Bill Long 10/10/06
Going Beyond Sentiment
Anyone asked to explain the term "nostalgia" would seemingly have a simple task before her. She could take a dictionary such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate (11th ed.), the standard dictionary in use today, and read as follows:
"1. the state of being homesick: HOMESICKNESS 2. a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition."
Nostalgia, therefore, has a clear signification. It is that wistful yearning for home, that sentimentalizing of a past which one wants, but seemingly is unable, to recover. Nostalgia is a state of mind which saddens us even as it makes alive the inclination to long for some other time or place.
This is all well and good, but the OED tells us that this is only one of two definitions of nostalgia and, in fact, this definition has only been in use for a little over a century. For more than 200 years prior to this signification of nostalgia was a medical/psychological condition. Indeed nostalgia was considered such a severe medical condition that it could, without more, be grounds for release from the armed services. Without proper treatment, it was believed, nostalgia could lead to death. The Swiss were thought to be especially susceptible to it. The purpose of this and the next two essays is to explore this medical and psychological use of nostalgia between 1675, when it first appeared in a German treatise, to around 1900, when it was crowded out of psychological vocabulary under the growing dominance of Freudian terminology. I am indebted to Prof. George Rosen, whose 1975 article in Psychological Medicine (vol. 5, 340-54) probed this issue.
Inventing the Term
Though the OED gives 1756 as the first appearance of the term in English (in a translation of a German work), in fact it was invented in a dissertation published in 1678 at Basel by the physician Johannes Hofer. The OED is technically correct because the word nostalgia first appeared in a German, and not an English, work. Here is the relevant (1678) passage:
"Until now Heimweh (i.e., homesickness), this often fatal illness, has not been described by physicians, although it very much deserves to be. I have, therefore, tried to sketch its history. The German name indicates the pain which the sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again. For this reason, because of the Swiss in France who are affected by this illness, the French called it maladie du pays. Since it has no Latin name, I have called it nostalgia (from nostos, return to one's native land, and algos, pain or distress)."
Though one might get the impression from this passage that nostalgia is made up of Latin words, it actually is comprised of two Greek terms.
What is significant from this definition is the connection of nostalgia with Swiss people in France. Yet, as Rosen goes on to show, the Spaniards also had a term for it, el mal de corazon--the sickness of the heart. A person who suffered from el mal de corazon was estar roto, to be broken. Though Hofer's quotation introduces the term, he acknowledges the phenomenon has been around for a while. A reasonable suggestion is that language to describe it emerged in the context of the the 30 Years War (1618-1648), and the first association of it with the Swiss was probably related to the prevalence of Swiss mercenaries all over Europe at the time.
Though homesickness in a military context may explain a good deal of the word's origin, Hofer doesn't want to limit it in this way:
"The persons most susceptible to this disease are young people living in foreign lands, and among them especially those who at home lead a very secluded life and have almost no social intercourse. When such individuals, even well-bred children, come among other peoples, they are unable to accustom themselves to any foreign manners and way of life, nor to forget the maternal care received. They are apprehensive and find pleasure only in sweet thoughts of the fatherland, until the foreign country becomes repugnant to them, or suffering various inconveniences they think night and day of returning to their native land and when prevented from so doing, they fall ill."
Trying to Explain Nostalgia
What fascinates me is the medical explanation Hofer advanced to explain the etiology and symptoms of nostalgia. He believed that nostalgia resulted from a "disordered imagination." How so? Well, in Hofer's view, the inner part of the brain is the region where vital spirits surge back and forth through nerve fibers in which the impressions of the native land are stored. As a person focuses more and more attention on the native land, the vital spirits move in these channels more and more and, as it were, carve deeper furrows in the brain. These vital spirits then take the same path again and again and begin to sap all of the energy of the brain. Thus is explained the indifference a person suffering from nostalgia feels for almost everything else--the pathways or furrows of the brain are occupying all the brain's vital fluids. Vital spirits, therefore, cannot flow in sufficient quantity elsewhere--which leads to poor digestion, thinner blood, feeble movements, a slower heartbeat, increased anxiety and, ultimately, death. As Hofer concludes, "Experience shows that imagination alone can cause all this." Indeed, my comment to all this it that it takes quite an imagination to come up with the "disordered imagination" theory!
Can the condition be treated? Possibly. Hofer realizes that the yearning must be satisfied. If this doesn't happen, sickness or death may ensue. What to do? Well, one can administer a purgative to get rid of the poorly digested food. Venesection (the process of cutting open a vein) could sometime be used. Sometimes narcotic mixtures were recommended. Entertaining company should be employed to take his mind off his condition. However, if all else fails, the only thing left was for the patient to be sent home, for experience almost always shows that this effects a cure. If he is not sent home, there is a good chance that he will die.
I have spent so much time on expositing Hofer's approach to nostalgia not only because he invented the term, but also because he described it as a medical problem. Hence, when later writers use the term, their field of linguistic possibilities will be limited. Nostalgia was thus a medical condition, brought on by a disordered imagination, and manifest in people who were away from either homeland or their familiar surroundings. It could be an acute condition resulting in death. Thus, if all else fails, the physician recommended sending the sufferer from nostalgia back home.
The next essay shows how this approach became incorporated into medical dictionaries and treatises in the 18th century.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long