The Disease of Nostalgia

“The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them.”
― Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is one of those strange medical conditions from the past, first observed in 17th century soldiers being sent off to foreign lands during that era of power struggles between colonial empires. It’s lost that medical framing since then, as it is now seen as a mere emotion or mood or quality. And it has become associated with the reactionary mind and invented traditions. We no longer take it seriously, sometimes even dismissing it as a sign of immaturity.

But it used to be considered a physiological disease with measurable symptoms such as brain inflammation along with serious repercussions, as the afflicted could literally waste away and die. It was a profound homesickness experienced as an existential crisis of identity, a longing for a particular place and and the sense of being uprooted from it.  Then it shifted from a focus on place to a focus on time. It became more abstract and, because of that, it lost its medical status. This happened simultaneously as a new disease, neurasthenia, took its place in the popular imagination.

In America, nostalgia never took hold to the same degree as it did in Europe. It finally made its appearance in the American Civil War, only to be dismissed as unmanly and weak character, a defect and deficiency. It was a disease of civilization, but it strongly affected the least civilized, such as rural farmers. America was sold as a nation of progress and so attachment to old ways was deemed unAmerican. Neurasthenia better fit the mood that the ruling elite sought to promote and, unlike nostalgia, it was presented as a disease of the most civilized, although over time it too became a common malady, specifically as it was Europeanized.

Over the centuries, there was a shift in the sense of time. Up through the early colonial era, a cyclical worldview remained dominant (John Demos, Circles and Lines). As time became linear, there was no possibility of a return. The revolutionary era permanently broke the psychological link between past and future. There was even a revolution in the understanding of ‘revolution’ itself, a term that originated from astrology and literally meant a cyclical return. In a return, there is replenishment. But without that possibility, one is thrown back on individual reserves that are limited and must be managed. The capitalist self of hyper-individualism is finally fully formed. That is what neurasthenia was concerned with and so nostalgia lost its explanatory power. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes:

“From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the representation of time itself changed; it moved away from allegorical human figures— an old man, a blind youth holding an hourglass, a woman with bared breasts representing Fate— to the impersonal language of numbers: railroad schedules, the bottom line of industrial progress. Time was no longer shifting sand; time was money. Yet the modern era also allowed for multiple conceptions of time and made the experience of time more individual and creative.”

As society turned toward an ethos of the dynamic, it became ungrounded and unstable. Some of the last healthy ties to the bicameral mind were severed. (Interestingly, in early diagnoses of nostalgia as a disease, Boym states that, “One of the early symptoms of nostalgia was an ability to hear voices or see ghosts.” That sounds like the bicameral mind re-emerging under conditions of stress, not unlike John Geiger’s third man factor. In nostalgia as in the archaic mind, there is a secret connection between language and music, as united through voice — see Development of Language and Music and Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral.)

Archaic authorization mutated into totalitarianism, a new refuge for the anxiety-riddled mind. And the emerging forms of authoritarianism heavily draw upon the nostalgic turn (Ben G. Price, Authoritarian Grammar and Fundamentalist Arithmetic Part II), just as did the first theocracies (religion, writes Julian Jaynes, is “the nostalgic anguish for the lost bicamerality of a subjectively conscious people”), even as or especially because the respectable classes dismissed it. This is courting disaster for the archaic mind still lives within us, still speaks in the world, even if the voices are no longer recognized.

The first laments of loss echoed out from the rubble of the Bronze Age and, precisely as the longing has grown stronger, the dysfunctions associated with it have become normalized. But how disconnected and lost in abstractions can we get before either we become something entirely else or face another collapse?

“Living amid an ongoing epidemic that nobody notices is surreal. It is like viewing a mighty river that has risen slowly over two centuries, imperceptibly claiming the surrounding land, millimeter by millimeter. . . . Humans adapt remarkably well to a disaster as long as the disaster occurs over a long period of time”
~E. Fuller Torrey & Judy Miller, Invisible Plague

* * *

As a side note, I’d point to utopia as being the other side of the coin to nostalgia. And so the radical is the twin of the reactionary. In a different context, I said something about shame that could apply equally well to nostalgia (“Why are you thinking about this?”): “The issue of shame is a sore spot where conservatism and liberalism have, from their close proximity, rubbed each other raw. It is also a site of much symbolic conflation, the linchpin like a stake in the ground to which a couple of old warriors are tied in their ritual dance of combat and wounding, where both are so focused on one another that neither pays much attention to the stake that binds them together. In circling around, they wind themselves ever tighter and their tethers grow shorter.”

In conversing with someone on the political left, an old pattern became apparent. This guy, although with a slight radical bent, is a fairly mainstream liberal coming out of the Whiggish tradition of ‘moderate’ progressivism, an ideological mindset that is often conservative-minded and sometimes reactionary (e.g., lesser evil voting no matter how evil it gets). This kind of person is forever pulling their punches. To continue from the same piece, I wrote that, “The conservative’s task is much easier for the reason that most liberals don’t want to untangle the knot, to remove the linchpin. Still, that is what conservative’s fear, for they know liberals have that capacity, no matter how unlikely they are to act on it. This fear is real. The entire social order is dependent on overlapping symbolic conflations, each a link in a chain, and so each a point of vulnerability.”

