Academic journal article Parergon

Childhood and Loss in Early Modern Life Writing

Academic journal article Parergon

Childhood and Loss in Early Modern Life Writing

Article excerpt

Nostalgia begins as a desire for home, conceived of as a physical location from which the sufferer has departed. (1) For Johannes Hofer, the term's originator in the late seventeenth century, it described the suffering of travellers (chiefly Alpine soldiers) separated from their place of origin, who pined for the lands they had left behind. (2) Quite early in its short but intensively studied history, however, the object of nostalgic longing moves from lost place to lost time. By the late eighteenth century, Jean Starobinski notes, Kant had observed that 'what a person wishes to recover is not so much the actual place where he passed his childhood but his youth itself', a desire no physical return can satisfy. (3) As the concept moves into the modern era, this sense of nostalgia has become dominant: temporality increasingly displaces geography. In another significant shift, too, nostalgia is transformed from organic disorder to emotion, and the initial emphasis on the pain of separation is qualified with an element of pleasure in recollection. Nostalgia becomes a bittersweet emotion, 1 2 3 rather than a disease that can lead to death, and is characterised above all as a poignant yearning for an unattainable and often idealised time past. (4)

Nostalgia in this more recent sense is understood above all in relation to the modern era, as the affliction of an age disconnected from history. But where does this leave nostalgia in the premodern or indeed early modern period? Are people nostalgic before the word is invented? In one sense, obviously, yes: Hofer is describing something he sees, that pre-exists its naming. Moreover, the emotions that come together in the modern concept of nostalgia are ancient: banishment, homesickness, a bittersweet pleasure in remembering a lost past, yearning for past glories; all are recorded as far back as Homer. (5) We may want to preserve something specific about nostalgia as a constellation of all these together, and to identify the moment of its origin as significant, but its constituent parts can be explored before the concept comes into being.

However, the place of childhood as one of those constituent parts is more complex. Childhood today is often seen as the natural object of nostalgic emotion. Since the late eighteenth century, childhood has often been imagined as a time of idyllic innocence, and the passing of childhood as a loss. But early modern perspectives on the child are very different. Original sin has a clear reality in the nature of children, who are widely assumed to be greedy, vain, impertinent, lazy, disobedient, and deceitful, and these natural characteristics must be quashed. Early modern recollections of childhood register this sense of sin forcefully. Richard Norwood, for instance, comments approvingly on his parents' 'severe disposition and carriage towards me suitable to that mass of sin and folly which was bound up in my heart'. (6) Elizabeth Isham takes for granted that childishness itself is in some sense a sin; her 'nature all Stubbernes of a Childe to my mother' is in fact 'towards thee my God, whom I dissobayed in my parents'. (7) To look back on childhood with nostalgia as a time of happy irresponsibility is seldom an option.

Early modern life writing also tends to be structurally inimical to the positioning of childhood as a site of lost happiness. Spiritual autobiography, the dominant form of life writing at the time, has an anti-nostalgic trajectory: the self progresses from darkness and spiritual misery to a state of redemption and joy, and childhood belongs to the years of darkness. Moreover, childhood does not occupy the same place in terms of the narrative of selfhood more generally. The construction of identity is not primarily grounded in infancy, parenting styles, or deeply felt childhood experiences. Childhood events are significant in so far as they foreshadow future preferences and pathways, demonstrate enduring characteristics, or illustrate Gods providential intent; childhood is remembered primarily in order to identify and reflect on sin. …

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