Back to list






Denise Riley

This piece is featured from this year’s Worlds festival. Also on site, from the provocations we have: Akhil Sharma’s ‘Nostalgia’, and James Scudamore’s ‘The Ecstasy of Impossibility’. In addition, we have Sharlene Teo’s reflection on the event, ‘Nostalgia and its Discontents’. Finally, as a special treat, we have Bae Su-Ah’s meditation on the experience of translating W. G. Sebald into Korean, ‘After Sebald – A Tribute’.

BROMIDE – meaning a [verbal] sedative, inducing a detached sleepiness, like that caused by bromide salts.

I’ve tried and tried with our assigned topic, but for myself, I can’t find a good word to say for nostalgia … and if I detected it in my own work, I’d know that something had gone severely awry.  I’d need to set fire to it.  Of course, this may indicate my own badly warped sensibility. Certainly my strong suspicion of nostalgia co-exists with the fact that, like most people, I’m preoccupied with retracing the past, brooding about it, retrieving and reinterpreting it.

But I’d suggest that today’s notion of ‘nostalgia’ should be carefully demarcated from the search to retrieve what is lost, and indeed from ‘Heimweh’ itself, the pain of the loss of home.  For these aren’t identical to ‘nostalgia’ – even if historically they may have been closer, and are often still taken to mean the same.  So that’s why I want to note the wedge, however apparently slim, between nostalgia and ‘Heimweh.’

Nostalgia’s a notion which, by now, is too crammed with differing elements for its own good; if it’s a portmanteau word, it bulges unbecomingly at the seams.  It’s historically labile; so we could distinguish between those inexhaustible kinds of longing, retracing one’s steps, or retrievals which are indeed ‘universal’ hopes, and are enacted in the classical literature of voyages, descents into hell like Dante and his companion Virgil, or the wandering Aeneas, or Odysseus getting back to Ithaca after all his journeying, or the longings of Orpheus to fetch back the dead Eurydice, or the psalmist’s exiles remembering Zion while weeping by the waters of Babylon, or the mythical Golden Age of Hesiod, or in pastoral poetry, the retrospective glances of the renaissance to the classical age – all of which evince endless rewinding and disinterrals, of digging up the past, if not the dead themselves. Then we could think of the sharp longings in the literature of our contemporaries, the current interest in historical palimpsests.  We can all make up a considerable list of our literary candidates for retrospection.  But what is meant today by the word ‘nostalgia’ seems not to be identical with these forms of retrospection and reminiscence.

Isn’t there a peculiar air to the current use of nostalgia, an air which escapes us if we think of it as simply a longing to regain the past?  Nostalgic feelings depend on the luxury of having a past that you yearn to retrieve, rather than one that you’ve managed to  escape, with relief – or that you’ll recall, if you must, with dismay. Or with horror.

Even in easier circumstances, the act of nostalgic distancing sanitizes as it selects. Its invoked past is hardly the past as experienced.[i]  Perhaps that is its point.  For how do we ever know that the past is over?  Is nostalgia perhaps a means of establishing, if artificially, the past as past – by purveying it as more safely finished, more ‘sealed off’ than it actually is? Nostalgia may achieve its air of  ‘completion’ by smoothing over, like a tranquilliser, what’s raw and jagged.

Theodor Adorno remarked; ‘Today it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s own home’.[ii]This very word ‘nostalgia’ seems vaguely blurred, and also synthetic – it’s a coinage to dignify the existing and sharper ‘Heimweh’, which is a compound of the German words for ‘home’ and ‘pain’.  The origins of the word, as I’m sure we’ve all ascertained, were quasi-medical: it was invented in 1688 as a weighty-sounding medical condition, by Johannes Hofer, a medical student interested in the plight of distraught Swiss mercenary soldiers removed from their mountain peaks and deployed on the plains.  Some military physicians felt that their malady stemmed from their brains and eardrums, damaged by the constant clanging of cowbells.  This illness would be cured by a promise of their return home.  Gradually, though, it slid into being viewed as a psychological state, which was beyond practical help.[iii]  It became a cast of mind, rather than a treatable medical pathology.This familiar history of  nostalgia’s emergence suggests that it’s undergone both a dilution, and a spread.  WHY do we find this virus of a weakened nostalgia so rampant now? And what [if any] is its cousinship to the rise of other currently popular but often indiscriminately watered-down categories, such as ‘Trauma’?  Or, if differently, the case of  the enfeebled versions of ‘Irony’?

