Is there any dirtier word than “nostalgia”?

The problems with a politics of nostalgia are widely recognized. In “Blinded By Nostalgia,” Yuval Levin warns against the “grossly incomplete” pictures of the past with which we, in times of uncertainty, might try to stabilize our future. The longing for postwar America, for example, leaves little room for recalling the global and domestic unrest of that era.

Novelist Michael Chabon confesses to a nostalgic impulse—to “the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.” He distances himself from the systems, political and economic, that would “abuse nostalgia to foment violence and move units,” and he understands the dangers inherent in stoking a sentimental affection for the past. But he can’t help mourning the disappearance of the Philly neighborhood in which his parents and aunts and uncles were raised—a world of proximity and togetherness, which remained intact in ways his childhood home, severed by divorce, had not.

Chabon admits to curiosity in examining “the lost utopia that never quite happened, that I never quite knew, that I have never since forgotten and that I have been losing, and longing for, all my life.” Whereas a reference to utopian longings might elsewhere be stigmatized, James Santel instructs readers that we can trust Chabon for his “fair-minded[ness]”: “In Chabon’s hands—and this is his great insight—nostalgia becomes an emotion neither indulged nor abhorred, but rather regarded as a given of the human experience, as comforting and useful as it is inhibiting.” In other words, in our humanness, we are given to nostalgia. But it must be handled with care.

Julie Beck explains in “When Nostalgia Was a Disease” that “el mal de corazón” was the reason for the discharge of at least six Swiss soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War. Because soldiers might suddenly contract a severe case of nostalgia if they heard the Swiss milking song, Khue-Reyen, its playing was forbidden and punishable by death. Decades later, in 1688, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term “nostalgia,” from the Greek: nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nostalgia was commonly diagnosed in people who suffered physically and psychologically from a longing for home. The last mention of nostalgia on a death certificate was in 1918.

Nostalgia, of course, speaks to much more than geographical dislocation. James Wood writes that his expatriation to the United States from England provoked a loss that he hadn’t expected and hasn’t yet found words to explain. At the time of writing the essay, he had been living in the United States for eighteen years, but those years had only heightened his sense of “outsider-dom.” Even as he walks the familiar streets in Boston, he discovers “some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there—just a tugging distance from it all.” But if he returns to England, “there’s a quality of masquerade … as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits.”

Wood is no longer at home in the old country, not yet at home in the new, and he wants to account for his grief, this feeling of “homesickness.” He seems even to want to say that the pain of dislocation is more than the trauma of changing address. But he recognizes that to admit to the pain of losing “home” might dignify a transcendental longing, and he backs away, as modern doubt demands: “What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is … secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness (with an admixture of loss) might be the necessary (hideous) neologism.”

Wood has understood an important dimension of nostalgia—a critical reason that it cannot be abandoned by the religious. This longing for “primal belonging,” for some past order, some formerly perfect reality, is a right impulse, a necessary impulse—and maybe the most obvious impulse that signals the kind of cross-pressured modern condition Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age: “On the one hand, [we are] drawn towards unbelief, while on the other [we feel] the solicitations of the spiritual.” Happily, we moderns seem to have drawn around ourselves an “immanent frame,” from which we’ve dismissed any sort of holy dread of divine retribution. We’ve reduced life to the pursuit of temporal goals. We have no true “home” existing in either the past or the future. We have only today with its empirical realities, and this “buffered self” gives us a sense of power and invulnerability.

Except that the hunger for a greater fullness persists. “In other words,” writes Taylor, “there is something [the modern person] aspires to beyond where he’s at. He perhaps hasn’t yet fully conquered the nostalgia for something transcendent.”

Nostalgia is a word to signal spiritual hunger—a word to suggest a world existing beyond the present one, before the present one. It is, at its core, a “faith” word, at least as Judeo-Christian faith exists. By way of a contrast, Taylor notes the “mood of assent” in Australian aboriginal religion. They understand the brokenness of present reality, but they do not quarrel with it: “There is no question of reparation of the original rift, or of a compensation, or making good of the original loss.” But people formed by the stories of Genesis 1 and 2 do not so blithely accept the cosmic rupture of death and disease, even the disappointments of the everyday. We hold to the sense that the world should be different than it is. Better than it is. Nostalgia is a right appraisal of our story: A perfect world has indeed fallen from grace. As a word, it is instructive about our grief in this world, even instructive about hope.

Before C. S. Lewis converted to Christianity, he had rejected what he perceived to be the facile answers Christians offered to the problem of evil. Why should a good God make a bad world? But then he began asking himself by what standard he judged the world to be bad. “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” This internal sense of longing and loss became its own apologetic. The world should be different than it is. Better than it is. And his nostalgia told him that it once was. As Lewis describes elsewhere, his first rush of faith wasn’t an epiphany so much as a memory: “There arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I now lacked for years, that I was returning at least form exile and desert lands to my own country.” Like that of the prodigal son, Lewis’s journey of faith wasn’t a pilgrimage to lands unexplored; it was, rightfully, a coming home.

Nostalgia can be rallied for political gain to disastrous effect, and we are rightfully wary of rhetoric that distorts history and seeks to exclude. But there is another kind of nostalgia that can’t be so easily dismissed. It tells us that the world should be different that it is. Better than it is.

And there’s no apology for that.

Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place.

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Image credit: By Melpacio (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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