To pull that linchpin would require confronting the concrete issue at hand, getting one’s hands dirty. But that is what the moderate progressive fears for the liberal mind feels safe and protected within abstractions. Real-world context will always be sacrificed. Such a person mistrusts the nostalgia of the reactionary while maybe fearing even more the utopianism of the radical, flitting back and forth between one to the other and never getting anywhere. So, they entirely retreat from the battle and lose themselves in comforting fantasies of abstract ideals (making them prone to false equivalencies in their dreams of equality). In doing so, despite being well informed, they miss the trees for the forest, miss the reality on the ground for all the good intentions.

Neither nostalgia nor utopianism can offer a solution, even as both indicate the problem. That isn’t to say there is an escape either for that also reinforces the pattern of anxiety, of fear and hope. The narrative predetermines our roles and the possibilities of action. We need a new narrative. The disease model of the human psyche, framed as nostalgia or neurasthenia or depression or anything else, is maybe not so helpful. Yet we have to take seriously that the stress of modernity is not merely something in people’s minds. Scapegoating the individual simply distracts from the failure of individualism. These conditions of identity are both real and imagined — that is what makes them powerful, whatever name they go by and ideology they serve.

* * *

Let me throw out some loose thoughts. There is something that feels off about our society and it is hard to put one’s finger on. That is why, in our free floating anxiety, we look for anything to grab hold of. Most of the public debates that divide the public are distractions from the real issue that we don’t know how to face, much less how to comprehend. These red herrings of social control are what I call symbolic conflation. To put it simply, there is plenty of projecting going on — and it is mutual from all sides involved and its extremely distorted.

I’ll leave it at that. What is important for my purposes here is the anxiety itself, the intolerable sense of dissatisfaction or dukkha. Interestingly, this sense gets shifted onto the individual and so further justifies the very individualism that is at the heart of the problem. It is our individuality that makes us feel so ill at ease with the world because it disconnects and isolates us. The individual inevitably fails because individualism is ultimately impossible. We are social creatures through and through. It requires immense effort to create and maintain individuality, and sweet Jesus! is it tiresome. That is the sense of being drained that is common across these many historical conditions, from the earlier melancholia to the present depression and everything in between.

Since the beginning of modernity, there has been a fear that too many individuals are simply not up to the task. When reading about these earlier ‘diseases’, there is a common thread running across the long history. The message is how will the individual be made to get in line with modern world, not how to get the modern world in line with human nature. The show must go on. Progress must continue. There is no going back, so we’re told. Onward and upward. This strain of endless change and uncertainty has required special effort in enculturating and indoctrinating each new generation. In the Middle Ages and in tribal cultures, children weren’t special but basically considered miniature adults. There was no protected childhood with an extended period to raise, train, and educate the child. But in our society, the individual has to be made, as does the citizen and the consumer. None of this comes naturally and so must be artificially imposed. The child will resist and more than a few will come out the other side with severe damage, but the sacrifice must be made for the greater good of society.

This was seen, in the United States, most clearly after the American Revolution. Citizen-making became a collective project. Children needed to be shaped into a civic-minded public. And as seen in Europe, adults needed to be forced into a national identity, even if it required bullying or even occasionally burying a few people alive to get the point across No stragglers will be allowed! (Nonetheless, a large part of the European population maintained local identities until the world war era.) Turning boys into men became a particular obsession in the early 20th century with all of the building of parks, advocacy for hunting and fishing, creation of the Boy Scouts, and on and on. Boys used to turn into men spontaneously without any needed intervention, but with nostalgia and neurasthenia there was this growing fear of effeminacy and degeneracy. The civilizing project was important and must be done, no matter how many people are harmed in the process, even genocides. Creating the modern nation-state was a brutal and often bloody endeavor. No one willingly becomes a modern individual. It only happens under threat of violence and punishment.

By the way, this post is essentially an elaboration on my thoughts from another post, The Crisis of Identity. In that other post, I briefly mention nostalgia, but the focus was more on neurasthenia and related topics. It’s an extensive historical survey. This is part of a longer term intellectual project of mine, in trying to make sense of this society and how it came to be this way. Below are some key posts to consider, although I leave out those related to Jaynesian and related scholarship because that is a large area of thought all on its own (if interested, look at the tags for ConsciousnessBicameral MindJulian Jaynes, and Lewis Hyde):

The Transparent Self to Come?
Technological Fears and Media Panics
Western Individuality Before the Enlightenment Age
Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males
The Breast To Rule Them All
The Agricultural Mind
“Yes, tea banished the fairies.”
Autism and the Upper Crust
Diets and Systems
Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Individualism and Isolation
Hunger for Connection
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

