Originally perceived to be a psychological disorder, nostalgia, which is rooted in the Greek words nostos (longing) and algos (pain), was explored as a way to explain soldiers’ feelings of homesickness during war. As we’ve progressed since the seventeenth century conception of nostalgia, nostalgia has taken on many forms. Nostalgia has certainly contributed to the marketplace, which can be seen, for example, in the recent re-creation of The Winnie the Pooh book and the new Star Wars movie and merchandise like this new Star Wars video game. These items play on people’s nostalgic emotions to garner revenue. This type of nostalgia steers away from the idea of longing and pain, because it is rooted in reproducing happy memories. John Tierney believes that nostalgia can often be a positive feeling, writing, “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.” He argues that, while nostalgia can be painful, it ultimately makes people “become more optimistic and inspired about the future.” And even those who may have bleak futures can benefit from nostalgia if they participate in the nostalgic memory without comparing it to the present.
While I believe that some feelings of nostalgia create positive life experience, nostalgia becomes problematic people use it to replace history. Charles Rearick, in his article “The Charms of Paris . . . Yesterday,” is generally optimistic about preserving Parisian history through nostalgia, arguing that “nostalgia remains a crucial anchor for Parisian identity, giving life support to surviving places and practices that collective memory has celebrated as touchstones of Parisianisme.” But he also acknowledges the problems with reconstructing history through nostalgia: “Granted, nostalgia has been a steady source of illusions, some of them socially toxic. And it can lead to artificial, Disneyfied reconstructions, frozen at some chosen point in the past, denying change and innovation.” Thus, nostalgia is positive as long as it creates a cultural memory that stays true to a pure Parisian past and identity and that does not hinder progression.
Connected to this anxiety about how nostalgia functions in history, BYU professor Rob MacFarland presented a colloquium for the Humanities Center titled “Cyberzombie in a Prom Dress: Reconstruction, Resurrection and the Sequel to the Modern German City” in which he explored how German cities have re-created old German architecture. This nostalgic attempt to restore the city has created tourist attractions that present a false representation of German culture, similar to “Disneyfied reconstructions” mentioned by Rearick. One has to wonder, then, how nostalgia functions as an attempt to reconstruct the past and whether or not that reconstruction hinders history.
I recently came across an article by Sarah A. Chrisman, who claims to be authentically studying and experiencing Victorian culture by immersing in it. She writes of her and her husband, “Our methods are quite different from those of academics. Everything in our daily life is connected to our period of study, from the technologies we use to the ways we interact with the world.” She describes her and her husband’s daily routine and how they have eschewed modern technology (aside from the fact, I guess, that she publishes her articles on the internet and sells her books through Amazon) in order to live simpler and fuller lives. In her critique of modern scholarship, she writes, “Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game ‘telephone’: One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.” The irony behind this statement is that her solution to this game of telephone is to supposedly reconstruct Victorian living. Arguing that she began to be more aware of the objects around her to the point that she feels like she is actually living a Victorian lifestyle, she sets herself up as a superior historian who has discovered new secrets about Victorian culture and history.
Her experiment is rooted in a sense of nostalgia as she uses the past to replace her anxieties about modern culture and to be a unique historian, but this is problematic because she ignores a broad range of anxieties present in Victorian culture that cannot ever be re-created in modern culture. One cannot begin to understand Victorian history simply by living in Victorian people’s clothes and reading their books (and only living similar to a Victorian in the middle class) anymore than one can understand a person’s life by only copying their daily, material actions. This study does not examine interior lives, social anxieties, contemporary culture, and lack of modern luxuries that even gives her the privilege to live this nostalgic, idealized life. Living is more than a material experience; it is rooted in the interior mind as well as the broader culture. Thus, nostalgia is only beneficial when it is personal and private or when a historian is careful about attempting to accurately preserve culture through nostalgia without falsely idealizing it.
By Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern