What Is Nostalgia

Johannes HoferNostalgia is a word that was invented by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student, in his 1688 dissertation titled “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia.” He combined two Greek roots: nostos, or return home, plus algia, or suffering. So together we get homesickness–the common synonym for nostalgia in many dictionaries.

Commonly thought of as a yearning for the recent past, or homesickness due to present losses, nostalgia is a deceptively complex word that, like an umbrella, covers a wide range of personal and collective feelings about the collision between the past and the present. But nostalgia is also about the future, characterized by, especially, the tension between looking toward the past for traditional answers and looking toward the future for hope. The simultaneous presence of peculiarly modern forms of destabilization and recurrent desires for stabilization produces this tension. 

Nostalgia helps frame the past in terms of present experience. Nostalgia illuminates the historical context of the actual and perceived loss of home. But what is more, when public pasts fuse with private feelings in stories of historical change (real or imagined stories), nostalgia informs and structures decision-making and ultimately it reconfigures identity. Nostalgia is not amnesia, but rather, it is a complex use of the past during present moments of crisis.

3 Comments on “What Is Nostalgia

  1. I have a couple of questions or difficulties I’d like to discuss:

    First of all, it seems that nostalgia today is easily substituted by ‘longing’; a nostalgia deprived of place and time. But can that still fall under nostalgia, especially when following the concept’s historical development?

    Second, nostalgia is often seen as a human condition, and as a human condition potentially everybody could fall nostalgic.
    But how about cultures that do not follow a linear sense of time but for whom the past is part of the present. Chase and Shaw consider a chronological sense of time a precondition for nostalgia. But, often also traditional cultures are no longer either – or, but rather they incorporate kind of a hybrid sense of time.

    Third, what about the simulacra and nostalgic worlds?

    • Thanks for the questions. Here are my first thoughts:

      1. Nostalgia is a specific type of longing that yokes home, family, and environment together. To de-link nostalgia from time and place is to break the tether between a person and their specific feelings–feelings which may be borrowed, invented, or real–but nontheless feelings that make a difference in how a person makes decisions. A nostalgia without a connection to time and place may be seen as some sort of generalized “modern” nostalgia, a type that Svetlana Boym discusses as “restorative nostalgia,” a type of nationalistic/mythic nostalgia, but that is not what interests me. I like to work on the system of inputs surrounding the individual, and how they make decisions based on feelings of nostalgia.

      2. Yes, I do think that every person has the potential to feel nostalgia. Examine the many languages that have some version of nostalgia–check out chapter 2 of Milan Kundera’s novel “Ignorance.”

      I am familiar with Shaw and Chase., And I find it hard to swallow their twenty-year-old idea that certain cultures do not understand time or the past or chronology. Time feels different in New York City and in New Orleans. Humans have memory; and memory is variable. Memory is certainly culturally inflected, but to say that a culture doesn’t have the ability to feel nostalgia seems Eurocentric.

      3. I will have to get back to you on these terms as I have run to a meeting.



  2. Hello,
    I am currently in my second year studying Interior Design and have the task of investigating the notion of Nostalgia to then present in an essay – naturally I found this post really interesting and was wondering if you would be able to contribute and more theorists/theories? I was also wondering what the simulacra and nostalgic worlds are as they sound rather fascinating! Any extra thoughts would be hugely helpful as i am trying to gather as wide a collection of information and opinions as I can 🙂
    Many Thanks,

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