We have reasons to wonder about the sources of the cloudy vagueness, even the saccharine quality, pervasive in the contemporary invoking of  ‘nostalgia’.  For nostalgia is NOT the same as the search for a past unearthed by memory. It is NOT a straightforward longing for some lost good. What’s going on by the waters of Babylon is a far more complex feeling than is adequately indicated by the term ‘nostalgia’.  For nostalgia doesn’t simply repeat or duplicate memory.  In fact, it may distort or evade the real work of memory.


 Criticisms of contemporary nostalgia:

‘Nostalgia Critic’ is the name of an American TV show in which a young comedian, Doug Walker, reviews the movies of his childhood, and feels dismayed by how badly they hold up.  [You can see it on YouTube.]  His opening catchphrase is “I’m the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it, so you don’t have to.”

This comical appeal to nostalgia as vicarious is especially apt; nostalgia, in itself, has a hint of the ‘ready-made’, so you don’t have to exert yourself.  It has an ersatz quality.  Then can we ask if nostalgia is an honourable emotion?  Or – is it an ‘emotion’ at all, in fact, or is it more of an ascribed mood, which exists only in the ascription?  Is it almost a ‘literary’ emotion or mood – I mean, literary in the pejorative sense?

Yet maybe nobody is truly attracted by it.  Maybe nobody seriously subscribes to it.  It’s perhaps a euphemism for a kind of consent to a mild self-deception …

Susan Stewart’s book ‘On Longing’ calls nostalgia a “social disease”: she’s sure that it’s ideological and is caught up in a conservative narrative; she emphasises its “lack of authenticity.”35  And she views it as a ‘sadness without an object’, or as a kind of utopian feeling which is hostile to actually lived history.

If we wanted to produce a speedy, perhaps a caricatured, slice of this nostalgia, we could cite these remarks from a former British conservative prime Minister, John Major: ‘Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers, and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” […]’.  And yet the characterisation isn’t so easy as all that; Major’s was a heavily strategic speech to the Conservative Group for Europe, in 1993; in it, he was endorsing Britain’s membership of European Union.  This quotation concludes ‘Surely we trust our own integrity as a people, quite enough to fear nothing in Europe.’  We needn’t labour the ironies of recent history here.


I’ll mention some [ambiguous] defences of nostalgia:

How can you be nostalgic for a condition or a place that you never inhabited, or which has let you down? What myth of origins is this? The French philosopher Barbara Cassin thinks it’s all to do with the power of your mother tongue, even though you may dislike that country intensely [for instance, Hannah Arendt exiled in America, recalling and missing her native German language].  To be rootless and wandering can, Barbara Cassin thinks, produce a nostalgia that’s not to do with belief in a national identity, but with, she says, an imagined home that we carry around with us, which constantly changes. This is called ‘language.’ [iv]  The maternal language.  [Why, by the way, is the feminine standard here; why not the ‘father tongue’?]

However, some cultural historians and literary theorists do defend nostalgia as a useful and a humane kind of consolation.  Thus Dennis Walder writes ‘Often seen as merely escapist, nostalgia also offers solace and self-understanding for those displaced by the larger movements of our time.’[v] And so a ‘critical productive nostalgia’ can result.  But E.J. Hobsbawm has described the matter rather neutrally, as a “twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalized record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life”. [vi]

‘Twilight’ does seem to be a good rendition.  How though could we run an actual defence of nostalgia?  Some might try to argue that it’s close not only to a longing for consolation – but to a hope for reparation – of redrawing some line you took that went awry, so now you’ll try to retrace your steps, to fetch up in a better place, where you could rework the sequence of events but this time with a happier outcome.  Others might condemn this as flagrant fantasising.

