The vicissitudes of nostalgia
From the Greek nostos meaning to return home, and algos meaning pain, the term nostalgia was coined by the seventeenth-century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer to refer to a potentially fatal homesickness observed first in soldiers estranged from their homeland. As per the narcissist in Freud’s lexicon, characterised by megalomania and the withdrawal of libido from the external world, the nostalgic too is ‘affected by but a few external objects’:
Nostalgia is born from a disorder of the imagination, from which it follows that the nervous sap always takes the very same direction in the brain and, as a result, excites the very same idea, the desire to return to one’s native land… The nostalgic are affected by but few external objects, and nothing surpasses the impression which the desire to return makes on them. (Hofer quoted in Starobinski and Kemp, 87)
With respect to its formative history, then, nostalgia is largely narrated as a condition in which the site of longing is spatially or geographically conceived; which is to say that primacy is given to the environmental ‘Heim’ in Heimweh [the ‘home’ in homesickness] (101). However, greater ambiguity regarding the object of nostalgia is already implied in Hofer’s appreciation of the condition as a ‘disorder of the imagination’, allowing that the site of longing may come to be understood through the mechanisms of fantasy. Starobinski and Kemp draw our attention to Hofer’s observation that the ‘deprivation’ experienced by the nostalgic corresponds to ‘the loss of childhood, of "oral satisfactions," of motherly coaxing’, which, in addition to underlining nostalgia’s affinity with narcissism as the correspondent to the oral phase of libidinal development, suggests that the longed-for site of return refers to a site of temporal specificity – infancy – as much as a particularity of place (87).
The modern subject’s changing relation to the bonds of his homeland begins to account for the exclusion of nostalgia from the medico – diagnostic landscape in modern times. Ongoing processes of industrialisation and urbanisation served to normalise the experience of geographical mobility which formerly had been capable of generating the life-threatening condition of nostalgia. Whereas Hofer saw no cure for the nostalgic, save physical reunion with his homeland, the developing transportation and communication technologies of the nineteenth century altered one’s relationship to home such that one might have thought the desired physical reunion to be unnecessary. In his study of the term’s usage in nineteenth-century France, Michael Roth explains that after the 1870s nostalgia was no longer pertinent as ‘a way of being ill’ because ‘we now lived in a society that allowed us to remain "in touch" with our pasts’ (272). Roth surmises that the waning of nostalgia was conventionally accounted for on the grounds that ‘modernity provided a cure for one of the diseases that it had provoked’ (277-278). As Freud is inclined to remind us, however, the idea that modernity ‘cured’ the problem of nostalgia may be better cast as a victory for the illness of displacement.1
In his late work ‘Civilization and its Discontents’, Freud documents the following advances in science and technology that have brought man close to the ‘fairy-tale wish’ for self-sufficiency: Motor-power, ships, aircraft, spectacles, the telescope and the microscope, the photographic camera, the gramophone disc, and the telephone are some of the achievements of civilisation that facilitate man’s longed-for state of ‘omnipotence and omniscience’ (89-91). But when Freud speaks of man’s ‘newly won power over space and time’ – the very achievements that diminish the force of nostalgia – he does so with ‘pessimistic criticism’:
One would like to ask: is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed? [… ] But here the voice of pessimistic criticism makes itself heard and warns us that most of these satisfactions follow the model of the ‘cheap enjoyment’ extolled in the anecdote – the enjoyment obtained by putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again. If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if travelling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. (1930, 88)
By demonstrating how the advances of civilisation provoke the discontents that they simultaneously offer the means to assuage, Freud ostensibly affirms the idea that ‘modernity provided a cure for one of the diseases that it had provoked’ (Roth, 277-278). However, what is most evident in the above passage is Freud’s pessimistic evaluation of this recompense. His pessimism points in two directions. First, it points to a negative appraisal of the extent to which modern man’s civilising project is inhibited by the demands of the instincts. Second, and somewhat in tension with this note of protest, it points to the futility of ‘progress’ tout court. Haunted by a conception of life driven to return to the stasis of its ‘primaeval, inorganic state’, the critical pessimism in Freud’s late work reminds us that the prospect of social change where the chances of man’s happiness might possibly be improved, sits under the shadow of a metapsychology that gives primacy to the phenomenon of repetition as a manifestation of the desire to ‘refind’ a lost origin (1930, 118).
Although, in modern life, the longed-for site of home becomes ‘inte – riorised’ within the nostalgic’s mind (Starobinski and Kemp), nostalgia remains wholly pertinent to the metaphysics of exile. Edward Casey explains that when nostalgia was undermined by historical change it was then ‘driven in to the underworld of the unconscious, where it survives in the metapsychological rubric of "internalisation"’ (371). He distinguishes between the various mechanisms of fixation and regression and focusses his reading on ‘primal repression’ as the site of ‘fixation to the trauma’ (373). Casey’s account draws out the parallels between nostalgia and the ‘inherently retrogressive’ logic of the mind as Freud conceived it; ‘the human psyche’, he tells us, ‘is as intent upon returning to its traumatic origins in the primally repressed as the homesick traveller is intent upon returning home’ (374). Focussing on the thought put forward in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ and ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through’ – both texts I discuss in further detail below – Casey underlines Freud’s account of memory that foregrounds the principle of retroactive causality. He demonstrates that when repetition becomes a substitute for remembering, the work of ‘memory’ is ‘precisely non-recollective’; hence the past to which nostalgia refers cannot be accounted for by ‘particular topographies of recollected scenes’ (375). This insistence that the object of nostalgia is ‘a past that has never been a present’ recalls from Chapter 1 our discussion of the infant’s most formative relation with the environment (Casey quoting Merleau-Ponty, 364). As the infant’s ‘primary’ condition of monadic self-sufficiency was revealed as an illusion retrospectively created to cover-over an even more primary precariousness, so the narcissist’s subsequent ‘refinding’ of his primary condition could only be a reiteration of an original act of fantasy. What is longed-for in narcissism and nostalgia is a retroactively produced experience of community, where for the narcissist this is a community of at least two which is taken as a feeling of oneness.
It was noted that in expressing his critical pessimism Freud invoked the ‘model of the "cheap enjoyment"’ to explain the increase of pleasure brought about by solving a problem of one’s own creation (‘if there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice’). This is a curious and perhaps somewhat disparaging assessment of satisfaction where Freud leaves his readers unsatisfied in their desire to hear of an alternative (and non-cheap) model of enjoyment: what satisfactions are there, one asks, other than the satisfactions of one’s own making? But, as indicated, what Freud is pointing to here, with the analogy of exposing a bare leg to the cold only in order to draw it back in to the warm, is the futility of technological progress when the ‘daemonic’ and irrepressible character of the death instincts are driving life to ‘return to the absolute repose of the inorganic’ (Laplanche and Pontalis, 102). As an eloquent expression of the absurdity of a repetition compulsion, Freud’s image of exposing and then withdrawing one’s bare leg from the cold immediately puts us in mind of an earlier such expression; a profound though commonplace game that speaks to both the narcissist’s and the nostalgic’s fixation with the lost object, namely the Fort-Da game as described in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920a).