"Hypochondria of the Heart"

In 1688 a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, identified a new medical syndrome, nostalgia: "the sad mood originating from the desire for return to one's native land." Various displaced Swiss of the seventeenth century suffered from the disease--students from the Republic of Berne studying in Basel; domestics working in France and Germany; soldiers fighting abroad. The nostalgia syndrome removed people from present reality. Sufferers took on a lifeless and haggard countenance, became indifferent to their surroundings, confused past and present, and even hallucinated voices and ghosts.

"It was considered a curable disease," says professor of Slavic languages and literatures and comparative literature Svetlana Boym, Ph.D. '88, who has spent years studying the different manifestations of nostalgia. Once called "a hypochondria of the heart," nostalgia has now become an experience that nearly all adults can recognize. Boym's recent work, The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books), explores nostalgia's value as well as its snares.

Doctors once prescribed such remedies for nostalgia as purging, opium, leeches, and "warm hypnotic emulsions." Best of all for the Swiss was a return to the Alps. (In 1733, a Russian army officer allegedly found another cure for nostalgia among his troops. He buried a nostalgic soldier alive, quickly cutting the syndrome's prevalence.) Today, we no longer hope for a cure. The "passing ailment" has turned into "the incurable modern condition," writes Boym. "The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia," she writes, "and ended with nostalgia."

Globalization and the accelerated pace of modern life have deepened nostalgic longings. "Nostalgia tries to slow down time, to resist progress," Boym says. She observes that movements opposed to globalization often include the word "slow" in their names: "In Italy, there's a 'slow food' movement." The emergence of a monolithic global consumer culture has also strengthened nostalgic attachment to national, regional, and local ways of life. "You think about local culture only when you think you're losing it," she asserts.

A native of St. Petersburg, Boym has returned to Russia 10 times since emigrating two decades ago. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Soviet Union crumbled, she witnessed a "memory boom"--a confrontation with history--there: "People were recovering documents, opening archives, filling blank holes in history." But by the mid 1990s, she says, the memory boom turned into nostalgia for "great Russia." Just as America has its Elvis impersonators, many Lenin impersonators emerged in Russia.

Politically and personally, "Nostalgia can involve forgetting trauma," she declares. "The past can't be recaptured, and it never really was the way you recall it. Homesickness can also be 'sickness of home.' We are nostalgic for our idyllic school days, but we forget that some days, we hated our school."

Boym distinguishes two types of nostalgia. "Reflective nostalgia," while grounded in longing, contemplating, and remembering, does not attempt to restore the past. "You don't deny your longing, but you reflect on it somehow," she says. "It's a positive force that helps us explore our experience, and can offer an alternative to an uncritical acceptance of the present."

In contrast, Boym sees danger in "restorative nostalgia," which "is not about memory and history but about heritage and tradition. It's often an invented tradition--a dogmatic, stable myth that gives you a coherent version of the past. Generally it's far removed in time, even prehistoric, as in the German myths that Wagner used for his operas."

Or consider the American myths that Disney and other developers enshrine in theme parks. "The commercial overproduction of souvenirs means that you're inculcated with nostalgia before you're even old enough to feel nostalgic," Boym muses. While she favors globalization, she prefers a model that is not solely a function of popular culture and import-export economics. Such "globalization with a human face" might include time off from the treadmill of progress. One value of reflective nostalgia, Boym says, is its defense of idleness and of recapturing leisure time. "Time is money," she says, "but we want time that is not money."

~Craig Lambert

Svetlana Boym e-mail address: [email protected]

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

You might also like

The Roman Empire’s Cosmopolitan Frontier

Genetic analysis reveals a culture enriched from both sides of the Danube.

Tobacco Smoke and Tuberculosis

Harvard researchers illuminate a longstanding epidemiological connection. 

Discourse and Discipline

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences broaches two tough topics.

Most popular

All but the Art

After a multiyear renovation, Harvard Art Museums make ready for a November reopening.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Fall travel to New England’s seacoast offers art, history, biking, and great restaurants

Unleashing Harvard’s Art Museums

Harvard’s Art Museums reopen, poised to fulfill their pedagogical purpose.

More to explore

Illustration of a box containing a laid-off fossil fuel worker's office belongings

Preparing for the Energy Transition

Expect massive job losses in industries associated with fossil fuels. The time to get ready is now.

Apollonia Poilâne standing in front of rows of fresh-baked loaves at her family's flagship bakery

Her Bread and Butter

A third-generation French baker on legacy loaves and the "magic" of baking

Illustration that plays on the grade A+ and the term Ai

AI in the Academy

Generative AI can enhance teaching and learning but augurs a shift to oral forms of student assessment.