The scent of a place once visited. The taste of the foods of childhood. A song heard again after many years. A faded black-and-white photograph. These are all remnants of the past that do not feature much in history books, at least the traditional kind, yet they are crucial to how many of us relate to the past. What is in play here, of course, is nostalgia: the powerful sense of longing that befalls many of us when we think of times past.
Yet what is nostalgia? And are we living in particularly nostalgic times? The word itself may look (ancient) Greek to some, but it is not. It does, however, have its roots in the classical past. In ancient Greek nostos means ‘a return home’ and the verb algein denotes ‘to suffer’ or ‘to feel pain’. Nostalgia thus seems more apt to describe homesickness rather than a longing for the past—a spatial rather than a temporal dislocation.
Intriguingly, this is exactly how nostalgia made its first appearance. Originally it referred not to a longing for the past at all but to a medical condition characterised by a profound urge to return home. This affliction was first diagnosed in 1688 by the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, whose dissertation described the intense homesickness of young Swiss soldiers fighting in Gaul (France). He lists the following symptoms of nostalgia in its advanced stages:
Continued sadness, meditation only on the Fatherland, disturbed sleep, either wakeful or continuous decrease of strength, hunger, thirst, senses diminished, and cares or even palpitations of the heart, frequent sighs, also stupidity of the mind—hardly attending to anything other than an idea of the Fatherland … (here and below: trans. Anspach, 1934, with changes)
The indicated cure is an immediate return home, or at least the near-term prospect of the same. If no action is taken, consequences can be severe, including serious incapacity and even death. Hofer reports several instances of people suffering from severe nostalgia recovering immediately upon arrival in their home town. The case of a patient from Berne reads like this:
The patient nearly half dead began to draw breath more freely, to respond to enquiries more easily, and to show a better tranquillity of mind. Moreover, he was scarcely some few miles from our city, when all the symptoms already abated to such a great extent … relaxed altogether, and he was restored to his whole sane self before he entered Berne.
Even though the word is not ancient Greek, Hofer’s definition of nostalgia resonates in the literature of the ancient world. In the Odyssey, Homer created a powerful prototype of the quintessentially nostalgic person. Odysseus’s arduous journey back to Ithaca after the Trojan War is driven by the longing for a home, a life and a wife just beyond the horizon. In The Odyssey, travel also brings new insight and understanding, yet Odysseus is painfully aware of the personal cost of such a long absence. In Simon Armitage’s rendering, his complaint reads like this:
No man loves his country or his family
more than me—the heart is a magnet,
it spins, and finds its true north, and pulls.
It tugs. Even while I sleep it tugs and tugs,
so homesickness is a permanent hurt,
a soreness, a physical tenderness—a bruise. (67)
For Armitage’s Odysseus, then, the pangs of homesickness are directed towards a certain place and the human relationships it harbours. The suffering resulting from this absence is as subtle as it is constant; and it cannot be suppressed, haunting the epic hero even in his sleep. As a result, Odysseus never loses sight of the ultimate destination, despite his many encounters with the marvels—and horrors—of foreign lands.
Odysseus’s nostalgia (in Hofer’s sense) resurfaces throughout his journey and bestows on the hero an acute understanding of the passing of time. Over the course of his epic voyage, Odysseus repeatedly comments on the spatial distance separating him from Ithaca and laments the time that has gone by since he last saw his home. Spatial longing thus gradually attains a temporal dimension. The distance travelled becomes a measure—a metaphor—of temporal distance. We have reached the modern meaning of nostalgia as a longing for the past.
Nostalgia, time and memory
The historian Frank Ankersmit describes nostalgia as the experience of an unbridgeable difference between past and present. He has argued that nostalgic longing acknowledges that the past is irrevocably gone, that it can only be remembered, not restored. This makes nostalgia not just an experience of time but also one of the passing of time. The suffering associated with it springs from the insight that, despite all human efforts to the contrary, time cannot be halted, let alone reversed. Any prospect of returning to the past must remain an illusion. For this kind of nostalgia, there is no cure.
