NOSTALGIA. The elusive word "nostalgia" is formed from two Greek roots: nostos ("return home") and algia ("pain"). The Oxford English Dictionary defines nostalgia as "a form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one's home or country; severe homesickness." In her remarkable book The Future of Nostalgia, Harvard professor Svetlana Boym says that the word was coined in 1688 by the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer to identify the homesickness of Swiss soldiers who reacted physically to the hearing of certain folk melodies and the eating of rustic soups while on missions away from home. She centers her study on the effects of leaving one culture and residing in another, and of exploring cities rich in archaeological layers of memory. She also distinguishes nostalgia as either being restorative, as in recovering a lost home, or reflective, as in shaping a certain way of thinking about a particular time and place. In the latter, memory becomes a transformative and a reconstructive power.
The Idiom of Exile
In politics, art, music, literature, psychology, and even pop culture, nostalgia is the idiom of exile with, as Boym says, Adam and Eve as prototypes. While it may be a stretch to imagine their longing for the prelapserian apple after they left the Garden of Eden, it is certainly true that through the years the exiles and emigrants that followed their path from their native land to another country either tried to replicate the foods of their homeland or the taste sensations of their childhoods. Almost without exception French chefs, especially when transplanted to America, nostalgically craved the simple soups, daubes, and pot-au-feux of their childhood. The four-star chef Fernand Point believed that his mother's cooking was the best kind of cooking, and his disciples Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel also went back to the simpler foods of the countryside in a movement called nouveau cuisine that captured immediate attention in France and abroad. Known as cuisine de meres, these ancestral cooking ideas perpetuated in their respective provinces fed their souls as well as their bodies. Nostalgia proved to be a powerful force.
Nostalgia in Literature
Literature, moreover, abounds with powerful nostalgic works like Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions and Henry David Thoreau's Journal —both motivated by early memories of a purer, more innocent, psychological, as well as physical, place to which there is no possible return except through memory. It was Marcel Proust, however, who irrevocably linked the subjective and often unreliable vagaries of memory with the particularity, sensory modality, and physical presence of food. In pursuit of vanished time, he found a transfiguring moment in the taste of a madeleine dipped in a cup of lime flower tea. Although he frequently had passed the golden shell-shaped French cookies in patisseries, it was not the sight or taste of the madeleine itself or even the tea, but the sensation, or Baudelairean correspondence, that immediately took him back to those Sunday mornings in Combray with his Aunt Leonie when he was a treasured child and not the world-weary adult he had become. The remembrance of food and, more specifically, the eating of a meal became a trigger point to his self-discovery.
Memories of a wistfully longed for earlier time exist not only in novels, but also in the various autobiographical forms. In Memories of My Life, Auguste Escoffier remembered his childhood in Villeneuve-Loubet and wrote about watching his grandfather toast bread and spread it with a particularly strong local cheese called brousse. One Sunday, when the young Escoffier tended the fire while his grandfather went to church, he prepared the same cheese toasts, which he then savored with a glass of sweet wine. Seen from the perspective of the mature and successful chef he had become, the incident was but one example of how easy it had been for him to satisfy both his curiosity and his gourmandise. In other personal narratives, odors rekindled memories of other kitchens. Writing about growing up in his mother's boarding house in a Feast Made for Laughter, Craig Claiborne described the smell of chopped onions, celery, green sweet peppers, and garlic sautéing together in butter or oil. The smell pervaded the kitchen and in his memory seemed the basis for seemingly hundreds of dishes his mother prepared and that he always identified with "southern cooking" and home. And in James Beard's Delights and Prejudices, beach breakfasts of sautéed razor clams gathered along the Oregon coast vie with the Welsh rabbit of the family's Chinese cook to epitomize all that was wonderful about his childhood in Portland.
The sights, smells, and tastes of the holidays almost without exception also evoke nostalgia. In his testament to childhood, My Father's Glory; and, My Mother's Castle: Memories of Childhood, Marcel Pagnol recreated his Provençal childhood through the eyes of an aging and successful filmmaker. In this autobiography there are scenes about a small boy exploring the streets of Marseille, and about the family's trips to their rented vacation home in the hills where the young Pagnol learned to hunt, trap, and explore the caves and the forest. Neither before nor since was the Christmas holiday in that place so exciting and memorable. Thrushes that he and his friend had trapped "tumbled from branch to spit," a small pine tree from the forest occupied the corner of the room, and on its branches hung hastily assembled presents, and after the Christmas Eve meal, the family feasted on dates, crystallized fruit, whipped cream, and the marrons glaces that his uncle had brought from the city. Seeing his father and uncle greet each other, Pagnol felt a new emotion and as a child recognized real friendship for the first time while savoring the marrons glaces.
