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Nostalgia: A History of a Dangerous Emotion by Agnes Arnold-Forster review – the past isn’t a foreign place

Nostalgia: A History of a Dangerous Emotion by Agnes Arnold-Forster review – the past isn’t a foreign place

Agnes Arnold-Forster was once a very nostalgic child. An avid reader of Enid Blyton novels, she tells us, she unsuccessfully begged her parents to “divert me from my 1990s London primary to a boarding school in 1950s Cornwall”. Although her training as an academic historian naturally taught her to be suspicious of such yearnings for an imaginary past, she has now written a book that combines wide-ranging historical analysis with a (cautious) “defence of nostalgia”.

While neuroscientists sometimes treat emotions as human universals, historians are keen to show how the words we use to describe our feelings, and indeed the feelings themselves, change with the times. “Nostalgia was one of the most studied medical conditions of the 19th century,” Arnold-Forster explains, believed to cause “palpitations and unexplained ruptures in the skin” as well as depression and disturbed sleep. It was first diagnosed among 17th-century Swiss mercenaries and referred to “a kind of pathological patriotic love, an intense and dangerous homesickness”. (Since sufferers were assumed to be missing the pure mountain air, one doctor suggested they should be put in tall towers to recuperate.) It was not until the early 20th century that homesickness and nostalgia in the current sense began to be seen as distinct.

Yet it continued to be treated as rather suspect. In the mid-20th century, a psychoanalyst called Nandor Fodor dismissed nostalgia, along with utopian politics and even the vogue for Tarzan films, as “the manifestation of a latent desire to return to the womb”. He was of a generation that had been forced to flee political upheavals in eastern Europe, so it is unsurprising that he had little time for “backward-looking navel-gazing”. Otto Bettmann, a writer who left Nazi Germany to make a new life in the US, expressed a similar attitude in a 1974 book titled The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!

It was also in the 1970s that journalists began fretting about “a wave of nostalgia”, citing evidence such as “Gatsby clothing styles”, “films about the ‘olden days’” and a booming market in antiques and collectibles. Ever since, writes Arnold-Forster, pundits have “claimed their particular moment in time as acutely and unusually backward-looking”. Some have blamed the disruptive effects of technological change, with one television producer suggesting recently that we are fixated on the 1990s because they were the last time when “people were looking up” and not just down at their phones.

None of this is new. Moral panics, accompanied by calls for a return to a simpler age, once greeted the advent of frightening “new technologies” such as telephones and trains. Looking at this history, the author hopes, “might help alleviate some of the current worry” by showing us: “We’ve experienced periods of rapid progress before, and humanity has survived.”

An intriguing section of the book explores the nostalgia for the communist era in eastern Europe, reflected in the revival of 1970s-style sausages and efforts to save the “illuminated image of a man wearing a hat in pedestrian-crossing lights” (inspired by a photo of former East Germany leader Erich Honecker). Here nostalgia, as the author puts it, reminds people that they often had interesting lives before 1989 that they don’t want to be “reduced to a bleak caricature” of dour oppression and so “rendered entirely meaningless”.

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More generally, she seeks to celebrate the benefits of nostalgia and challenge the notion that it is simply “sick, sentimental or stupid”, and tainted by its “associations with populism and intellectual vacuity”. She cites research indicating that it can play an important therapeutic role, for example, in delaying senility. It can be harnessed to build commitment around progressive as well as conservative causes. “Feelgood stories in the local press about your local hospital, period dramas portraying 1950s midwives, and dancing paediatric nurses” in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony may all be “helping the NHS to continue to survive”.

This ambitious book touches on everything from the American civil war to advertising agencies, brain science to the Beach Boys, re-enactment societies to reconstructions of Victorian towns, although its arguments sometimes feel suggestive rather than fully worked through. Even if nostalgia is a less “dangerous emotion” today than it seems to have been to the Swiss soldiers, it well deserves to be taken seriously and sympathetically. We are clearly stuck with it and it would itself be a silly kind of nostalgia to think we could ever go back to some imagined pre-nostalgic age.

Source: theguardian.com