Death By Nostalgia
Please don’t get too close to me. I’m coming down with something. Actually, I had it for a while. Now, thanks to Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student who lived from 1669-1752, I have a diagnosis. Ladies and gentlemen, I have nostalgia.
Hofer coined the term “nostalgia” in his 1688 dissertation. This was based on two cases he saw of young people who were ill with otherwise unexplainable symptoms — both physical (fever, palpations, fatigue, loss of appetite) and mental (anxiety and depression). After these patients returned home, the symptoms subsided and they were cured. This led to Hofer’s belief that he “discovered” a new “disease,” combining the Greek terms nostos (returning home) andalgia (pain) to describe an entirely new ailment. He described it as “the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again.”
I’ve lived in New York City since before — “before” with an uppercase B. Before the bad things happened. They happened to everyone. Then they happened to me. I still live in New York City, but also, I miss New York City.
Nostalgia or “homesickness” as it was later called in the U.S., swept through the countries of Europe and was a particular problem for soldiers battling abroad. Over the next hundred years, there were outbreaks in many places — it was mal du pays in France, el mal de corazón (heart sickness) in Spain, or, in Germany, ofheimweh (home pain). Even 200 years later during the American Civil War, nostalgia was still considered a medical affliction. Two years into the Civil war, two thousand soldiers had been diagnosed with nostalgia, and a few even had it listed as their cause of death.
My nostalgia usually flares up at night. There is an orange glow outside my window from the sodium vapor in the streetlights. It’s like someone melted down a cough drop and poured it over Manhattan. Suddenly, my eyes are Polaroid cameras and all the images in my brain float through on Ken Burns effect. I associate that faded-honey tint with memories of the 1970s. I wasn’t alive in the 70s, but that is when those light bulbs were introduced. It’s probably because of something I saw on TV.
Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” — Peter De Vries
Is there a word for inadvertently appropriating images from some kind of collective memory? Without meaning to, I’ve pilfered mental mementos of other people, both real and fictional. I’ve embezzled recollections. Sure, I also have my own memories: my childhood, mix-tapes, Julys, subway rides, love, eleven moves, and sitting in restaurants that aren’t here anymore with people who aren’t here anymore.
There is a German word Sehnsucht (life-longing) that C.S. Lewis described in The Pilgrim’s Regress as “inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what.”
Sometimes my disease gives me pangs for Sundays in the park, the wicker seats on the Third Avenue El, playing stickball, and going to Catholic school in 1958 in the Bronx. Those are stories my father told me from his life, but I miss them like they’re mine. Other times there is an ache in my chest and a breath that catches every time I watch E.T., Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Kate & Allie, or even just the opening credits to Family Ties, and itmakes me want to crawl inside of my television and live there where it’s safe.
I’m really doing the advertisers job for them. Aren’t they supposed to create an authentic-feeling nonpast where everything was perfect? Don’t they do this in order to sell me things I will buy, so that I might pick them up like breadcrumbs leading me on the path back toward my idealized and fictional “home”? Isn’t there a microwave to remind me that I am Donna Reed and terrorism doesn’t exist?
We are talking now of summer evening in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child… Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire breathes. Content silver, like peeps of light, each cricket makes his comment over and over in the drowned grass… On the wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there.” – James Agee, Knoxville: Summer 1915
The object of my longing isn’t a microwave, the lawn of James Agee’s American South, a stickball game, or The Keaton Family living room. It isn’t even my home. It’s for the parts of the past that aren’t here now and aren’t coming back. I’ve always struggled with impermanence; I have my reasons.
Doctors once prescribed such remedies for nostalgia as purging, opium, leeches, and warm hypnotic emulsions.
The difference between homesickness and nostalgia is that one is yearning for a place and the other is pining for a time. This time is most likely in the past but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I never experienced it or that it never existed at all. Besides a few important exceptions, homesickness is curable while nostalgia is chronic.
The symptoms of my nostalgia are easily available on the imaginary medical records of my metaphorical nostalgia specialist, Dr. Roman Ticizing. I am deficient in things like “when no one had cell phones and spontaneity existed,” “when all my friends lived in the same place (either time)” or “before the bad things happened.” I am feverish with memory, public and private. I have a fatigue from walking by one too many bars that aren’t here anymore, where I used to drink with people who aren’t here anymore.
“I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.” — Lou Reed
In addition to my aforementioned symptoms, the discarded yellow cigarette boxes sprinkled like dirty Easter eggs all over the sidewalks are to blame for my occasional nostalgic pallor. I don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked. The headaches of mild privilege allow me to mourn the past without too much distraction from actual problems. I am aware that people have actual problems.
“We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” – Carson McCullers
Things that haven’t cure my nostalgia: cranberry juice, water, shots, vitamins, candy, Aleve, stretching, and music. Definitely do not try music. My nostalgia makes me feel older than I am. But I am older than I am. Or older than most people think I am. I’m the type of person who gets carded by the bartender in bars with no bouncers. My appearance isn’t necessarily all that youthful, but I do look inexperienced — and I’m not.
Once, while trying to soothe an outbreak of nostalgia, I wrote to someone, “You are fleeting and I am fleeting, but we are eternal.” Let’s all hold hands and puke about that. When I think about how cheesy that sounds I truly do get nauseated, which, for the record, is not a symptom of nostalgia. She wrote back that if I really believed that I would just let go. She wasn’t talking about herself by the way; this isn’t that kind of story. Or at least it’s not that part of it. It’s funny how difficult it can be to let go of something that’s no longer there. I would be literally the world’s worst Buddhist.
There is a word in Portuguese that has no direct English translation. At times, it can be used to express an emotional longing for a beloved and absent person or thing. The word is “saudade” and it refers to a nearly indefinable nostalgic condition. Some say saudade is “the love that remains” after someone or something is gone. I’m not fluent in Portuguese, but I think there’s probably more to it than that.
Luckily there’s a clinic for people like me. It’s invisible, but I can visit it 24-hours a day. To get there I take the avenue in my mind that only runs through the present, I exhale instead of sigh, and I keep my eyes on the horizon so I don’t get lost. It doesn’t cure me entirely, but it lets me live with it. I guess the revised title to this essay is “life by nostalgia.” The muscle twinges from all of my dislocated memories hurt less when I stop twisting around to see what’s behind me, so I’m going to try to glance back a little less. I’m looking forward to it.
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