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.
Since 1789, revolutions and restorations have frequently been followed by outbreaks of nostalgia—in part, a process of grieving, she argues, ‘for the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that have become obsolete’. The restoration of 1989 is the crucial one here. Born in Leningrad, Boym left for the US in 1981 and was told at the Soviet border that she would never be able to return. ‘Nostalgia seemed like a waste of time’, she remembers, ‘an unaffordable luxury’. (Later, interviewing other first-generation immigrants to the States, she finds the taboo is common: looking back could paralyse you forever, like Lot’s wife.) Nostalgia catches up with her when she returns to Russia in 1991, but what moves her is not the smell of frying cutlets or the grey drizzle over the Neva. It is the different rhythm of life—the sense that there is time for conversation and reflection. In a perverse outcome of the socialist economy, ‘time was not a precious commodity; the shortage of private space allowed people to make private use of their time’. That is what she misses now. ‘Nostalgically, I thought that the slow rhythm of reflective time made possible the dream of freedom.’
In taking nostalgia as the subject of her new book, Boym is thus addressing a politically charged concept. She suggests that in an age when the ‘constant revolutionizing of production’ has reached a pace disorienting to huge numbers of people, nostalgia has become normalized: ‘we are all nostalgic for a time when we weren’t nostalgic’. In an era of shifting borders, increased population mobility and the consolidation of the principle of planned obsolescence in Western economies, only the least sensitive can claim to be entirely nostalgia-free. It is this sense that informs Boym’s project, and motivates her turn towards the realm of subjective experience. In a world where nostalgia has become paradigmatic, how is it to be analysed objectively—without complicity? Boym’s work proceeds on the premise of a paradox: that the only way to maintain an objective stance towards nostalgia is by subjectively inhabiting it.
This approach takes her a long way from the twentieth-century engagé tradition, which saw nostalgia as the very definition of reaction. Adorno, one of those who took it seriously, wrote of it as determined by a ‘fear of gaping meaninglessness’ before an unstable present, forgetful of the lessons of past horrors, bearing us obliviously towards barbarism. Today, surviving members of that tradition often seem overwhelmed by the perception that, finally, things really have got worse. A generation of intellectuals has sunk, by and large, into unreflective nostalgia for a world of conviction and idealism that ‘no longer exists’.
Boym, however, thinks nostalgia can be prospective as well as retrospective: ‘Considerations of the future make us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales’, and it is the joint future of ‘nostalgic longing and progressive thinking’ that she wants to place at the centre of her work. What has been neglected in the conceptualization of nostalgia, she argues, are the nuances of a subjective relationship to the world that an approach such as Adorno’s obliterates. To retrieve these, she draws a distinction between ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’ nostalgia—splitting the term into its two constituents, nostos and algia, ‘home’ and ‘longing’. Restorative nostalgia, seeking a ‘transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home’, does not recognize itself as such, generating every reactionary version of the sentiment—nationalist, fundamentalist, heritage-fixated, etc. Restorative nostalgia is not concerned to understand its own anxiety, but to dissolve it by recovering truths that inhere in tradition.