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Nostalgia

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Dr. Johannes Hofer

In 1688, young Swiss physician Johannes Hofer announced he’d identified a new disease.  He introduced this disease as mal du pays, but also referred to it as mal du Suisse and Schweizerheimweh.  The term mal du pays is still used in modern French, but it has come to mean homesickness.  What Hofer was trying to identify was something a little different, which was the earliest use of what we now call nostalgia.

The word nostalgia was coined from two Greek words: νόστος (/nɔsˌ tos/ or NOS tos), meaning homecoming, borrowed directly from Homer’s Odyssey, and ἄλγος (/alˌ ɡos/ or AL gos), meaning ache.  The other two terms, mal du Suisse  and Schweizerheimweh applied to Dr. Hofer’s definition because they translate specifically as “sickness for Switzerland”.  The idea wasn’t that Switzerland made anyone sick, but rather, it was being away from Switzerland that was the root of the problem.  Hofer used this term to describe something he noticed among Swiss mercenaries who often left home to fight wars in France and Italy. Symptoms of nostalgia included fainting, stomach pains, fevers and death, and the disease was identified early on by a soldier’s increased pining for his homeland.  This was exacerbated by the stark differences in the landscapes where the mercenaries fought. Instead of the high mountains and cooler temperatures, they suffered in the different landscapes of France and Italy, which tended to be flatter and warmer. (France and Italy have their mountains, too, but this didn’t seem to occur to Dr. Hofer or other physicians at the time.)  Dr. Hofer’s colleagues theorized that it was perhaps the constant clanking of the cowbells in Swiss pastures that damaged soldiers’ brain cells and led to this unfortunate condition in the first place.

Cowbells are no more unique to Switzerland than they are to Blue Öyster Cult.  While repeated tolling of cowbells could have an effect on one’s mental health, the connection between them and homesickness has not borne out in modern medicine.  In Swiss military companies, the disease was seen as being aggravated by thoughts of home, so there were strict punishments in force in many cases for soldiers who sang Swiss folk songs.

It didn’t take too long to work out that nostalgia wasn’t unique to the Swiss, but it continued for some time to be seen as a malady that affects soldiers.  Doctors continued to study nostalgia over the next century, and it even made its way into the annals of military medicine as a not uncommon disease. (Yes, it was thought of as a disease in the truest sense of the word.  Not a contagious one, but a definite that affected people in certain situations.) Soldiers and sailors were sent home sometimes throughout the 18th century if a doctor diagnosed them with nostalgia. Such a diagnosis was usually looked at with scorn, as if the man who had it was too weak to be a man or to deal with the difficulties that life might deal you.  There were cases of doctors prescribing discharge from the military and patients reviving right away, so… maybe there was something to this?

Doctors took nostalgia research seriously for some time.  Until the middle of the 19th century, the medical community regularly looked for a nostalgia bone.  Not a bone that was heretofore undiscovered, but rather an existing bone that might be the locus for nostalgia, that they might better identify what causes it.  Interest in nostalgia as a medical diagnosis started fading after that, though there were still occasional diagnoses of it in the militaries of Europe and the United States as late as the 1870s.  And though doctors stopped giving nostalgia discharges, it was still a much-talked about topic among military doctors as late as World War II, and was recognized as a serious condition in many militaries, particularly in that of the United States.  By this time, it wasn’t seen so much as a disease but as a chronic kind of melancholy, and one that led to measurable problems like desertion, suicide, and lower troop morale.

The modern military does not recognize nostalgia as a medical condition, nor do doctors or even psychologists.  In fact, despite the negative associations within the word’s etymology (it does, after all, literally translate as homesickness), the modern notion of the word is usually seen as something positive (while homesickness is seen as a different concept).  A person who embraces nostalgia with their past is more likely to be open to new experiences, since nostalgia provides a kind of rich soil to plant one’s roots in.  In light of the accelerated pace of change in modern times, there’s less of the past to hold onto in the outside world than there used to be. For the past 150 years, popular culture has changed more rapidly than it had previously; the popular music of 1910 was way out of date for people born in 1940; if you were born in 1955, you had a completely different experience of popular music from someone born in 1970; if you were born in 1970, you had a completely different popular culture from someone born in 1990.  It didn’t used to be this way. Times have always changed, but they haven’t always changed this rapidly. Nostalgia could probably always have served as a balm for people who feel anxious because the world around them has changed more than they wished it had, but as change comes faster and faster, something stable to hold onto becomes more and more valuable, even if that something is only in your mind.

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