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.
Reflective nostalgia, on the contrary, is self-aware, and as such operates as the template for Boym’s general approach in this book. Reflective nostalgia ‘dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging’ and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. It involves social rather than national memories; it can awaken ‘multiple planes of consciousness’, driving people ‘to narrate the relationship between past, present and future’. It offers not a mere pretext for midnight melancholia, but ‘an ethical and creative challenge’. Nostalgia, Boym argues, as long as it recognizes the ‘impossibility of homecoming’, is an acceptable, even obligatory response to the contemporary world, since anything else risks installing its own unacknowledged origin as a false certainty at the heart of some new, authoritarian political project. We are all nostalgic, she claims. The only significant distinction is between those who are aware of it and those who are not. What the twenty-first century needs is to retrieve the utopian elements of the past, the dreams of how it could have been. To do so, it must turn away from the technocratic details of the external world to the ‘mechanisms of consciousness’; for it is in these that an ‘ironic, inconclusive and fragmentary’ kind of truth is to be found, far removed from the self-certainties either of scientific monographs or political programmes.
How does this work in practice? The book’s main engagement is with post-Soviet Russia. Boym is critical of mass nostalgia for the Soviet past, defending the young shock therapists (‘hardly the main culprits’) against what she describes as the ‘popular anger’ directed at them. She disapproves strongly of the young computer hackers who cut into NATO’s website during the Yugoslav war, leaving a picture of Beavis and Butthead and the slogan, ‘From Russia with Love’. This, apparently, is restorative nostalgia. Her own yearning, she confesses, is for the ‘unpredictable, fascinating, disorganized’ time of transition between 1988 and 1991—one of the moments that she sees Mayor Luzhkov’s subsequent commercial make-over of Moscow as attempting to wipe away. Komar and Melamid’s opinion-poll finding for the ‘most-wanted’ Russian painting—a blue landscape with bears and Jesus Christ in the foreground, entitled ‘The Appearance of Jesus before the Bears’—has, she suggests, been almost perfectly realized in Luzhkov’s Moscow, thronged as it is with ‘toy towers, gilded cupolas, fountains and fairy-tale bears’. Yet her discussion of the new architecture is curiously bland. One waits in vain for a withering blast against Tsereteli’s monstrous 200-foot statue of Peter the Great atop a miniaturized galleon, towering over the surrounding landscape; or of the colossal, reinforced-concrete Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, built over a luxury carpark, with a special VIP elevator going straight up to the altar. But ‘reflective nostalgia’ seems to lack the dimension of anger.