Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nostalgia by Helmut Illbruck

This book is an intellectual history of Nostalgia, a term coined in 1688  as  a medical reference to the mental perturbation or pain caused by a longing for home i.e. homesickness. It was originally considered an illness  which we would characterize today as  a ‘narcissistic masochism that resists all efforts at amelioration, acculturation, community; a loss of critical perspective, intellectual reserve and moral courage’[Edward Said]. Nostalgic patients were not seen as mere idiots deserted by their powers of reason but as individuals willfully and quite paradoxically incapacitating themselves by stubbornly and obsessively clinging to their private fantasies- ‘Imagining the certainty of their self-feeling to be fully alive only in that particular place of which, once cut off, they could only dream [Hegel].

Does the longing associated with nostalgia articulate the promise of a health to be recovered,  a dangerous delusion to be enlightened, a lure to be dismissed, or a disease to be healed, not by returning home, but only by discrediting the longing itself? According to the author these questions lie at the very heart of nostalgia’s intellectual history and interrogate fundamental aspects of modernity itself.

In Anthropology, Emmanuel Kant makes the point that

The homesickness of the Swiss (and, as I have it from the lips of an experienced general, also of the Westphalians and Pomeranians from certain areas) which befalls them when they are transferred to other lands, is the effect of a longing that is aroused by the recollection of a carefree life and neighborly company in their youth, a longing for the places where they enjoyed the very simple pleasures of life.  Later, when they visit these places, they there find their anticipation deceived and thus even their homesickness cured. To be sure, they think that everything has been wholly transformed, but in fact it is that they cannot bring back their youth with them.  It is remarkable that such homesickness befalls peasants of a penniless province, where there are strong family ties, and it strikes them more than it does those who are busy earning money and who take for their motto the patria ubi bene.”

Kant’s argument is appears quite simple enough.  In nostalgia, we are yearning retrospectively for a time that we imagine to have been a life without cares and of pure enjoyment; we associate that life with a particular place which we seek to return to but, since we cannot “bring back” our “immature” youth with us, what we truly long for remain forever beyond our reach, and that is why our expectations continually delude us.

Never-the-less, the author claims, even Kant himself had an inkling of the complexity of the phenomena of nostalgia and how it carries on even when the unenlightened sense of home – an irreducible and untranslatable particularity of place incommensurable to the Enlightenment itself –has tuned into a metaphor  that carries many modern dreams not just poetic but often purely noetic in character

Where the longed-for home becomes a  metaphor, the meaning of nostalgia itself is transformed, from an insufferable disease into an itself desirable and positive longing to indulge in, to compensate for the fear of no longer knowing a place that without any reservations might qualify as “home.”  It is because the original nostalgics seemed so incurably certain about their particular home as both the cause and the cure of their longing that they could easily turn into the sentimentalized objects of an anxious Enlightenment and a more modern nostalgia. But where the notion of home becomes a mere metaphor, this also means that modern nostalgia can become an even more speculative eros ready to attach itself to ever more ideal and metaphysical places.

  Such dreams are not per se more enlightened in that they carry with them also what instigates them, a sense of anxiety and often also inevitable defeat and frustration likely to turn into ever more aggressive dreaming hostile to all that real otherness which does not easily square with the dream itself.

 On the other hand, some nostalgic speculations, even where they seem to take on a politically conservative coloring, must never-the-less be reckoned with in terms of their futural-progressive and also practical thrust.  The author goes on to “prominence” the utopian dimension of a nostalgia provocatively critical of the Enlightenment’s universalizing thrust…

Beyond these general remarks I am hardly able to clarify the author’s thoughts; not in my own words, certainly not in his. As Hans Blumenberg wrote in The Legibility of the World: “The tenacity with which some things return and invent their metamorphoses calls for more insistent reflection on the constancy with which other things simply abide.”

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