss the joys of life and youth and a bitter sorrow for having lost them. The music in this case "does not act precisely as music, but as a memorative sign." The music of home, whether a rustic cantilena or a pop song, is the permanent accompaniment of nostalgia—its ineffable charm that makes the nostalgic teary-eyed and tongue-tied and often clouds critical reflection on the subject.

    In the good old days nostalgia was a curable disease, dangerous but not always lethal. Leeches, warm hypnotic emulsions, opium and a return to the Alps usually soothed the symptoms. Purging of the stomach was also recommended, but nothing compared to the return to the motherland believed to be the best remedy for nostalgia. While proposing the treatment for the disease, Hofer seemed proud of some of his patients; for him nostalgia was a demonstration of the patriotism of his compatriots who loved the charm of their native land to the point of sickness.

    Nostalgia shared some symptoms with melancholia and hypochondria. Melancholia, according to the Galenic conception, was a disease of the black bile that affected the blood and produced such physical and emotional symptoms as "vertigo, much wit, headache, ... much waking, rumbling in the guts ... troublesome dreams, heaviness of the heart ... continuous fear, sorrow, discontent, superfluous cares and anxiety." For Robert Burton, melancholia, far from being a mere physical or psychological condition, had a philosophical dimension. The melancholic saw the world as a theater ruled by capricious fate and demonic play. Often mistaken for a mere misanthrope, the melancholic was in fact a utopian dreamer who had higher hopes for humanity. In this respect, melancholia was an affect and an ailment of intellectuals, a Hamletian doubt, a side effect of critical reason; in melancholia, thinking and feeling, spirit and matter, soul and body were perpetually in conflict. Unlike melancholia, which was regarded as an ailment of monks and philosophers, nostalgia was a more "democratic" disease that threatened to affect soldiers and sailors displaced far from home as well as many country people who began to move to the cities. Nostalgia was not merely an individual anxiety but a public threat that revealed the contradictions of modernity and acquired a greater political importance.

    The outburst of nostalgia both enforced and challenged the emerging conception of patriotism and national spirit. It was unclear at first what was to be done with the afflicted soldiers who loved their motherland so much that they never wanted to leave it, or for that matter to die for it. When the epidemic of nostalgia spread beyond the Swiss garrison, a more radical treatment was undertaken. The French doctor Jourdan Le Cointe suggested in his book written during the French Revolution of 1789 that nostalgia had to be cured by inciting pain and terror. As scientific evidence he offered an account of drastic treatment of nostalgia successfully undertaken by the Russians. In 1733 the Russian army was stricken by nostalgia just as it ventured into Germany, the situation becoming dire enough that the general was compelled to come up with a radical treatment of the nostalgic virus. He threatened that "the first to fall sick will be buried alive." This was a kind of literalization of a metaphor, as life in a foreign country seemed like death. This punishment was reported to be carried out on two or three occasions, which happily cured the Russian army of complaints of nostalgia. (No wonder longing became such an important part of the Russian national identity.) Russian soil proved to be a fertile ground for both native and foreign nostalgia. The autopsies performed on the French soldiers who perished in the proverbial Russian snow during the miserable retreat of the Napoleonic Army from Moscow revealed that many of them had brain inflammation characteristic of nostalgia.

    While Europeans (with the exception of the British) reported frequent epidemics of nostalgia starting from the seventeenth century, American doctors proudly declared that the young nation remained healthy and didn't succumb to the nostalgic vice until the American Civil War. If the Swiss doctor Hofer believed that homesickness expressed love for freedom and one's native land, two centuries later the American military doctor Theodore Calhoun conceived of nostalgia as a shameful disease that revealed a lack of manliness and unprogressive attitudes. He suggested that this was a disease of the mind and of a weak will (the concept of an "afflicted imagination" would be profoundly alien to him). In nineteenth-century America it was believed that the main reasons for homesickness were idleness and a slow and inefficient use of time conducive to daydreaming, erotomania and onanism. "Any influence that will tend to render the patient more manly will exercise a curative power. In boarding schools, as perhaps many of us remember, ridicule is wholly relied upon.... [The nostalgic] patient can often be laughed out of it by his comrades, or reasoned out of it by appeals to his manhood; but of all potent agents, an active campaign, with attendant marches and more particularly its battles is the best curative." Dr. Calhoun proposed as treatment public ridicule and bullying by fellow soldiers, an increased number of manly marches and battles and improvement in personal hygiene that would make soldiers' living conditions more modern. (He also was in favor of an occasional furlough that would allow soldiers to go home for a brief period of time.)

