Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

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The cover of a book, featuring a painting of a French soldier looking off into the distance.
The cover of a book, featuring a painting of a French soldier looking off into the distance.

♪ Things just ain’t what they used to be… ♪

Nostalgia, the longing for a return to home and past, was not always just something to be exploited by Facebook pages. When physician Johannes Hofer introduced the term in 1688, he referred to a psychological illness, a meaning the word kept until the start of the 20th century. Nostalgia affected (mostly white, mostly male) patients on three continents, and its effects could be deadly. In a book talk, author and Columbia Assistant Professor Thomas Dodman discussed his book and the history of nostalgia with Columbia Professor Emmanuelle Saada and Princeton Professor David Bell.

The event took place in the Maison Française, and the two Columbia professors were members of the French department. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that the discussion focused on how nostalgia ravaged the French military at the start of the 19th century, one of the case studies for nostalgia in Dodson’s book. French soldiers were particularly at risk, first because of their long separation from home (nostalgia was also called maladie du pays, or homesickness), and second because of the alienating, dominating nature of the organized military. Nostalgia came to be understood as a particularly French illness, one which English and American soldiers and citizens were relatively immune to.

How did people die from nostalgia? That’s what one audience member, a doctor, wanted to know. If someone died of nostalgia today, how would it be diagnosed? Nostalgia was more of an umbrella term, which encompassed modern concepts such as psychic trauma and depression. Two people undergoing nostalgia (whose French military treatment was a three month’s home leave) could be under very different circumstances. Suicide was common among victims of nostalgia, and nostalgia was even used as a handwaving diagnosis to ignore addressing larger concerns in the military, in industrializing cities, and in slave and settler colonies.

Over time, nostalgia transformed from something one had into something one felt, from a deadly medical condition into a benign or even helpful emotion in small doses. Whereas other defunct medical conditions like monomania and hysteria fell by the wayside, nostalgia survived its transition into a new feeling.

Dodman viewed his book “not necessarily as a history of an emotion… but as a history that does not leave the emotion out.” Saada and Bell agreed that this book provides a framework for future histories to keep history in conversation with feelings and psychology. But the talk, which featured a table selling Dodman’s new book for $35, was not entirely without criticism. “The afterward is short… it’s a cop-out,” said Dodman. “Don’t read it.”

Melancholic book cover via University of Chicago Press

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