Nostalgia. We can all easily recognise this sweet and bitter feeling, so well transmitted by a mournful fado song, an old Ashkenazi melody played by a lonely violin, or a pre-war black-and-white picture of kids playing in some sunny street of an old town. The latter image evokes Nostalgia, simply because neither the street nor the kids exist any longer.
Svetlana Boym, Russian American Harvard Professor and researcher in Humanities, in her book dedicated to Nostalgia, gives a perfect definition of the phenomenon: “Nostalgia (from nostos-return home, and algia-longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one's own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of Nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.” (Boym, S., 2001)
As I work with all kinds of displaced people – expats, emigrants, globe-trotters – I get in touch with Nostalgia-related feelings on a daily basis. I find that expats are real specialists of long-distance relationships with family and friends spread all over the globe.
In any kind of psychodynamic therapy, we work on what is in-between the past and the present. And, in therapy with emigrants, this duality is represented by the ‘home’ and the ‘abroad’. So, Nostalgia becomes a therapist’s best ally, a guide into that past world, which rarely disappears from our dreams or nightmares.
Exploring the phenomenon of post-communist Nostalgia in the former Soviet bloc, the Professor of History from Illinois University Maria Todorova mentions that “If Nostalgia is about, loosely, some form of remembrance, our task is to analyse all of this – in short, to put thoughts to memories.” (Todorova in Post-communist Nostalgia, 2010)
This process of putting together the pieces of our stories, integrating our emotional experience with our cognitive reality, makes us become more whole. I know, from first hand experiences, that life stories involving expatriation can feel messy and fragmented. To bring their lines together, making a more meaningful outline, is an even more important task.
Therapy then becomes a safe transitional space where we can allow ourselves to look at the chaotic material of our movable worlds. Appreciating the diverse quality and the richness of this material, we use its spread parts to construct a more integrated self.
In her autobiography, the Polish American writer and academic, Eva Hoffman strikingly shares her lived experience of Nostalgia: “It is a feeling whose shades and degrees I am destined to know intimately, but at this hovering moment, it comes upon me like a visitation from a whole new geography of emotions, an annunciation of how much an absence can hurt”. Her writing serves the same purpose as the narrative therapy – by creating meaning she overcomes the trauma of the exile and gets her own story right.
Nostomania is a whole other story. It is usually seen as a rare medical condition that describes a person with an abnormal desire to go back and relive moments in the past. Somebody suffering from Nostomania displays an obsessive interest in Nostalgia, especially as an extreme manifestation of homesickness.
The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who lived half of his life in exile, reflected at length on this condition: “… a writer in exile is, by and large, a retrospective and retroactive being. In other words, retrospection plays an excessive (compared with other people’s lives) role in his existence, overshadowing his reality and dimming the future into something thicker then its usual pea soup. Like the false prophets in Dante’s Inferno, his head is forever turned backward and his tears, or saliva, are running down between his shoulder blades.” (Brodsky, J. 2011)
Many emigrants have these peculiar back-looking parts within them, this stuckness experienced particularly by sufferers of Nostomania.
Both Nostalgia and Nostomania are about loss. The pain we experience looking back is often due to the loss of what we had in the past and do not have any more in the present. All these people we left behind, all these houses, pieces of furniture, landscapes and books lost forever. The fact that they keep existing somewhere without us makes the whole experience even more painful. In the French poet Edmond Haraucourt’s line “partir c’est mourir un peu” (to leave is to die a little) there is a deep truth any expatriate knows about: every time we leave a place we leave some parts of our beings behind. And this is scary.
Fear of facing loss can result in an aversion to therapy.
Many clients chose a briefer approach to psychotherapy hoping to solve their current problem without too much examining their history.
Others simply never come preferring to leave ghosts of the past behind.
This typical resistance is often linked to the belief that, if we do look back, something catastrophic may befall on us, exactly as it happened to the biblical Lot’s wife who turned into a pillar of salt because she did look back when escaping their burning town of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis XIX, 1-29). She literally froze, illustrating the frozenness of certain traumatized patients. The biblical injunction to not look back, and the promise of punishment, speaks for the very grounds of this fear. Can we look back to the past without getting stuck with regrets?
When we explore our nostalgic feelings, they are often coloured with sadness but also with joy. Contrarily to Nostomania, Nostalgia involves an acceptance of loss and an integration of the past experience.
In the safety of the therapeutic relationship, we attempt to build bridges between the past and the present.
After all, in this specific setting one is not expected to look back alone. The ghosts of our past look scarier when the lights are off. There is a difference between entering that dark room alone or alongside someone who can switch on the light for us.
I love the sweetness of Nostalgia. It brings me back in touch with my loss, which I can explore, accept, and integrate. After all, these experiences make this particular life my life.
Boym, S. The Future of Nostalgia Basic Books, 2001
Brodsky, J. On grief and reason, Modern Classics, 2011
Hoffman, E. Lost in Translation, London: Vintage Books, 1998
Post-communist Nostalgia, edited by Maria Todorova and Zsuzsa Gille. Berghahn Books, 2010