Josna Rege

261. Nostalgia

In health, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, storytelling, Words & phrases, writing on April 16, 2014 at 9:05 pm

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Nostalgia is defined as a wistful longing or sentimental affection for a period in the past, especially a past for which one has happy personal associations. Looking back, perhaps with old friends from that time period, one indulges in rose-colored “those were the days” reminiscences, generally seen through a misty-eyed blur. Even if one’s personal associations with that particular past are not all positive (or not positive at all), there is a tendency to downplay or suppress the negative memories.

It seems obvious to point out that nostalgia is a backward-looking state of mind, indulging in which risks plunging a person into melancholia. That seems contradictory, especially if the memories being conjured up are pleasant ones. But by definition, nostalgia (taken from the Greek compound, νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”), is experienced as pain. When the term was first coined by a Swiss medical student in the late 17th century, it was thought of as a disease. Translated into English, it was called homesickness.

The writer Doris Lessing has called nostalgia “that poisoned itch”: if so, then the more one scratches it, the more inflamed—even infected—it becomes. So that pleasant haze through which one relives the past can be pernicious—even paralyzing—in the present.

Enough with the alliteration: what is a person to do, especially a writer like me whose stock-in-trade is personal stories from my past? Is my backward gaze just an escape from the difficulties of the present? Am I playing to people’s nostalgia, inviting my readers to wallow in sentimentality? How can I dwell imaginatively in the past without merely indulging in a useless longing for something that can never be recovered? This can be especially dangerous for immigrants, who, like Lot’s wife, as Salman Rushdie once wrote in his essay, Imaginary Homelands, risk turning into pillars of salt if they look back.



Of course the answers to these questions will be different for everyone. In my case, I notice when a trip down memory lane is beginning to slip into a sentimental nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong in itself with delving into the past, whether it’s my personal past or a collective past. It has made me who I am and connects me to the web of all life. Moreover, telling stories from the past is what human beings do. We tell these stories to sustain ourselves, to come to know ourselves,  to guide us in the present and into the future. But if we are truly to find our way home, we must look at the past as clearly and honestly as we can, not through the mists of nostalgia.

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  1. You are doing a wonderful job of carrying us all along on the river of memories and perhaps some nostalgia, but you are very adept at staying away from that “itchy spot” which would ruin a good tale well told. I wonder whether you realize just how many people really appreciate your stories and your marvelous facility with words.
    Carry on, and know we look forward to every episode!

  2. There’s nothing wrong with looking back. A little nostalgia can be a good thing. But when that’s all a person has… One mustn’t live in the past all the time. It’s a good place to visit now and then.

  3. Beautifully written Josna Such a refreshing look at the past with this obsessive cry to be in the present as if in the words of Metallica, “Nothing else matters.” I have always found the Jewish philosophical approach to the past deeply meaningful. Thank you. I’m sure you must be enjoying your trip. 🙂

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