    For Calhoun, nostalgia was not conditioned entirely by individuals' health, but also by their strength of character and social background. Among the Americans the most susceptible to nostalgia were soldiers from the rural districts, particularly farmers, while merchants, mechanics, boatmen and train conductors from the same area or from the city were more likely to resist the sickness. "The soldier from the city cares not where he is or where he eats, while his country cousin pines for the old homestead and his father's groaning board," wrote Calhoun. In such cases, the only hope was that the advent of progress would somehow alleviate nostalgia and the efficient use of time would eliminate idleness, melancholy, procrastination and lovesickness.

    As a public epidemic, nostalgia was based on a sense of loss not limited to personal history. Such a sense of loss does not necessarily suggest that what is lost is properly remembered and that one still knows where to look for it. Nostalgia became less and less curable. By the end of the eighteenth century, doctors discovered that a return home did not always treat the symptoms. The object of longing occasionally migrated to faraway lands beyond the confines of the motherland. Just as genetic researchers today hope to identify a gene not only for medical conditions but social behavior and even sexual orientation, so the doctors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries looked for a single cause of the erroneous representations, one so-called pathological bone. Yet the physicians failed to find the locus of nostalgia in their patient's mind or body. One doctor claimed that nostalgia was a "hypochondria of the heart" that thrives on its symptoms. To my knowledge, the medical diagnosis of nostalgia survived in the twentieth century in one country only—Israel. (It is unclear whether this reflects a persistent yearning for the promised land or for the diasporic homelands left behind.) Everywhere else in the world nostalgia turned from a treatable sickness into an incurable disease. How did it happen that a provincial ailment, maladie du pays, became a disease of the modern age, mal du siècle?

    In my view, the spread of nostalgia had to do not only with dislocation in space but also with the changing conception of time. Nostalgia was a historical emotion, and we would do well to pursue its historical rather than psychological genesis. There had been plenty of longing before the seventeenth century, not only in the European tradition but also in Chinese and Arabic poetry, where longing is a poetic commonplace. Yet the early modern conception embodied in the specific word came to the fore at a particular historical moment. "Emotion is not a word, but it can only be spread abroad through words," writes Jean Starobinski, using the metaphor of border crossing and immigration to describe the discourse on nostalgia. Nostalgia was diagnosed at a time when art and science had not yet entirely severed their umbilical ties and when the mind and body—internal and external well-being—were treated together. This was a diagnosis of a poetic science—and we should not smile condescendingly on the diligent Swiss doctors. Our progeny well might poeticize depression and see it as a metaphor for a global atmospheric condition, immune to treatment with Prozac.

    What distinguishes modern nostalgia from the ancient myth of the return home is not merely its peculiar medicalization. The Greek nostos, the return home and the song of the return home, was part of a mythical ritual. As Gregory Nagy has demonstrated, Greek nostos is connected to the Indo-European root nes, meaning return to light and life.

There are in fact two aspects of nostos in The Odyssey; one is of course, the hero's return from Troy, and the other, just as important, is his return from Hades. Moreover, the theme of Odysseus's descent and subsequent nostos (return) from Hades converges with the solar dynamics of sunset and sunrise. The movement is from dark to light, from unconsciousness to consciousness. In fact the hero is asleep as he floats in darkness to his homeland and sunrise comes precisely when his boat reaches the shores of Ithaca.

Penelope's labor of love and endurance—the cloth that she weaves by day and unravels by night—represents a mythical time of everyday loss and renewal. Odysseus's is not a story of individual sentimental longing and subsequent return home to family values; rather, this is a fable about human fate.

    After all, Odysseus's homecoming is about nonrecognition. Ithaca is plunged into mist and the royal wanderer arrives in disguise. The hero recognizes neither his homeland nor his divine protectress. Even his faithful and long-suffering wife does not see him for who he is. Only his childhood nurse notices the scar on the hero's foot—the tentative marker of physical identity. Odysseus has to prove his identity in action. He shoots the bow that belongs to him, at that moment triggering recollections and gaining recognition. Such ritual actions help to erase the wrinkles on the faces and the imprints of age. Odysseus's is a representative homecoming, a ritual event that neither begins nor ends with him.

