The word nostalgia – from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain) – was coined in the 1680s by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer. He used it to identify a particular sort of depressive state – one linked to pining for a past time or place. Physicians were urged to treat the infirmity as a psychopathology. By the mid-19th century, it was thought that, if left untreated, nostalgia killed. In more ways than one.
The condition was most acute in soldiers. To prevent this debilitating and contagious homesickness, on a march into Germany, one 18th-century Russian general threatened to bury alive any man so afflicted. Then he did.
In his study Dying of the Past, historian Michael Roth quotes a French dissertation of the Romantic Era on what were considered some of the “predisposing causes” of the ailment – “too lenient” an education; no education; “strong and sad passions”; “disappointed ambition”; “love (especially happy love).”
Essentially, life caused nostalgia and nostalgia caused death. Little wonder the theory of nostalgia as a mental illness – rather than as a potential symptom of one – lost ground quickly.
Roth notes one remarkable case of the day suffered by a two-year-old, “Eugene L.” Baby Eugene was born in Paris, but sent to the countryside to wet-nurse. Upon returning home, the child became “pale, sad and morose.” His decline was precipitous, but no physical cause could be found. He spent hours staring at the doorway of his room, as if waiting for someone to come through it.
It was decided that Eugene was dying of loneliness for the woman who had nursed him. He was brought to her and began to recover immediately. Over a course of months, he was weaned away from her, as if off a drug. Eventually, Eugene learned to live contentedly in the present. His nostalgia had been cured.
Ours has resurfaced on a vast scale. Across the developed world, people and movements are reaching back to an often illusory past trying to chart the future through a form of retreat. From Trump to Brexit and beyond – we’ve collectively entered a funhouse time machine trudging backward.
The current political moment might be called the new Age of Nostalgia. The question is – can we break ourselves of the habit? Though he references it constantly, it has proven difficult to pin U.S. president-elect Donald Trump down on when, exactly, America was last “great.”
During the election campaign, the question was put directly to him by NBC. “Great slogan,” Trump first blurted out, in a sort of twisted tautology. But when was the last time America was great?
“I would say during the administration of Ronald Reagan you felt proud to be an American. You felt really proud,” Trump said. “I don’t think that, since then, to any great extent, people were proud.”
This is nostalgia as an echo of itself. Reagan’s campaign slogan was also “Let’s make America great again.” Like Trump, Reagan followed a president whose political rationale was a cautious hopefulness that things might be getting better. Like Trump, he undid his predecessor without benefit of a real vision. His version of progress was an attack on the future.
Jimmy Carter helped enormously in this effort. Near the end of his only term, in the midst of an energy crisis, he delivered a deeply unpopular wake-up call to the country.
In his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, Carter touched on many of the themes that would define U.S. politics for the coming decades – Washington insularity, a weakening in family values and religious observance, as well as the gauzy ideal of American “unity.” The polemic was specifically about oil, but more generally about decline.
He framed his argument in terms of building on the past. But what was heard was Carter’s dismissal of those who wanted to return there permanently. “For the first time in the history of our country, a majority of people believe that the next five years will be worse than the last five years,” Carter warned.
That address would later widely be seen as the beginning of the end of Carter’s administration. All Reagan – a man pulled from Hollywood westerns, and therefore a sort of living embodiment of American nostalgia – had to do was publicly scoff. It remains an effective strategy.
This magical populism remains an alluring idea buried in our psyche – things were good once. Rather than build on that, we might instead try recreating it. This past spring, polling company Morning Consult tried to determine when, exactly, Americans thought their country had last been great.
The answers varied broadly based on political affiliation, race and socioeconomic standing, but there was a strong overarching pull toward the era of the respondents’ youths. People born in the thirties and forties tend to think the fifties were best. Those born in the sixties and seventies favoured the eighties. And those from the eighties and nineties preferred a time just 20 years ago. Few thought things were “great” now, and fewer still thought they were getting greater soon.
Unsurprisingly, events do not inform our sentimentality. Our place in them does. Whenever we were young and hopeful and just beginning to figure life out – that’s when things were best. Even if they weren’t. The disillusionment that comes with age is projected onto society. Nothing is ever really our fault. Rather, it’s the times we live in that are to blame.
It is a peculiarity of politics that nostalgia only works in opposition to something. Reagan had Carter. Trump had Obama. In Britain, Brexit had the modern vision of the country to tilt against, rather than any one person. The move to sever that nation from a largely successful European project was an overt appeal to time travel.
“The dream of Brexit isn’t that we might make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it’s a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday,” wrote AA Gill, in an excoriating précis of the Out-ist mindset. “In the Brexit fantasy, the best we can hope for is to kick out all the work-all-hours foreigners and become caretakers to our own past in this self-congratulatory island of moaning pomposity.
The same ideas, filtered through various national strainers into an edible sludge palatable to the good-old-days culture particular to that region, are now being served all over Europe. They aren’t yet winning en masse, but they are getting a serious hearing everywhere.
Whether or not you agree with Gill’s assessment, it puts its finger on the key problem of nostalgia as a viable route forward – it points to a place that did not quite exist, and certainly not in the form we recall.
Sigmund Freud called this tendency “screen memory.” Think back on your fondest childhood recollection. Usually, it is reassuring and warm. In all likelihood, it is remarkably detailed. Almost too real to be credited.
According to Freud, that’s because it is. This singular touchstone in your life is instead an amalgamation of several memories, pastiched into one “screen memory” – one that covers the others. In the process, negative feeling is removed.
For Christians, this drive to rewrite early life is especially strong at this time of year.
“Religious practices may be viewed as an immersion in institutionalized nostalgia – unchanged over the millennia, hence gratifying nostalgic wishes,” psychiatrist Alan Hirsch writes. “This explains how the intertwining of religion with the major holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter) achieves the greatest impact and relief of nostalgic drives.”
The Adult You may remember, in crystalline form, the buoyant excitement of coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. You are less likely to recall the fistfight with your brother a half-hour later or squabbles around the dinner table.
In essence, while time is healing all wounds, it is also redeeming all memories. Eventually, what might actually have been bad begins to seem good. Or certainly better than the fresh wounds of today. It also sets patterns of behaviour. Freudian psychoanalysts believe this is why we often repeat the misfortunes of childhood – seeking out comfort in dysfunction, if that was the way we were raised.
That might be the best lens through which to consider Trump and his fellow travellers – as peddlers of false memories and delusory reassurance.