Academic journal article Change Over Time

Nostalgia, Architecture, Ruins, and Their Preservation

Academic journal article Change Over Time

Nostalgia, Architecture, Ruins, and Their Preservation

Article excerpt

What's wrong With nostalgia? Indeed. It would depend on the meaning we chose for this multifarious term. Should we stick to some of its stricter readings, everything could go to rack and ruin, literally. "Nothing can be restored," and, "Nothing can be preserved": this is what we could hear listening to the sirens' song of nostalgia. Because nostalgia is by definition what admits no cures. Or is it?

From Disease to Discomfort

Born at the end of the seventeenth century, "created" by a Swiss doctor who coined the word, nostalgia was at the beginning a possibly mortal, but at least curable disease. As anybody interested in this curious story will immediately glean from standard encyclopedias, Johannes Hofer (this is the name of the doctor) used the term to diagnose a particular illness to which Swiss soldiers, far-off their native valleys, were prone.1 Beyond the usual palliatives of the time including purging and bleeding, the only effective cure was to return home. Etymology explains the concept: a crasis between the Greek words ??st?? (homecoming) and ????? (ache). Coming from Homer, ??st?? describes in a word the vicissitudes of Ulysses, himself a nostalgic ante litteram. So that, apparently, a new word gives social reality to something that was already there, albeit confused in the elusive world of feelings. But the emergence of a new term, and its vast subsequent success, seems to speak of new necessities, as we will see. For the time being, what is noteworthy about the particular choice for the name is that Hofer makes a use of words, as Svetlana Boym wittily observes,2 which is itself nostalgic. This is something more than a joke, because it reveals a character of nostalgia that in time will become ever more evident: its inclination toward self-referentiality.

For something more than a century, "nostalgia" remained mainly a medical term, spreading along with the disease it described in almost all the countries of the Old and the New World, affecting mostly soldiers and sailors, eventually accompanied in every country it touched by a native translation (heimweh, homesickness, mal du pays, saudade, litost, toska, . . .), as if to write, across the global phenomenon, a peculiar bond with place (as opposed to generic space), rendering its meaning untranslatable.3 By the first half of the nineteenth century, however, progress in the field of medical diagnosis veered more and more toward a description of this particular syndrome in terms of what today we would describe as a psychosomatic deficiency of the immune system, and credited its mortal properties to more "mechanical" causes (mostly tuberculosis and septicemia). This, together with the increase of the term for laymen, accelerated the transfer of nostalgia into the stable position that it holds still today in both literary and everyday language.

This is where we come across nostalgia in its modern meaning: nostalgia becomes a modern feeling, not to say the modern feeling, part and parcel with the nascent Romantic Weltanschauung, its success parallel to the reaching, in human minds, of completely new definitions for a set of ideas, such as, for what is our concern here, both history and individuality. A modern sense of history is certainly a key: that history has been given a direction that is irreversible has been often described as a particular stage in human thought, attained by the end of the eighteenth century as the result of a centuries-old process of secularization, started with Humanism and fueled in the Enlightenment, by nascent industrialization and new social and economic settlements, and detonated with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. All of these directly impacted an everincreasing number of people, all involved in the collective task of changing the course of events and having the impression of actually "seeing" a sort of super individual entity, called History, moving forward and changing things forever.4

What's more, the past is forever past: history, in this process, ceases to be a magistra vitae with plenty of useful lessons always present to hand down, and becomes an account of what is now irretrievably out of reach. …

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