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I’m reading a book by Svetlana Boym at the moment, The Future of Nostalgia. I’m intoxicated with it.

Boym’s thesis resonates somewhat with Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘revolutionary nostalgia’ in that she distinguishes between ‘restorative nostalgia’ and what she sees as the critical potential inherent in ‘reflective nostalgia’.

 The term nostalgia has its roots in medicine… during this period, from the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, that doctors diagnosed and treated nostalgia, it also had other names in various languages — mal du pays (country sickness) in French, Heimweh (home-pain) in German, hiraeth in Welsh, and el mal de corazón (heart-pain) in Spanish. Cases resulting in death were known and soldiers were sometimes successfully treated by being discharged and sent home. Receiving a diagnosis was, however, generally regarded as an insult. Cases of nostalgia, which sometimes occurred as epidemics, were less frequent when the armies were victorious and more frequent when they suffered reverses. Nostalgia was, however, still diagnosed among soldiers as late as the American Civil War.  Nostalgia occurs in a particularly potent form after political revolution – French Revolution; Russian Revolution; recent ‘velvet’ revolutions of Eastern Europe.

Boym sees the contemporary manifestation of nostalgia as inherently tied up with the modern condition – the twentieth century is bookended with futuristic utopias at its beginning and nostalgia at its conclusion – in this sense nostalgia is not just an individual sickness, but a historical emotion, negotiating the relationship between personal biography and collective memory.

I’ve always thought nostalgia was slightly dangerous but I wonder to what critical uses it could be put, if the sense of longing could be redirected from the past (or an imagined past) to somewhere else.

September 2007