Even if it were possible to restore past circumstance, we would still have changed irrevocably. The Odysseus who finally found his way back to Ithaca was no longer the same man who had left many years earlier. Nor was his wife, Penelope, the same woman.
Although the past cannot be restored, it can be transformed in the process of remembering. It is popular knowledge that in hindsight things tend to look better than they were. Memory idealises the past. Examples of the human tendency to edit the nasty bits from history are plentiful, affecting personal and collective memory alike.
Germany during the 1990s witnessed the emergence of a particular kind of nostalgia. Ostalgie—literally ‘east-algia’, a compound of Nostalgie and Ost, or the East—describes the curious sentimentalism for life in communist East Germany. The condition befell primarily those who had grown up in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and were now struggling to adjust to the exigencies of life in the recently reunified Germany.
Ostalgie took many forms. Movies and television shows revived the GDR on screen. Ostalgie parties featured the old hits, fashion and food. Most notably, perhaps, some of the iconic brands and products of communist East Germany witnessed a revival: gherkins from the Spreewald (‘Spree Woods’); Rotkäppchen champagne; Club Coke. Even the humble Ampelmännchen—the stylised figure used at pedestrian crossings in the East—attained cult status. In 1996 a committee to save it was founded in Berlin, preventing the replacement of the East German symbol with its less chubby and hatless colleague from the West.
What was at stake in this curious affinity with the old brands and symbols? Psychologists credit nostalgia with two major functions: one debilitating and unproductive, the other healthy and empowering. Nostalgia can be a form of disengagement from a present that seems to have changed beyond recognition, a form of escapism from a here and now that no longer offers a sense of belonging. It can also be a strategy of reintegrating past and present at a time of transformation, a way of processing change.
As a personal experience, nostalgia often manifests as longing for the (seemingly) untroubled days of childhood. As a collective experience it often reflects the trauma of migration, displacement and sociopolitical upheaval. And, of course, the two perspectives are not mutually exclusive: collective trauma can manifest as a longing for the jaunty and youthful existence of one’s past.
Whether Ostalgie was a matter of coping or not coping thus depended on the individual. Whatever the case, it was not merely the result of a resistance to change, an instance of cultural amnesia or, indeed, a frank attempt at whitewashing the past.
At a time of rapid change, the old household names and brands provided the reassurance of cultural roots and the unshakeable foundations of identity. Ostalgie in all its forms also provided the opportunity to scrutinise the recent past with a sense of irony—and from the relative safety of hindsight.
In 2003 the movie Good Bye, Lenin! took up such sentiments. It tells the (fictional) story of an attempt to keep communist Germany alive in the confines of a flat occupied by an elderly woman from East Berlin. She suffers a stroke just before the Berlin Wall comes down and is deemed too fragile cope with the news when she emerges from her coma. Her son engages in an elaborate attempt at historical fiction-making, featuring fake evening news, distinct uniforms and other GDR paraphernalia—including (you will have guessed it) gherkins from the Spreewald.
The comic entanglements springing from the (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to halt the passage of time resonated in both parts of the new Germany. The movie was widely praised for helping to bring down the cultural walls still dividing the country more than ten years after reunification and for furthering mutual understanding. It was widely recognised as helping to close the cultural gap still separating East and West. Good Bye, Lenin! won several prestigious awards, including a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign-language film in 2004.
Institutionalised longing: The museum
The important role that objects, brands and symbols play in the emergence of Ostalgie and other forms of nostalgia (those gherkins again) points to an important aspect of how the yearning for the past is evoked: via the senses. Human faculties play a key role in triggering nostalgia, hence the power not just of images—moving and otherwise—but of music, scent, flavour and texture to evoke a longing for the past.
Objects add the possibility of touch and awaken nostalgic feelings. The passage of time turns yesterday’s ordinary items into today’s historical artefacts. Old pots, pens and tools have the power to refer to much more than their original purpose. They carry the observer back in time and provide connections with the milieu to which they belonged. Numerous stories from the past seem to be inscribed in them, waiting to be told.
