Susan Wozniak: Nostalgia, in moderation

  • Susan Wozniak  FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/4/2020 1:47:06 PM

I’ve been thinking of a statement I heard. It is that the Victorians considered nostalgia a mental illness. My image of the Victorians is from the late Victorian era when the Craftsman movement revived older furniture styles, such as Gothic and Medieval, and when Americans of that era celebrated the centennial of the founding of the nation. It seemed to me that people who respected, even enjoyed, the past would not label thinking about the past a mental illness.

Even the literature of that era — James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — often mined the past. 

However, we no longer think of nostalgia as a mental illness, although I can see that it might become an obsession under certain conditions.  

So, where did the idea of nostalgia as a mental illness come from? At least in part from doctors who treated wounded Civil War soldiers. That makes sense. Imagine a man whose leg was amputated, worrying about how he would provide for himself and his family. A man in a makeshift hospital bed who wonders whether his wife will still love him or would she find the stump repulsive? A man who knows that the younger brother who fought alongside him is dead. Such a man might wish he were back in the spring of 1858, plowing his fields and thinking ahead to his wedding day.

The word nostalgia was coined by medical student Johannes Hofer in 1688. Hofer also dealt with soldiers fighting away from home. He took the Greek word nostos, which means homecoming, and another Greek word, algos, or pain, and combined them to describe people who longed to return to their native lands. The cure at that time was the application of leaches to balance the humors.

During my research, I found the work of Dr. Krystine Batcho, who describes nostalgia as bittersweet. Bitter because nostalgia is a longing and sweet because it can be enjoyable.

She separates historic nostalgia — the sort that leads to joining a group of re-enactors or reading about historical events and the people who created them, or furnishing a house with antiques — from personal nostalgia, when people recall events that shaped their own lives, because those events were remarkable. Both good and bad events are remembered and reexamined.

To Dr. Batcho, personal nostalgia helps us remember who we were in order to connect our past selves with our present selves. Personal nostalgia also helps forge social bonds. Friends might laugh over their high school hairdos or talk about television shows they enjoyed. Perhaps the most important function of personal nostalgia is it helps people bond in times of trouble.

Personal nostalgia also helps us face change, such as the approaching birth of a child, anticipating a marriage or divorce, the launching of what is hoped to be a career. While waiting, people can examine their strengths and weaknesses and can remember what they learned, as well as how other periods of stress were weathered.

But memory is not perfect. It is often selective and mood dependent. In other words, when depressed, a person might remember another time of sadness. Facing the end of a relationship, while recognizing the need to end that relationship, might cause memories of arguments to dominate. On the other hand, someone who wants to mend the relationship might think of the joys being with the other held.

Because people like to share their memories, speaking of our personal nostalgia binds us to our confidants. After the death of a loved one, the joy that person gave will be shared with close friends who, in turn, will feel the joy. After being fired from a job, sharing memories of the workplace’s discomforts or the unfairness of a supervisor with a close friend will increase the importance of that friendship.

Despite the imperfection of memory, sharing stories with grandchildren may serve as teaching moment, linking the present with the past, and one generation with another. That is, if the moment survives the occasional eye roll from the grandkids.

I think that without nostalgia, we would have no literature. While I dislike the short story, “A Rose for Emily” and groan at the thought of “The Great Gatsby,” both are works that depend upon the human tendency toward nostalgia, albeit in both cases, a destructive nostalgia.

But whether bitter or sweet, nostalgia is very much a part of humanity and, like anything else, can help or harm and should be resorted to in moderation.

Susan Wozniak can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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