nostalgia: the bittersweet history of a psychological concept

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  • NOSTALGIA: The Bittersweet History of a Psychological Concept

    Krystine Irene BatchoLe Moyne College

    The concept of nostalgia has changed substantially both denotatively and connotativelyover the span of its 300-year history. This article traces the evolution of the concept fromits origins as a medical disease to its contemporary understanding as a psychologicalconstruct. The difficulty of tracing a construct through history is highlighted. Attention ispaid to roles played first by the medical context, and then by the psychiatric, psychoanalytic,and psychological approaches. Emphasis is given to shifts in the designation of nostalgicvalence from bitter to sweet to bittersweet, and the processes of semantic drift anddepathologization are explored. Because the sense of nostalgia was constructed and recon-structed within social, cultural, and historical contexts, its meaning changed along with thewords used to describe and connect it to other entities. Nostalgias past illustrates theinfluence of language, social-cultural context, and discipline perspectives on how a con-struct is defined, researched, and applied.

    Keywords: history of nostalgia, evolution of a construct, emotion, denotative and connotativemeaning

    Ebbinghaus paradoxical description of psy-chology as having a long past but only a shorthistory can be borrowed to capture the essenceof nostalgia as a psychological concept (Ebb-inghaus, 1908, p. 3). Although the term nostal-gia was coined as a medical construct in 1688(Hofer, 1688/1934), its history as a psycholog-ical concept is only a century old. Many theo-rists assume that nostalgia is a powerful senti-ment that has been part of human experiencesince long before it was assigned a name. How-ever, the working assumption that conceptsrepresent enduring natural entities has been con-tested by theorists who have argued that cate-gories are historically constructed and recon-structed (Danziger, 1997; Richards, 1989, 2010;Smith, 2005). Nostalgia illustrates how a con-struct is framed within a social-historical con-text and evolves as that context changes.

    Simple dictionary definitions of nostalgia asa bittersweet longing for the past and ashomesickness (The American Heritage Dic-tionary, 1994, p. 569) mask its dramatic seman-

    tic evolution since the word was coined and thecomplexity of its current understanding as apsychological construct. This article traces thehistory of the construct in a search for the rootsof the conflicting facets within present theoret-ical formulations. The analysis highlights meth-odological and conceptual issues inherent indistinguishing between concept and language,retrospective interpretation and the possibilityof an enduring experiential phenomenon.

    Nostalgia as a Physical Disease:Medical Origins

    The bitter side of nostalgia dominated thefirst phase of the evolution of the term as itoriginated as a diagnostic label. In coining theword nostalgia Hofer explained in his medi-cal dissertation1 that it is composed of two

    1 Although several authors date Hofers dissertation in1678, the actual date, 1688 appears on the title p. of thedissertation as reproduced in Anspachs, 1934 translation.Although the origin of the error is unclear, several of theauthors using the 1678 date cite Werman (H. Kaplan, 1987)or McCanns, 1941 literature review (Kleiner, 1970; Rosen,1975; Werman, 1977). McCann referenced secondarysources for the dissertation, but did not list the dissertationitself or Anspachs translation among his references. Ans-pach reports Hofers birth in Muhlhausen on April 28, 1669,which would make him only 9 years old in 1678.

    This article was published Online First May 6, 2013.Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-

    dressed to Krystine Irene Batcho, Department of Psychol-ogy, Le Moyne College, 1419 Salt Springs Road, Syracuse,NY 13214. E-mail: batcho@lemoyne.edu

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    History of Psychology 2013 American Psychological Association2013, Vol. 16, No. 3, 165176 1093-4510/13/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0032427

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  • sounds, the one of which is Nostos, return to thenative land; the other, Algos, signifies sufferingor grief; so that thus far it is possible from theforce of the sound Nostalgia to define the sadmood originating from the desire for the returnto ones native land (1688/1934, p. 381). Hecompared his term derived from Greek com-ponents to the German word Heimweh, whichdenotes the grief for the lost charm of theNative Land or homesickness, and to theFrench term maladie du pays (which trans-lates literally to disease of the native land).He stated that he would be equally satisfiedwith the label philopatridomania, denoting aspirit perturbed against holding fast to theirnative land from any cause whatsoever (de-noting) return (p. 381).