The museum is one place where this telling occurs. The best museums provide a sensory experience of the past in as many dimensions as possible. The objects on display provide focal points for the nostalgic gaze. They may also allow for the experience of touch and sound, sometimes even scent. Think of the rustling of old documents, for example; or the musty smell of old books. The strong feelings evoked by such experiences have the power to carry us back in time. The museum grants such sentiments roam while containing them within the confines of the exhibit.
The commercialisation of nostalgia: Vintage and retro
Yet the museum is by no means the only place where nostalgia is invoked. For some time now historical objects have found their way into our homes as decorations, luxury items or commodities. Our love for all things vintage—cars, clothes, watches, tiles, furniture—has turned this kind of nostalgia into an industry with a multimillion-dollar turnover each year.
Never before has retro been so chic: button-up blouses from the 1970s, black-and-white dresses from the 1960s, cloche hats like the ones once worn by the silent film actress Vilma Bánky (1901–1991) during the 1920s and 1930s. Even the bulky shoulder-pads from the 1980s recently enjoyed a revival. Vintage clothing allows us to wear our nostalgia lightly, to fashion ourselves with the looks of another age and time, and in so doing to connect our own story with the larger, ongoing narrative that is history.
And we aren’t just talking cheap stuff from rummage sales and second-hand stores. Sales in luxury vintage are up too. In February 2016, Fashionphile, a US company specialising in used luxury handbags, recorded sales of more than US$3 million, an increase of 50 per cent from the year before.
The vintage movement really took off in the early years of the new millennium, when a fresh wave of globalisation raised feelings of detachment from the here and now to new levels. Since then, vintage has developed into a booming industry. ThredUP, a fashion resale website, estimates that over the next ten years the market segment of resale clothes will grow by 6 per cent a year and reach a net worth of US$25 billion in 2025.
As well as appealing to nostalgia, the vintage industry responds to one of our deepest desires: to be unique. The vintage brand presents itself as an antidote to ‘fast fashion’—the throw-away culture of mass-produced, globalised goods. Vintage taps into a discourse of sustainability: marketing takes the line that it’s environmentally sound to recycle. At the same time, vintage also reflects the contemporary concern with individualism by offering products that promise to be one of a kind. In a rapidly transforming world, it responds to a quest for origins, tradition, continuity and cultural roots.
The power of this kind of longing has been recognised as a potent sales strategy. Numerous companies have sought to capitalise on it. The commercialisation of nostalgia has seen the emergence of a number of power-ful brands, which produce new goods dressed as old. Although many retro goods are mass produced, they successfully maintain the aura of the unique, traditional and tested.
On the face of it, companies such as Coca-Cola, Nintendo and Fujifilm have little in common, yet they all engage successfully in the marketing of nostalgia. By presenting their products in ways that reference the flavours and technologies of earlier decades, they forge a powerful emotional bond between consumer and product. What is on sale here is much more than a particular artefact. Together with the historic-looking fridge, lamp or shoes, we gain a sense of belonging—and the reassurance of cultural continuity behind the veneer of change.
The politics of nostalgia
Given the power of the past to bring about strong emotions and to forge tight bonds, nostalgia lends itself to all kinds of appropriation, including those of a political nature. The list of ideologies that have sought to bend nostalgic longing to their own ends is long and spans the entire political spectrum.
In today’s political climate the politics of yesterday retains a powerful voice. Populist movements of all kinds draw on large segments of the population’s disaffection with the present. The promise to turn back the clocks and restore the old status quo—Make America Great Again!—provides an appealing narrative that is readily embraced by the disenchanted and disillusioned.
Curiously, any disappointment resulting from the inevitable broken promises never lingers long. It remains acute until the next person comes along and makes a similar promise. History repeats in nostalgia’s capacity to evoke the simulacrum of a return—without ever being able to deliver.
In ideologised nostalgia of all kinds, the promise of a return frequently involves the resurrection of old narratives. Brent Staples has recently pointed out that in the current incarnation of populism in the United States, nostalgic longing is focused on the white, male middle-class existence of the 1950s. A vintage illustration in his
New York Times article superbly conveys the contents of this narrative.
