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“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”*…

 

Nostalgia

Detail: The Blue Boat (1892) by Winslow Homer

 

Coined by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688, ‘nostalgia’ referred to a medical condition – homesickness – characterised by an incapacitating longing for one’s motherland. Hofer favoured the term because it combined two essential features of the illness: the desire to return home (nostos) and the pain (algos) of being unable to do so. Nostalgia’s symptomatology was imprecise – it included rumination, melancholia, insomnia, anxiety and lack of appetite – and was thought to affect primarily soldiers and sailors. Physicians also disagreed about its cause. Hofer thought that nostalgia was caused by nerve vibrations where traces of ideas of the motherland ‘still cling’, whereas others, noticing that it was found predominantly among Swiss soldiers fighting at lower altitudes, proposed instead that nostalgia was caused by changes in atmospheric pressure, or eardrum damage from the clanging of Swiss cowbells. Once nostalgia was identified among soldiers from various nationalities, the idea that it was geographically specific was abandoned.

By the early 20th century, nostalgia was considered a psychiatric rather than neurological illness – a variant of melancholia. Within the psychoanalytic tradition, the object of nostalgia – ie, what the nostalgic state is about – was dissociated from its cause. Nostalgia can manifest as a desire to return home, but – according to psychoanalysts – it is actually caused by the traumatic experience of being removed from one’s mother at birth. This account began to be questioned in the 1940s, with nostalgia once again linked to homesickness. ‘Home’ was now interpreted more broadly to include not only concrete places, such as a childhood town, but also abstract ones, such as past experiences or bygone moments. While disagreements lingered, by the second part of the 20th century, nostalgia began to be characterised as involving three components. The first was cognitive: nostalgia involves the retrieval of autobiographical memories. The second, affective: nostalgia is considered a debilitating, negatively valenced emotion. And third, conative: nostalgia comprises a desire to return to one’s homeland. As I’ll argue, however, this tripartite characterisation of nostalgia is likely wrong.

First, two clarifications: nostalgia is neither pathological nor beneficial….

In the past few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of nationalistic political movements that have gained traction by way of promoting a return to the ‘good old days’: ‘Make America Great Again’ in the US, or ‘We Want Our Country Back’ in the UK. These politics of nostalgia promote the implementation of policies that, supposedly, would return nations to times in which people were better off. Unsurprisingly, such politics are usually heralded by conservative groups who, in the past, tended to be better off than they currently are – independently of the particular politics of the time. In a 2016 study conducted by the Polish social psychologists Monika Prusik and Maria Lewicka, a large sample of Poles were asked nostalgia-related questions about how things were prior to the fall of communism 25 years earlier. The results revealed that people felt much more nostalgic and had more positive feelings about the communist government if they were better off then than now, if they were older, and if they were currently unhappy. Doubtlessly, older and conservative-leaning folk who perceive their past – whether accurately or not – as better than their present account for a significant portion of the electorate supporting nationalistic movements. But we’d be misled to think of them as the primary engine, let alone the majority. For the Polish results show something very different: a large number of younger individuals avidly supporting nostalgic policies that would return their nations to a past they never experienced…

Neuroscience is finding what propaganda has long known: nostalgia doesn’t need real memories – an imagined past works too: “Nostalgia Reimagined.”

* Marcel Proust

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As we we muse over our madeleines, we might recall that this date in 1970 was “Black Tot Day,” the last day on which the British Royal Navy issued sailors with a daily rum ration (the daily tot).  In the 17th century, the ration had been beer– one gallon per day– but the the switch was meade the following century to rum in order to cut down on the weight and volume necessary to carry to meet that requirement.  The daily allowance was steadily reduced thereafter, until finally it was eliminated.

And so, on July 31, 1970, the last tot was poured as usual at 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11am) after the pipe of “up spirits.”  Some sailors wore black armbands, tots were “buried at sea,” and in one navy training camp, HMS Collingwood, the Royal Naval Electrical College at Fareham in Hampshire, there was a mock funeral procession complete with black coffin and accompanying drummers and piper.  The move was not popular with the ratings (enlisted personnel), despite an extra can of beer being added to their daily rations in compensation.

220px-HMS_Belfast_7

Measuring out the tot (diorama aboard HMS Belfast)

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Written by LW

July 31, 2020 at 1:01 am

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