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New Left Review 14, March-April 2002


Timothy Bewes on Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia. Are late modern longings for the past always second-rate sentiments, or are they redeemable by irony?

TIMOTHY BEWES

AN ANATOMY OF NOSTALGIA

It was a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, who in 1688 coined the term ‘nostalgia’, from the Greek nostos—return home, and algia—longing. Not so much an ancient passion as a pseudo-classical creation of the early modern world, nostalgia was, Svetlana Boym informs us, first diagnosed among the various displaced persons of the seventeenth century: Swiss mercenaries soldiering abroad; domestic servants working in France and Germany; freedom-loving students from Berne, studying in Basel. As cure, Hofer prescribed opium, leeches and a return to the Alps. It was not until the eighteenth century that poets and philosophers seized nostalgia from the medical men. For the Romantics, the symptoms became a sign of sensibility, or of newly minted patriotic feeling. Herderians discovered that each had their own, apparently untranslatable pang: German Heimweh, French maladie du pays, Spanish mal de corazón, Czech litost, Russian toska, Polish tesknota, Portuguese and Brazilian saudade (‘a tender sorrow, breezy and erotic’), Romanian dor (‘sonorous and sharp’). Modernists responded differently to what Lukács called ‘transcendental homelessness’—Baudelaire, for example, seeking to be chez lui in the perpetual flow of the Parisian crowd. ‘Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths’, Lukács wrote in The Theory of the Novel (1916), when ‘everything is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own.’ This is the nostalgia that interests Boym: not an individual sickness but ‘a historical emotion’, a symptom of our age; a yearning for a different time as much as a faraway place.

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