Autobiographies and memoirs that are driven by taste, by memory, and by real life communicate reality in a basic way. When asked about why she wrote about food rather than love, war, sorrow, and death, M. F. K. Fisher simply said that our human hungers for security, warmth, love, and sustenance were inseparable. And she, more than any other American gastronomical writer, combined autobiography and her philosophy of the art of eating to create a hybrid genre called the culinary memoir. Whether she gently folded recipes into her narratives or simply explored the bliss or misfortune of family feasts, vegetable snobbism, the best oyster stew she ever ate, or learning to dine alone, she established the familiar "I myself" pattern that echoes through contemporary culinary food writing. The note of nostalgia or longing for an ideal past that can only be repossessed symbolically by familiar foods—a note that pervades the most memorable memoirs—has been given a voice in her distinctive first-person style. And the unremitting use of gastronomy as a kind of surrogate to ease all human longings has found a varied expression in her narratives.
M. F. K. Fisher has had many imitators because the act of remembering has become a dominant part of how writers—especially cookbook authors—thought about food in the last decade of the twentieth century and continue to do so. Some memoirs have been straightforward records of the author's life and his experience of memorable meals, and recipes have been either abundant or completely absent. In the best of these memoirs, however, the recipes have become an extension of the text. They function as a kind of chart of the emotions evoked by meals or certain moments frozen in time. Other memory-plus-recipe books have been plainly cookbooks in which nostalgia functions as a stylistic devise. Headers tout Aunt Tillie's doughnuts and Uncle Jerry's barbecue, or evoke quaint breadboxes lined along Formica counters or that exciting aperitif sipped in a café along the Boulevard St. Germaine. Unfortunately, their authors often lack the authentic voice of M. F. K. Fisher, and their work does not resonate with the depth of continuous reminiscence.
Whether it is a once-in-a-lifetime Reine de Saba, a comforting Toad-in-the Hole, or an ordinary macaroni and cheese meal, the pleasures of the table need a writer to transcribe them, and a writer needs a sensibility that is shaped by empathy with the conditions of time past as well as time present. Nostalgia is a powerful motivator.
See also Art, Food in, subentries on Literature and Poetry; Beard, James; Comfort Food; Cookbooks; Escoffier, Georges-Auguste; Fisher, M. F. K.; Sensation and the Senses.
Beard, James. Delights and Prejudices. New York: Atheneum, 1964.
Beck, Simone. Food and Friends: Recipes and Memories from Simca's Cuisine. New York: Viking, 1991.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Claiborne, Craig. A Feast Made for Laughter. New York: Doubleday, 1982.
Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Ehrlich, Elizabeth. Miriam's Kitchen: A Memoir. New York: Viking, 1997.
Escoffier, Auguste. Memories of My Life. Translated by Laurence Escoffier. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997.
Field, Carol. In Nonna's Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions from Italy's Grandmothers. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Fisher, M. F. K. The Art of Eating. New York: Macmillan, 1954.
Franey, Pierre, with Richard Flaste and Bryan Miller. A Memoir of Food, France, and America. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Fussell, Betty. My Kitchen Wars. New York: North Point Press, 1999.
Grammatico, Maria, Simeti Grammatico, and Mary Taylor. Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood. New York: Morrow, 1994.
Hazelton, Nika. Ups and Downs: Memoirs of Another Time. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
Kamman, Madeleine. When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir. New York: Atheneum, 1976.
Knopf, Mildred O. Memoirs of a Cook: Yesterday and Today. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
Kotre, John. White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory. New York: The Free Press. 1995.
Lang, George. Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Olney, Richard. Reflections. New York: Brick Tower Press, 1999.
Pagnol, Marcel. My Father's Glory; and, My Mother's Castle: Memories of Childhood. Translated by Rita Barisse. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986.
Proust, Marcel. A la recherche du temps perdu. Edited by Pierre Clarac and Andre Ferre. Paris: Gallimard, 1954. The authoritative edition.
Reichl, Ruth. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. New York: Random House, 1998.
Schiavelli, Vincent. Bruculinu, America: Remembrances of Sicilian-American Brooklyn, Told in Stories and Recipes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
Thompson, Sylvia. Feasts and Friends: Recipes from a Lifetime. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.
Nostalgia (Sehnsucht ) refers to the moral pain of the expatriate when he is overcome with the obsession of return. The self-absorption, morosity, and feeling that there is nothing more to say about the situation are the first clinical manifestations of a secret torment that is likely to become aggravated. A state of desolation and physical malaise is soon established, which is fertile ground for infection and functional disorders, as if the subject's vitality had been sapped. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical practice, this feared diagnosis went hand-in-hand with a grim prognosis.
The word is a neologism that appears for the first time in a medical dissertation written in Latin in Basel on June 22, 1688. It records, in academic language, what was then commonly referred to as "homesickness," or Heimweh. Johannes Hofer's thesis is based on two clinical histories: a student from Bern who wasted away in Basel, and a servant who, after an accident, wasted away in the hospital far from her family. In both cases the patient was in agony and the return to the family home resulted in a nearly miraculous cure. He proposed an interpretation based on the movement of animal spirits to account for the pathological phenomena.
Hofer described a new disease, unknown to Hippocrates and Galen, one that had become the subject of debate in departments of medicine throughout Europe. There was concern that the illness may have been unique to the Swiss, associated with the geographical isolation of mountain life or the physiological effects of migration to low-altitude regions. There had been cases of nostalgia among the Swiss regiments serving the king of France, and among foreign soldiers. There was, for example, a grenadier from Westphalia who had been consumed by Heimweh, which negated the idea that the illness was confined to mountain dwellers.