    The seduction of non-return home—the allure of Circe and the sirens—plays a more important role in some ancient versions of Odysseus's cycle, where the story of homecoming is not at all clearly crystallized. The archaic tales around the myth, not recorded in the Homeric rendering of the story, suggest that the prophecy will come true and Odysseus will be killed by his son—not Telemachus, but by the son he bore with Circe—who would later end up marrying Odysseus's wife, Penelope. Thus in the potential world of mythical storytelling there might be an incestuous connection between the faithful wife and the enchantress that delays the hero's homecoming. After all, Circe's island is an ultimate utopia of regressive pleasure and divine bestiality. One has to leave it to become human again. Circe's treacherous lullabies are echoed in the melodies of home. So if we explore the potential tales of Odysseus's homecoming, we risk turning an adventure story with a happy ending into a Greek tragedy. Hence even the most classical Western tale of homecoming is far from circular; it is riddled with contradictions and zigzags, false homecomings, misrecognitions.

    Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them.

    The diagnosis of the disease of nostalgia in the late seventeenth century took place roughly at the historical moment when the conception of time and history were undergoing radical change. The religious wars in Europe came to an end but the much prophesied end of the world and doomsday did not occur. "It was only when Christian eschatology shed its constant expectations of the immanent arrival of doomsday that a temporality could have been revealed that would be open to the new and without limit." It is customary to perceive "linear" Judeo-Christian time in opposition to the "cyclical" pagan time of eternal return and discuss both with the help of spatial metaphors. What this opposition obscures is the temporal and historical development of the perception of time that since Renaissance on has become more and more secularized, severed from cosmological vision.

    Before the invention of mechanical clocks in the thirteenth century the question, What time is it? was not very urgent. Certainly there were plenty of calamities, but the shortage of time wasn't one of them; therefore people could exist "in an attitude of temporal ease. Neither time nor change appeared to be critical and hence there was no great worry about controlling the future." In late Renaissance culture, Time was embodied in the images of Divine Providence and capricious Fate, independent of human insight or blindness. The division of time into Past, Present and Future was not so relevant. History was perceived as a "teacher of life" (as in Cicero's famous dictum, historia magistra vitae) and the repertoire of examples and role models for the future. Alternatively, in Leibniz's formulation, "The whole of the coming world is present and prefigured in that of the present."

    The French Revolution marked another major shift in European mentality. Regicide had happened before, but not the transformation of the entire social order. The biography of Napoleon became exemplary for an entire generation of new individualists, little Napoleons who dreamed of reinventing and revolutionizing their own lives. The "Revolution," at first derived from natural movement of the stars and thus introduced into the natural rhythm of history as a cyclical metaphor, henceforth attained an irreversible direction: it appeared to unchain a yearned-for future. The idea of progress through revolution or industrial development became central to the nineteenth-century culture. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the representation of time itself changed; it moved away from allegorical human figures—an old man, a blind youth holding an hourglass, a woman with bared breasts representing Fate—to the impersonal language of numbers: railroad schedules, the bottom line of industrial progress. Time was no longer shifting sand; time was money. Yet the modern era also allowed for multiple conceptions of time and made the experience of time more individual and creative.

    Kant thought that space was the form of our outer experience, and time the form of inner experience. To understand the human anthropological dimension of the new temporality and the ways of internalizing past and future, Reinhart Koselleck suggested two categories: space of experience and horizon of expectation; both are personal and interpersonal. The space of experience allows one to account for the assimilation of the past into the present. "Experience is present past, whose events have been incorporated and could be remembered." Horizon of expectation reveals the way of thinking about the future. Expectation "is the future made present; it directs itself to the not-yet to the non-experienced, to that which is to be revealed." In the early modern era new possibilities of individual self-fashioning and the quest for personal freedom opened a space for creative experimentation with time that was not always linear and one-directional. The idea of progress, once it moved from the realm of arts and sciences to the ideology of industrial capitalism, became a new theology of "objective" time. Progress "is the first genuinely historical concept which reduced the temporal difference between experience and expectation to a single concept." What mattered in the idea of progress was improvement in the future, not reflection on the past. Immediately, many writers and thinkers at the time raised the question of whether progress can ever be simultaneous in all spheres of human experience. Friedrich Schlegel wrote: "The real problem of history is the inequality of progress in the various elements of human development, in particular the great divergence in the degree of intellectual and ethical development." Whether there was indeed an improvement in the humanities and arts, and in the human condition in general, remained an open question. Yet progress became a new global narrative as a secular counterpart to the universal aspirations of the Christian eschatology. In the past two centuries the idea of Progress applied to everything—from time to space, from the nation to the individual.