In fact, the only interesting aspect of nostalgia may be its particular sort of retrospection, and its skewed temporal emotionality.

It can, with an odd elasticity, become a nostalgia for the future.  To re-state your self-understanding, perhaps, to become that which you always felt you should have been.


The standard literary exemplars of nostalgia aren’t always born out on closer reading:

Some of the most obvious poetic candidates for nostalgia turn out not to be so – A. E. Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ may seem to be the classic phrase.  But the poem is not nostalgic at all, in fact; it’s a statement about violent and absolute loss.

From A Shropshire Lad [1896]

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Nor is Housman’s other well-known lyric, ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ a case of nostalgia; it’s also a poem about what you can do, or rather you will fail to do, in the face of utterly lost time.  It is, in fact, biting.

Even what seems to be a weaker poetry of recollection – like Rupert Brooke’s 1912 Grantchester poem [‘Stands the church clock at ten to three’] turns out to be a most curious and self-parodying thing, in which far more is going on than mere ‘nostalgia’.  These poems, by the way, precede the First World War, which is sometimes held to be the reasonable genesis, and occasion of, nostalgia. Their chronology undoes that supposition.


I’ll conclude with a stanza from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘The Eye-Mote’:

‘What I want back is what I was
Before the bed, before the knife,
Before the brooch-pin and the salve
Fixed me in this parenthesis;
Horses fluent in the wind,
A place, a time gone out of mind.’

But actually – what I want back may well be what I hadn’t, and wasn’t.  The outcome, I think, of Sylvia Plath’s great line: ‘What I want back is what I was’ is that, on  reflection, you may well find that you were never that at all, in the first place. There was no clear point in time at which you once stood in fully confident possession of your health, your love, your good looks, your mind, or whatever.

This line, if taken in a general sense, reaches for an impossible wholeness, achieved through a retrieval stretching into the far past.  We’re in the larger air of any identification-ridden moment which lays claim to have discovered what it is now through its compelling onrush of feeling what it was then.[vii]

Although what does it really matter, this lament that now we no longer have something which may [never really] have had then?  But the grand collective designations of nation, ethnicity, religion – identifications which can operate to devastating effect – might rest on the same retrospective identifications, on the same saturation in fantasy that supports nostalgia.  How many kinds of unhelpful identification depend on an urge to consolation; on the supposition that since we can’t be certain of being it or of having it in the present, then we must have been it, or must have had it, in the past?

More cheerfully, I’ll stop with this stanza from Billy Collins’ poem, entitled ‘Nostalgia’:

‘The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.’


[i] Marcus Aurelius, not a man for nostalgia, advocates nipping self-sorrow in the bud, in favour of paying a scrupulous attention to living in the world at this very second: ‘Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.’[i]  This conviction that we live best as we live bodily – in the now – wipes out nostalgia, hermeneutics, and all compulsive unearthing of genealogies and determining psychologies.

[ii] in Minima Moralia

[iii]   Kant in his 1798 lecture series, ‘Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View’, reconsidered nostalgia as a lament for lost time rather than lost place; the former is irrecoverable, and has no solution.

[iv] ‘Alors, de quoi sommes-nous nostalgiques ? Non pas d’un chez-soi immuable (comme la propagande sur l’identité nationale veut nous le faire croire), mais d’une maison imaginaire, que nous transportons avec nous, qui ne cesse de changer et qui s’appelle «la langue»’.

[v]  Dennis Walder, 2011. In Susannah Radstone’s chapter, ‘Nostalgia and Productive Remembering’

[vi] (cited in Walder, 2011, 2).

[vii] This is close to what Joan Scott, writing about retrospective identifications in nineteenth century history (with regard to feminism’s periodic embrace of a glowing and maternalist unity of ‘women’) has termed the phenomenon of the ‘fantasy echo’ whereby ‘echo is not so much a symptom of the empty, illusory nature of otherness as it is a reminder of the temporal inexactness of fantasy’s condensations.’[vii]

Add new comment


Post as Guest