    For homesickness to be understood properly,Hofer argued that it was necessary to apply aname and that the one he invented defined thething to be explained. He transformed home-sickness into a medical construct by incorporat-ing it into the framework of assumptions andconcepts that dominated the medicine of histime. Based primarily upon cases among Swisstroops serving in France, Hofer cataloguedsymptoms including sadness, insomnia, fever,weakness, loss of appetite, and cardiac palpita-tions (Havlena & Holak, 1991; Rosen, 1975).His nerve theory posited that persistent thoughtsof home caused the vital spirits to surge con-stantly in the part of the brain where the desiredimages are located, creating a path in whichthey can move of their own accord (Hofer,1688/1934). Focused entirely upon images ofthe past, the vital spirits are not available forother functions, including life-sustaining pro-cesses (1688/1934).2 Although Hofer proposeda physical mechanism for the bodily symptoms,he attributed the cause of nostalgia to recurringthoughts and memories of home.

    Much of the early interest in nostalgia wasmotivated by the concern for optimal perfor-mance of military resources during Europeanconflicts well into the 18th century (Rosen,1975). The association with Swiss soldiers wasso strong that some writers referred to nostalgiaas Schweizerkrankheit (Jackson, 1986). Fearingthat this association would make the Swiss sol-dier appear weak, the Swiss physicianScheuchzer proposed in 1705 that nostalgia re-sults from an increase in atmospheric pressurewhen the Swiss descend from the mountains

    (Rosen, 1975). However, Blumenbach pointedout that Swiss from the mountainous regionswere rarely afflicted, and Zimmerman, anotherSwiss physician, noted nostalgia among British,Scottish, and French troops (Jackson, 1986, pp.375376).

    In the United States, Union doctors reportednostalgia symptoms ranging from sadness tocerebral derangement among over 2,500 sol-diers during the first 2 years of the Civil War(Matt, 2007). Ultimately, attempts to explainnostalgia in terms of bodily abnormalities didnot succeed (Auenbrugger, 1761/1824, XXVII,2; Laennec, 1819/1829). In 1838, surgeon JohnCollins Warrens diagnosed a woman as suffer-ing from nostalgia, an unusual longing for thenative country (De Rham, 1841, pp. 115116,124; Martien, 1840, p. 246; Sanchez & Brown,1994). Not able to find any bodily disease, hetestified that her debility proceeded from hermind (Rutledge, 1997). Physicians had come toview nostalgia as a mental disease that mani-fested in physical symptoms, but the develop-ment of a field of specialists in the diagnosis andtreatment of mental disorders was still in itsinfancy (Anderson, 2010; Clarke, 2007).

    Whereas Hofers disease model concentratedattention on symptoms, prognosis, and treat-ments, prior to Hofer, homesickness was pre-sumed to be the norm, even admirable or noble.For example, in Homers Odyssey, neither life-threatening challenges nor the prospect of re-maining with a goddess could dissuade themythical Odysseus from returning home(Homer, trans. 1991, Book IX). Similarly, theintensity of yearning for their homeland duringthe Israelites forced exile following the fall ofJerusalem is clear in Psalm 137:5 6 (NewAmerican Standard Bible): If I forget you, OJerusalem, may my right hand forget her skill.May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth ifI do not remember you.

    2 Two elements of Hofers theory reappear in more so-phisticated forms in modern psychological theory. For ex-ample, Hebbs (1949) explanation of psychological disor-ders in terms of the disorganization of cell assemblies isreminiscent of Hofers notion of a path laid down by rever-berating travel of the vital spirits. Similarly, Hofers pro-posal that mental events can result in structural or physicalchanges is reflected in modern two-stage theories of disor-ders such as depression, amnesia, and anorexia.

    166 BATCHO

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  • Within the political context of exile, home-sickness is part of a set of concepts of loyaltyand allegiance to o