The Promise of Nostalgia

The word nostalgia implies an escape to a rosy past that never
actually existed–a fantasy time when the skies were never cloudy,
the lilacs were always in bloom, and hopelessly romantic dreams
routinely came true.

Yet British psychiatrist Trevor Turner points out in The New
(Nov. 1997) that nostalgia entered our
language as a medical term describing the psychological condition
of soldiers who had spent too much time away from home. The word
comes from the Greek nostos (return home) and algos
(pain). ‘Treatises were written on the symptoms and diagnosis, the
causes and treatments,’ Turner writes. ‘It was agreed that…the
only effective management was the nostos, the journey back

That something treated as a depressive disorder as recently as
World War II can today be dismissed as a silly, sentimental mood
says much about how we view the world. A trip back home now seems
as impossible as travel to the moon once did. It’s almost
guaranteed that the place where you grew up, the campus where you
went to school, the spot where you first whispered ‘I love you’ to
your future mate doesn’t look the same anymore. We don’t have any
expectations of the past being there for us–nostalgia has morphed
from a longing for home to a hopeless pining for never-never

Leaders in universities, the media, and business have always
been dismissive of nostalgia, even the harmless sentimental
variety, notes Rutgers University historian Jackson Lears. ‘For
centuries,’ he writes in Lingua Franca (Dec. 1997), ‘it’s
been the bete noire of every forward-thinking intellectual, right,
left, or center.’

That’s because it defies the modern ideology of Progress–the
cherished belief that the future always represents an improvement
over the past. ‘From the viewpoint of American liberal
intellectuals,’ Lears writes, ‘nostalgic people suffered from a
failure of nerve: They refused the challenges of modern industrial
society, taking refuge in dreams of lost innocence.’ Conservatives,
Lears adds, take an equally dim view of anyone pondering if the
world might have been better in some ways before the advent of
global, corporate capitalism.

By contrast, Lears notes the continuing appeal of
nostalgia–from Happy Days reruns to Civil War
paraphernalia–for everyday Americans and wonders why this should
cause such consternation among intellectual elites: ‘Surely the
longing for times lost deserves to be treated as more than a
symptom of intellectual weakness. Surely the devotees of a past
Golden Age deserve as much credibility as those whose Golden Age
lies in the future. Why grant legitimacy to one form of
sentimentality and not the other?’

Nostalgia, he says, doesn’t necessarily mean a retreat from the
future; it might actually aid us in efforts to create a better
society. The environmental movement, for instance, has shown that
the pursuit of progress sometimes causes more problems than it
solves. ‘Renewed respect for nostalgia could provide a powerful
antidote to linear notions of progress–by underwriting the
conviction that once, at least in some ways, life was more humane
and satisfying than it is today,’ he writes.

‘There is no doubt that nostalgia can cripple serious thought,’
Lears admits–just as blind allegiance to progress can. But it can
also offer an important insight often overlooked in the hurly-burly
of our quest for technological and economic innovation: ‘the
recognition that something of value might have been lost on the way
to the present.

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