Event Spotlight: What Nostalgia Was

February 18, 2020

As part of the History of Science Lecture series, we will be joined by Thomas Dodman, Assistant Professor of French at Columbia University, on February 19 for What Nostalgia Was: The History of a Deadly Emotion. Free and open to the public! 

Before his presentation, Thomas Dodman spoke with our work-study student Kelsey Troth about the psychological and historical underpinnings of nostalgia in his book, What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion

Images of Thomas Dodman and Kelsey Holland Troth

Nostalgia is a sense of longing for times from the past, generally associated with sentimentality and fond memories. Singers like Billy Joel describe scenes of youth in the 60s and 70s, in an attempt to evoke strong feelings from listeners who have memories of coming of age in that time period. Fashion trends return to the mainstream after a long absence when designers release products that harken back to times that customers might remember with longing, joy, sadness, or simple familiarity. Long-lived toy brands market themselves both to children as well as to parents who remember the toy sitting on a childhood shelf. Memories that evoke nostalgia provide us with a sense of rootedness, a reminder of a personal history and sense of self. However, this relatively benign impression of nostalgia is vastly different from its definition when the term was coined in the 17th century, when it was an accepted medical diagnosis and potential cause of death.

Thomas Dodman, a historian and Assistant Professor of French at Columbia University, discovered this contradiction when he stumbled upon the book The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym while taking a graduate seminar. In the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors often complained of a subtype of melancholia that caused sufferers to become apathetic, lethargic, and eventually to either waste away or succumb to another illness. They called the affliction nostalgia, and described it as an intense homesickness common in displaced individuals and populations. 

Today, we associate nostalgia with a distance in time. Nostalgia doesn’t develop quickly, but requires an incubation period, so to speak. We must first have time to miss something, and then for it to fade farther into our memory, before we can truly feel nostalgic for it. This temporal definition is a relatively recent adjustment. “For a very long time, the doctors, who are the main people who know about nostalgia, insist on it being thought of spatially because that’s the way you could cure it. You can send somebody back home, in space. You can’t send somebody back in time,” explains Dodman. He adds that it isn’t quite so clear-cut, and that some people at the time acknowledged a temporal aspect to the illness. A sufferer misses not just his home but also the memories and feelings attached to it, which may stem all the way from childhood. But in European medical communities of this period, nostalgia was diagnosed, investigated, and treated as a problem stemming from a person’s physical distance from home.

Cover image of book

Nostalgia epidemics proved to be a major problem for the French army during the Napoleonic period, since a single nostalgic soldier could sometimes infect his entire unit. Military doctors took nostalgia very seriously, and medical certificates from the time list some soldiers’ cause of death as nostalgia, or as other diseases that they specify were caused by a case of nostalgia. As Dodman describes, “It was a vector, an accelerator, an original cause of some other physical disease such as tuberculosis, cholera, or various other sorts of diseases more visibly killing the body.” Nostalgia appears to have acted as an immunosuppressant, weakening the sufferer until they could no longer fight off the other illnesses common in military camps at the time. Alternatively, some doctors claimed patients could die of “fits of nostalgia,” in a manner similar to a heart attack but caused by a sudden emotional breakdown.

Evidence of nostalgia is perhaps most common in military archives because doctors at the time prioritized the health of soldiers, but there is evidence of nostalgia in other populations as well. Enslaved workers, who were often far from home against their will and living under duress and oppression, were also vulnerable to outbreaks of nostalgia. Colonists, as another displaced population, often exhibited symptoms of nostalgia and were diagnosed and treated in ways different from those in the military. The variety of sources provides insight into other aspects of the affliction. For instance, doctors at the time disagreed on the effect of grouping on nostalgia. Some experts claimed that living away from home, but with a group of countrymen or familiar faces, could help alleviate homesickness and prevent the onset of nostalgia. Other experts claimed keeping groups of migrants or expatriates from the same region together exacerbated the issue. Nostalgia was considered an infectious disease. One case of nostalgia could spread into an epidemic, and so surrounding oneself with other people who were also far from home and prone to nostalgia could actually provide a vector for infection.

Dodman’s research fits into a relatively new subsection of history, dubbed the History of Emotions. “People are not rational-choice actors,” he says. “Throughout history, people have done things clearly on a more emotional, rather than rational, level. So we have a very impoverished understanding of motivations in history if we don’t make the attempt to understand the history of emotional life.” The emotions present in a population are partially dependent on the time period and the world in which the population lives. The political, economic, religious, and societal aspects of life all affect the way emotions manifest in a population, as well as how individuals respond to those emotions. Nostalgia’s transformation over the years represents the malleability of emotion, and makes clear the need for more insight into the psyche of people throughout history in order to understand historical events on a deeper, more personal level. It also provides fascinating insight into the medical and scientific climate of the time. “Today, nobody dies of the English Sweat, but people took it very seriously in the Middle Ages, as they probably should. And so, we have to take seriously the diagnoses from the time, including to the point that they could cause death,” says Dodman. Understanding how doctors investigated nostalgia with the tools and knowledge available to them at the time gives insight into the scientific process and the advancement of knowledge throughout history.