Culture

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

Nostalgia. Story of a deadly emotion

by Thomas Dodman

Threshold, 314 p., €23.50

Open Littré’s dictionary, published in 1872, to the word nostalgia. Surprised, you read: Medicine term. Thomas Dodman, Franco-British historian who teaches at Columbia, explains to us: Littré was right, the nostalgia that moves us today via sepia photos or childhood memories, was until the end of the 19e century a disease that we caught, fatal on occasion. And the ravages of which were observed particularly among the military.

A mysterious evil

The hare was raised in 1688 by a medical student from Mulhouse, Jean Hofer, in his thesis From Nostalgiawho created this neologism from the Greek nostosthe return, and algorithms, pain: a pathology that first deserved a nosology, then a clinic and sometimes even surgery. It was a homesickness, a Heimweh the Germans would say, a syndrome in the troop of the impossible return to the home, especially identifiable then among Swiss mercenaries scrapping in Alsace: distraught as soon as they intoned the Ranz des vaches of the Helvetian shepherd; languishing despite their proverbial bravery as soon as they thought of the green pastures of their home township.

The evil ran also in the Swiss guards of Louis XIV as soon as the officers wanted to involve them in a more modern war which ignored the Ranz. In the XVIIIe century, military doctors therefore set out to understand if not treat this mysterious illness and they accumulated atmospheric, vitalist, humoral explanations, through the racial degeneration of the mountaineers and even the agitation of “animal spirits”. But without being able to fully understand why he threw sailors into the sea dreaming of tender grass, nor how a “moral affection” or a “passion of the soul” could aggravate consumption or scurvy.

A widowhood with the “country”

The matter was even more serious with the wars of the Revolution and the Empire. Because the levy in mass then the generalized conscription made epidemic the strange evil, for example at Bretons deprived of their language, Ariègeois of the Guard blocked in Poland or conscripts of 1813 who wanted to see again their Vosges. So much so that this widowhood with the “country” reduced many troops to the state of “vegetation”, even drove some of them to madness or suicide, despite the efforts of the health services and the officers.

Then throughout the 19the century the disease has regressed. It remained terrible even during the Crimean War, it disarmed colonial troops, Alsatian pioneers in Algeria or exiles in New Caledonia. We still spot it during the Great War, for example among the Basques who were so heroic on the Chemin des Dames. But the evolution of war itself and of modern civilization has overcome it, when leave was more regular, the army post finally organized, communications multiplied, reducing the distance between the present and the past, violence so present of the war and the innate sweetness of the landscapes of yesteryear.

So much so that our nostalgia today has imposed itself, since the 1880s, as an intimate feature of memory and history more than a geography of uprooting. It went from military to civilian, from malignity to emotion, from pathological to the banality inherent in the human condition. The madeleine of Proust rather than the Ranz des vaches.

Source : BBN NEWS

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