Although nostalgia was a medical discovery, it also held the interest of philosophers. Haller wrote an article on the subject for Diderot's Encyclopedia. Rousseau, in his Dictionnaire de la musique, described a certain melody, the "Ranz des Vaches," that had the power to trigger an epidemic of nostalgia and desertion among the Swiss garrison at Versailles. Kant believed that nostalgia was not a disease of exile but of poverty, and that territorial ties could be overcome through social success and wealth. Later, Jaspers, in his medical dissertation showed how Heimweh could turn young adolescents who left home too early into criminals or delinquents.
A century after the Basel dissertation, circumstances contributed to a new clinical understanding of nostalgia. Between 1789 and 1815, the number of cases multiplied, especially among emigrants and soldiers away from home. Military doctors developed clinical experience and therapeutic skills, as shown in the writings of Percy, Des Genettes, and Larrey. They learned how to recognize the feverish language and false sense of shame of the true nostalgic, and developed a form of psychotherapeutic treatment that pushed the patient to recall the "pleasant memories" of home, in his own language if possible. "The treatment of essential nostalgia," wrote Baron Percy, "should be moral rather than pharmaceutical. It has been shown by experience that the administration of medicines does more to aggravate the symptoms than to relieve them."
After 1830 the triumph of the anatomical-clinical method would gradually discredit the diagnosis of nostalgia. Medical progress was based on the examination of lesions of organs and the identification of infectious germs, but autopsies and microscopes revealed nothing about the obsession with a return to one's home. Within a period of fifty years the word nostalgia disappeared from the medical lexicon. At the same time it made its appearance in literature, where it then referred to a romantic emotion and not a disease: the sadness of being born too late, the sense of exaltation occasioned by the setting sun when there was no hope of a tomorrow.
Rousseau's comments concerning the strange power of a melody that wiped away the bravura of the Swiss soldiers introduced nostalgia to the stage of history. Did the "Ranz des Vaches" have any special musicological properties? No, Rousseau answers, but it is a "sign of remembrance." There is nothing special other than a symbolic value for a native of the Swiss mountains. It suddenly restored to the abandoned and much regretted countryside a sonorous and impalpable presence, the mysterious presence of absence.
Several observations have confirmed the role of sound (a melody, a sound, a voice) in homesickness, either as a pathogenic agent that increases the pain of absence, or as a therapeutic factor that can instantly bring about remembrance. The subtleties of this intimate and subjective logic have been repressed by the progress of scientific medicine and its apology for the visible, from Bichat to Charcot.
The historian can approach the rise and fall of the diagnosis of nostalgia in the evolution of medical thought as a precursor to psychoanalysis. Within this tradition (about which Freud says nothing), it is interesting to note the points of divergence: the nostalgic individual suffered from remembrance, the hysterical patient from reminiscence. Attention has been shifted from conscious expressions of memory, involving a return home, to a veiled mnemonic utterance, often truncated or falsified, which infiltrates all speech and constitutes the first model of the unconscious.
However, psychoanalytic research on object loss has paid scant attention to attachment to the spaces and places of childhood, as if confirming Kant's arguments, which gave nostalgia a dimension that was more temporal than spatial: not a lost country but a lost time; the nostalgic individual would never rediscover his youth.
The paradox remains, however, that at a time when "displaced persons" are so numerous and when the findings of medicine and psychiatry have revealed a number of pathological phenomena related to the illnesses of migrants, the concept of nostalgia has been erased, except to sometimes refer to a miniscule and captivating territory, the maternal breast.
See also: Abandonment; Cathexis; Ethics; Future of an Illusion, The ; Music and psychoanalysis; Reparation; Subject's desire; Thing, the; Weaning.
Bolzinger, André. (1989). Jalons pour une histoire de la nostalgie. Bulletin de psychologie, 389, 310-321.
——. (1992). Retour à la nostalgie. Bulletin de psychologie, 405, 331-340.
Starobinski, Jean. (1966). Le concept de nostalgie. Diogène 54, 92-115.
- Combray village of narrator and family. [Fr. Lit.: Remembrance of Things Past ]
- Give My Regards to Broadway singer sends well-wishes to home town. [Am. Pop. Music: Fordin, 531]
- Happy Days TV series viewed 1950s America through tinted lenses. [TV: Terrace, I, 337–338]
- Krapp passes the time by listening to tapes on which he had recorded his earlier experiences and reflections. [Br. Drama: Beckett Krapp’s Last Tape in Weiss, 244]
- My Ántonia book in which author recalls her precious child-hood years. [Am. Lit.: Magill I, 630–632]
- ou sont les neiges d’antan “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” [Fr. Lit.: Ballade des Dames du temps ladis, “Villon” in Benét, 1061]
nos·tal·gia / näˈstaljə; nə-/ • n. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations: I was overcome with acute nostalgia for my days in college. ∎ the evocation of these feelings or tendencies, esp. in commercialized form: an evening of TV nostalgia. DERIVATIVES: nos·tal·gist / -jist/ n.