The projection features a suburban home decked out with a large car and larger front yard. A devoted wife (a kitchen apron indicates her standing as housewife), happy children (ideally a boy and a girl), and an equally happy dog greet the father. He is the breadwinner, coming home from an honest day’s work that, needless to say, is rewarded with an honest day’s pay. The whole picture is one of arrival, privilege and belonging.
The politics of nostalgia features two interesting aspects: first, that it is possible to induce feelings of nostalgia on purpose and directed to a specific end; and second, that it is possible to feel nostalgic for a past one never inhabited oneself. The latter point reminds us that nostalgia is inevitably a creation of the present. In the process of nostalgic yearning we constantly rewrite history: highlighting certain aspects and ignoring others, connecting the dots differently, telling the story towards a new end.
Yet, again, at least in this dilute, ideologised and propagandistic sense, nostalgia is nothing new, nothing modern. Even the Romans used the ancient Greek past to promulgate new ideas of cultural identity and belonging. Long after Greece had become a Roman province, the time of Homer and Herodotus continued to be revisited whenever useful. And sometimes quite literally so: Pausanias, a writer touring the sites and wonders of the old Greek world during the second century CE, still imitates the outlook and style of the historian Herodotus who had lived 700 years earlier.
Nostalgia, then, is nothing new: rather, it is a perennial human response to change, particularly of a transformational or disruptive kind. The yearning for a better, simpler, more stable past has been part of the human condition ever since ancient times. It may be tempting to argue that the transition from, let’s say, horse-drawn carriages to motorised vehicles was less profound than the recent move from analogue to digital, but that would be to rate our own experience of change above that of earlier generations.
However, while the human response to change remains the same throughout history, the rate of change has accelerated in recent times. Video killed the radio star and the smartphone did away with the regular (non-smart) mobile. What was not so long ago the pinnacle of innovation seems already fairly outdated today. The rapidity with which new technologies become old has no historical equivalent. It has also made us especially prone to nostalgic longing.
Nostalgia appears to be many things to many people. It can be a momentary state of mind when we encounter relics from the past, or a chronic propensity to yearn for yesterday. It can be a light-hearted fashion statement and mode of consumption or an ideological statement about the world. It can be a form of coping with change, even trauma, or it can be a potentially disabling inability to face up to the fact that little in the human sphere is permanent.
There is, however, a fundamental contradiction common to all kinds of nostalgic longing: the wish to return and the knowledge that this is impossible. Although nostalgic yearning recognises that the past is irrevocably gone, we constantly try to evoke, restore and return to it anyway. We put on old hats of all kinds, surround ourselves with toys, cars or china from the past, and fall for the promise of a return to the good old days when the good guys were still good and the bad ones (really) bad. This contradiction and tension between promise and premise makes nostalgia a quintessentially paradoxical experience.
But then the world, human life in particular, is full of paradoxes. To get along calls for embracing at least some of them. Perhaps it is this ability to compromise between two otherwise irreconcilable aspects of the human condition—the desire to return to the good old days of our childhood and the realisation that this is impossible—that makes nostalgia so powerful.
Nostalgia’s ultimate purpose may be to soften the impact of change. As L.P. Hartley famously put it, ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ Yet in revisiting the past in the course of nostalgic longing, we make it a little more like the present—and the present a little more like the past. •
Julia Kindt is an associate professor and historian of ancient Greece in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney and a new Future Fellow.
Frank Ankersmit, History and Tropology, Berkeley, 1994.
Simon Armitage, Homer’s Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer’s Epic, New York, 2004.
K.I. Batcho, ‘Nostalgia: Retreat or Support in Difficult Times?’, American Journal of Psychology, no. 126 (2013), pp. 355–67.
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, London, 1953.
Johannes Hofer, ‘Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia’, trans. Carolyn K. Anspach, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, no. 2 (1934), pp. 376–91.
Brent Staples, ‘Voters who long for “Leave it to Beaver”’, <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/opinion/election-night-2016>.