    Thus nostalgia, as a historical emotion, is a longing for that shrinking "space of experience" that no longer fits the new horizon of expectations. Nostalgic manifestations are side effects of the teleology of progress. Progress was not only a narrative of temporal progression but also of spatial expansion. Travelers since the late eighteenth century wrote about other places, first to the south and then to the east of Western Europe as "semi-civilized" or outright "barbarous." Instead of coevalness of different conceptions of time, each local culture therefore was evaluated with regard to the central narrative of progress. Progress was a marker of global time; any alternative to this idea was perceived as a local eccentricity.

    Premodern space used to be measured by parts of the human body: we could keep things "at arm's length," apply the "rule of thumb," count the number of "feet." Understanding nearness and distance had a lot to do with kinship structures in a given society and treatment of domestic and wild animals. Zygmunt Bauman writes, somewhat nostalgically,

That distance which we are now inclined to call "objective" and to measure by comparing it with the length of the equator, rather than with the size of human bodily parts, corporal dexterity or sympathies/antipathies of its inhabitants, used to be measured by human bodies and human relationships long before the metal rod called the meter, that impersonality and disembodiment incarnate, was deposited at Sevres for everyone to respect and obey.

Modern objectivity is conceived with the development of Renaissance perspective and the need for mapping the newly discovered worlds. The early modern state relied on a certain "legibility" of space and its transparency in order to collect taxes, recruit soldiers, and colonize new territories. Therefore the thicket of incomprehensible local customs, impenetrable and misleading to outsiders, were brought to a common denominator, a common map. Thus modernization meant making the populated world hospitable to supracommunal, state-ruled administration bureaucracy and moving from a bewildering diversity of maps to a universally shared world. With the development of late capitalism and digital technology, the universal civilization becomes "global culture" and the local space is not merely transcended but made virtual. It would be dangerous, however, to fall into nostalgic idealization of premodern conceptions of space with a variety of local customs; after all, they had their own local tradition of cruelty; the "supracommunal language" was not only that of bureaucracy but also of human rights, of democracy and liberation. What is crucial is that nostalgia was not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that made the division into "local" and "universal" possible. The nostalgic creature has internalized this division, but instead of aspiring for the universal and the progressive he looks backward and yearns for the particular.

    In the nineteenth century, optimistic doctors believed that nostalgia would be cured with universal progress and the improvement of medicine. Indeed, in some cases it did happen, since some symptoms of nostalgia were confused with tuberculosis. While tuberculosis eventually became treatable, nostalgia did not; since the eighteenth century, the impossible task of exploring nostalgia passed from doctors to poets and philosophers. The symptom of sickness came to be regarded as a sign of sensibility or an expression of new patriotic feeling. The epidemic of nostalgia was no longer to be cured but to be spread as widely as possible. Nostalgia is treated in a new genre, not as a tale of putative convalescence but as a romance with the past. The new scenario of nostalgia was neither battlefield nor hospital ward but misty vistas with reflective ponds, passing clouds and ruins of the Middle Ages or antiquity. Where native ruins were not available artificial ruins were built, already half-destroyed with utmost precision, commemorating the real and imaginary past of the new European nations.


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What People are saying about this

Eva Hoffman
Erudite and witty, fact-filled and deeply-felt.
— (Eva Hoffman, author of Shtetl and Lost in Translation)
Larry Wolff
Brilliant...This is an indispensable book for anyone trying to make sense of the twentieth century.
— (Larry Wolff, Boston College, author of Inventing Eastern Europe)
Marjorie Perloff
Svetlana Boym's brilliant, witty, ironic, penetrating dissection of "nostalgia," in all its manifestations is, above all, deeply moving.
— (Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University, author of Wittgenstein's Ladder)

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