Friday, December 18, 2009

A Serious Side to Nostalgia

Nowadays nostalgia is a paltry thing. TV, notoriously, builds itself on nostalgia for incidents that happened just a moment ago. In commerce, nostalgia moves product, while harkening back to a time when "product" referred mainly to the result of mathematical multiplication.

Oh, how I long for the days when nostalgia had force. During the American Civil War, "both physicians and laypeople viewed nostalgia ... as a deadly disease that might kill a man outright." Modern psychiatrists have contextualized it a bit:
In the official military medical history of that war, just one page is devoted to “homesickness,” a diagnosis that he said probably equates to major depression. Severe cases were termed“ nostalgia,” characterized by disturbed sleep, poor eating, and erratic behavior and that sometimes resulted in death. The only cure, said the doctors, was to send the unfortunate soldier home.
There are thousands of cases of nostalgia as a horribly debilitating physical condition recorded in the medical records of Union troops.

Nostalgia has a history that stretches back further, as the term was coined in Switzerland in the late 17th Century. Since there were so many Swiss mercenaries, there were lots of them to exhibit this "homesickness," as they thought it was then. "Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his 1768 Dictionnaire de la musique that it was forbidden to sing a ranz des vaches [a herdsman's song] near Swiss soldiers in foreign services, because they became homesick [nostalgic] and risked to die."

Then the concept of nostalgia splits into many war-borne shrapnel splinters (shell shock, battle fatigue, PTSD, depression, abjectness) and the name "nostalgia" into moods (Alpine tourism, Romanticism, longing for the detritus of youth, and enthusiasm among the aging for having "those damned kids endure the stultifying mores we grew up with") that evoke what we now consider nostalgia.

It's a fascinating topic and quite a serious one.

To make it all a bit less serious, I should point out that the Titan of misapplied nostalgia, Count Arthur Strong, begins a new series of his towering wireless program Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show! this Friday on BBC Radio 4. I generally don't exuberate over character comedy (a loose category, anyway), but Count Arthur always finds a way to make me laugh. I hope he has a few more good series in him, since the sitcom end of the writing has created a well-populated comic world for Arthur to ricochet around. I'll be listening.

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