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Nostalgia for a Past that Never Quite Was

Antonio Damasio is Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where he directs the Brain and Creativity Institute.

News and editorials on this year’s political developments have made frequent references to nostalgia. On both sides of the Atlantic the public is said to be nostalgic, longing for the return of the good old days of full sovereignty over one’s country, high employment, security, fair access to health services and education, civic discourse, a thriving culture, you name it. In this context the Berggruen Institute asked me two questions: Is it correct to use the notion of nostalgia to refer to the current mood of the public? Assuming it is, what does nostalgia accomplish for those who experience it?

To answer the first question we need to consider the meanings behind the word. Nostalgia is an erudite term but it is so globally used that it runs against the nationalist grain of the political moment. The roots are old and Greek, referring to homecoming (nostos, a likely reference to errant Ulysses longing to get back), and to pain (algos), but the coinage may be as recent as the eighteenth century. What does nostalgia really mean? It is fair to say that when people are asked this question they tend to be vague. Can we do better?

In keeping with the etymology, the dominant meaning of nostalgia describes the pain of longing to return to a secure home or a happy past or both. The tonic feelings are sadness and pain, provoked by no longer possessing what the memories tell us we once had. However, because the memories of home and past are experienced as happy, nostalgia also includes happiness, specifically the quiet happiness of pleasant remembrances. In brief, nostalgia is a hybrid feeling. The fact that there is an absence causes pain; the material that is actually remembered causes joy. Wistful yearning captures the idea well and so does bitter-sweetness, provided it is clear that the proportions of bitter and sweet can vary. Nostalgia is the sort of layered, constructed, affective state that demonstrates so well what makes humans distinctive.

In brief, nostalgia is a hybrid feeling. The fact that there is an absence causes pain; the material that is actually remembered causes joy.

One feeling that is definitely absent from the nostalgia composite is anger and this is the reason why the use of nostalgia to describe the public’s current mood is not ideal. Yes, the public may believe that the past was glorious and that it is worth recovering. But whereas nostalgics are either resigned to their state of loss or exhibit a quiet fortitude, I sense that a good part of the current public is angry, rather than resigned, and anything but quiet. Rather than wallowing in loss, a part of the electorate is in revolt. It demands corrections of wrongs, some real, some not, from vague to specific.

Now to the second question. There is no doubt that nostalgia is a valuable feeling or it would have long been dismissed from the human toolkit. What does standard nostalgia usually accomplish? Nostalgia literally offers homemade consolation, a notch above from chicken soup. The sad component of nostalgia calls for time out to consider a problem. Of note, that is what sadness usually accomplishes, a pause to lick one’s wounds in the middle of a conflict, a moment of inaction to prevent an ill-advised decision. Inaction is protective. In all probability the roots for this automatic response come from earlier times in evolution, when automatic lack of movement helped inflammation do its job in a wound or prevented a bone fracture from getting worse.

On the other hand, the joyful component of nostalgia promotes the working of a solution. This paradoxical combination works in our favor and is probably one reason why nostalgia has been conserved in the human repertoire of emotions and feelings. As for the historical development of nostalgia it probably has something to do with the ancient discovery of the effects of certain memories. Humans are constantly engaging in the recall of past circumstances, personal and not, splendid or not so good. Recall can be largely spontaneous, as in mind-wandering, but it is frequently directed because recall is an ingredient of imagination, reasoning, and decision-making. The potential for remembering situations whose contents contrast with the present is quite high. The chance discovery that reflecting on past situations could be rewarding and comforting is thus not surprising.

Certain cultures have a solid tradition of practicing nostalgia. The Portuguese cultivated nostalgia so assiduously that they have shaped a variant of the phenomenon and even coined a word for it: saudade. The word saudade antedates the term nostalgia by several centuries (it was used in popular Portuguese poems of the XXIII century). At first it probably described the sadness and longing of those who stayed home when their loved ones sailed across the seas as merchants and discoverers. Saudade consoled those who feared that the departed might never come back. Unlike nostalgia, however, the sadness in saudade was not offset by joy. Saudade responds to loss by accepting it, ruminating on it, and doing nothing about it. Curiously, the therapeutic element remains because sadness still accomplishes its compensatory goal. In a pinch, humans take whatever they can get to improve their lot and are as consoled by passive fatalism as by active solutions. 

Centuries later saudade would be the critical inspiration for the popular music of Portugal, the fado (from the Latin fatum, destiny). Fado is generally sad but it is also immensely popular because sad music is even more rewarding than sadness alone. One explanation for this seeming paradox is that sad music gives us time for reflection and recovery, just as nostalgia and saudade do, but goes one step further: it adds the rewards of esthetic pleasures.  This applies not just to fado and blues but to a substantial part of the classical music repertoire. The same happens with literature. Among many other things, the poetry of Fernando Pessoa is a celebration of saudade; Marcel Proust’s prose is an embodiment of nostalgia.

We can benefit from healthy doses of nostalgia or saudade and regain the balance lost by unfavorable circumstances. But we need to be alert to one reason why remembrances can be comforting: our memories can be selective; they are great film editors, capable of glorifying some facts and suppressing others when they are inconvenient. Also, there is a tendency, across a lifetime, to re-experience memorized facts and events with a positive slant, possibly part of an adaptive but non-conscious attempt to increase one’s wellbeing. 

But we need to be alert to one reason why remembrances can be comforting: our memories can be selective; they are great film editors, capable of glorifying some facts and suppressing others when they are inconvenient.

Some aspects of the perfect times that the US electorate and the pro-Brexit voters so intensely miss, were possibly not as perfect as in their doctored recollections of the past, which are indeed ready for nostalgic, saudosistic consumption.

Photograph is from Jeff Hauptman's local history photo collection.