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Defining Nostalgia—Disease or Emotion?

Written By Jack Budington

September 30, 2022

On August 25, 1768, a ship carrying 94 Royal Navy sailors left Plymouth, England with 18 months of provisions.

HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland, painting by Samuel Atkins c. 1794

On board was the naturalist, Joseph Banks, along with a group of scientists prepared to measure the transit of Venus across the sun to help calculate the size of the solar system.

The process required measurements from different parts of the globe to reduce calculation errors. The HMS Endeavour, captained by James Cook, was headed to the Society Islands to observe the transit.

But unbeknownst to the crew, Captain Cook possessed a secret set of orders that would take his ship far past Tahiti, across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand and Australia—claiming these territories for England.

The journey would last over a thousand days and not only added to the English Empire—it added the word nostalgia to the popular lexicon.

The origins of the word nostalgia lie in a much earlier voyage.

Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor living in the late 1600s, was writing his thesis on the tendency for Swiss mercenaries to become homesick when fighting on the battlefields of Europe. The nostalgia that Hofer envisioned was a disease, not an emotion, and he hypothesized it was caused by a difference of air pressure in the highlands of Switzerland, where the Swiss mercenaries lived, and lowland Europe, where they fought.

While a word for homesickness already existed in German (heimewehe), all serious medical ailments in the 17th century had to be translated into Latin. Ironically, Hofer, like much of the learned community of the time, was a bit “nostalgic” about the classical past. Hofer drew inspiration from Odysseus’s tortured 20-year sail to find his way back home and combined the Greek word nostos, meaning homecoming, with algos, meaning pain.

It is likely through one of these writings that Joseph Banks first learned of the nostalgia condition.

An excerpt from Joseph Banks’ journal, from the State Library New South Wales

Much like Hofer’s Swiss mercenaries, the Endeavour crew found themselves in a foreign world. They had traveled to the far side of the globe, encountering new flora and fauna. They were generally unprepared for the cultures they encountered in what are now the nations of Australia and New Zealand, leading to open hostility with the indigenous peoples. The sailors were miserable, unmotivated, and in Bank’s opinion, seriously ill.

“No small satisfaction of I believe thre[e] fourths of our company the sick became well and the melancholy look[e]d gay. The greatest part of them were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia.”

And with that journal entry, the English language had a new word—a disease known as nostalgia.

Most of us today don’t think of nostalgia as a disease. So how did the definition evolve from a medical diagnosis to an emotional state? Why the transformation from a condition caused by a distant place to a longing for a past period of time? To answer that question, we must recognize the changes that were occurring during the period of the Endeavour expedition.

Banks and Hofer were caught up in what is now known as The Enlightenment—a period of scientific curiosity focused on the workings of the world. The seemingly emotionless practice of observation led to a predictable counter reaction from a growing body of artists known as the Romantics. This group of writers and poets revolted against a society they felt both over-rationalized and suppressed the emotional, individualistic, and unknowable elements of the human spirit. They believed the past played an important role in shaping our inner world.

Beginning in 1829, the author Honoré de Balzac wrote a series of works titled La Comédie humaine. In it, he would broaden the meaning of many well-known terms, including nostalgia. He redefined the word’s meaning from a longing for home to a broader longing for some “fantastical, thwarted passion that could be directed toward any number of, impossible dreams.”

Prospectus for the first edition of La Comédie humaine published by Furne.

After Balzac, nostalgia began to be understood as an emotional state rather than a disease. It became associated specifically with time in large part due to the common themes of Romantic and especially Gothic literature. Often these works explored past loves, past failures, and a bygone childhood. In the same way that separation from one’s home can leave individuals uprooted, isolated, and alienated, the Romantics understood that time could have a similar effect.

In 1920, English author D. H. Lawrence wrote The Lost Girl.

“The terror, the agony, the nostalgia of the heathen past was a constant torture to her mediumistic soul.”

This line described the juxtaposition of emotions felt by the progressive protagonist, Alvina Houghton, as she contemplated her long and complicated life. And with that writing, the English language gained a new definition of the word nostalgia.

Today, looking towards the past is a common theme in our culture. We revisit old clothing styles, spin vinyl records, and watch ‘80s themed television shows like “Stranger Things.” Whenever our world undergoes great change, like a global health pandemic and the associated cultural gulfs created, it becomes easy to seek comfort in the past. But while nostalgia might pacify the insecurities created by change, it won’t stop change from occurring. So what should a progressive thinker do to avoid the nostalgia trap?

We are optimists at More Vang. Optimism, like nostalgia, is a word that’s meaning has changed over time. When Gottfried Leibniz first coined the term, he was making an argument that the world we are living in is the best possible world. At More Vang, we subscribe to this view of optimism; we believe there is opportunity in change, and our ability to adapt is what truly makes us great. We must all believe in our own self-efficacy to recognize that we are living in the best possible world.

Change does happen. But that doesn’t mean it has to happen to us. It can happen for us.