* * *

The Future of Nostalgia
by Svetlana Boym
pp. 25-30

Nostalgia was said to produce “erroneous representations” that caused the afflicted to lose touch with the present. Longing for their native land became their single-minded obsession. The patients acquired “a lifeless and haggard countenance,” and “indifference towards everything,” confusing past and present, real and imaginary events. One of the early symptoms of nostalgia was an ability to hear voices or see ghosts. Dr. Albert von Haller wrote: “One of the earliest symptoms is the sensation of hearing the voice of a person that one loves in the voice of another with whom one is conversing, or to see one’s family again in dreams.” 2 It comes as no surprise that Hofer’s felicitous baptism of the new disease both helped to identify the existing condition and enhanced the epidemic, making it a widespread European phenomenon. The epidemic of nostalgia was accompanied by an even more dangerous epidemic of “feigned nostalgia,” particularly among soldiers tired of serving abroad, revealing the contagious nature of the erroneous representations.

Nostalgia, the disease of an afflicted imagination, incapacitated the body. Hofer thought that the course of the disease was mysterious: the ailment spread “along uncommon routes through the untouched course of the channels of the brain to the body,” arousing “an uncommon and everpresent idea of the recalled native land in the mind.” 3 Longing for home exhausted the “vital spirits,” causing nausea, loss of appetite, pathological changes in the lungs, brain inflammation, cardiac arrests, high fever, as well as marasmus and a propensity for suicide. 4

Nostalgia operated by an “associationist magic,” by means of which all aspects of everyday life related to one single obsession. In this respect nostalgia was akin to paranoia, only instead of a persecution mania, the nostalgic was possessed by a mania of longing. On the other hand, the nostalgic had an amazing capacity for remembering sensations, tastes, sounds, smells, the minutiae and trivia of the lost paradise that those who remained home never noticed. Gastronomic and auditory nostalgia were of particular importance. Swiss scientists found that rustic mothers’ soups, thick village milk and the folk melodies of Alpine valleys were particularly conducive to triggering a nostalgic reaction in Swiss soldiers. Supposedly the sounds of “a certain rustic cantilena” that accompanied shepherds in their driving of the herds to pasture immediately provoked an epidemic of nostalgia among Swiss soldiers serving in France. Similarly, Scots, particularly Highlanders, were known to succumb to incapacitating nostalgia when hearing the sound of the bagpipes—so much so, in fact, that their military superiors had to prohibit them from playing, singing or even whistling native tunes in a suggestive manner. Jean-Jacques Rousseau talks about the effects of cowbells, the rustic sounds that excite in the Swiss the joys of life and youth and a bitter sorrow for having lost them. The music in this case “does not act precisely as music, but as a memorative sign.” 5 The music of home, whether a rustic cantilena or a pop song, is the permanent accompaniment of nostalgia—its ineffable charm that makes the nostalgic teary-eyed and tongue-tied and often clouds critical reflection on the subject.

In the good old days nostalgia was a curable disease, dangerous but not always lethal. Leeches, warm hypnotic emulsions, opium and a return to the Alps usually soothed the symptoms. Purging of the stomach was also recommended, but nothing compared to the return to the motherland believed to be the best remedy for nostalgia. While proposing the treatment for the disease, Hofer seemed proud of some of his patients; for him nostalgia was a demonstration of the patriotism of his compatriots who loved the charm of their native land to the point of sickness.

Nostalgia shared some symptoms with melancholia and hypochondria. Melancholia, according to the Galenic conception, was a disease of the black bile that affected the blood and produced such physical and emotional symptoms as “vertigo, much wit, headache, . . . much waking, rumbling in the guts . . . troublesome dreams, heaviness of the heart . . . continuous fear, sorrow, discontent, superfluous cares and anxiety.” For Robert Burton, melancholia, far from being a mere physical or psychological condition, had a philosophical dimension. The melancholic saw the world as a theater ruled by capricious fate and demonic play. 6 Often mistaken for a mere misanthrope, the melancholic was in fact a utopian dreamer who had higher hopes for humanity. In this respect, melancholia was an affect and an ailment of intellectuals, a Hamletian doubt, a side effect of critical reason; in melancholia, thinking and feeling, spirit and matter, soul and body were perpetually in conflict. Unlike melancholia, which was regarded as an ailment of monks and philosophers, nostalgia was a more “democratic” disease that threatened to affect soldiers and sailors displaced far from home as well as many country people who began to move to the cities. Nostalgia was not merely an individual anxiety but a public threat that revealed the contradictions of modernity and acquired a greater political importance.

The outburst of nostalgia both enforced and challenged the emerging conception of patriotism and national spirit. It was unclear at first what was to be done with the afflicted soldiers who loved their motherland so much that they never wanted to leave it, or for that matter to die for it. When the epidemic of nostalgia spread beyond the Swiss garrison, a more radical treatment was undertaken. The French doctor Jourdan Le Cointe suggested in his book written during the French Revolution of 1789 that nostalgia had to be cured by inciting pain and terror. As scientific evidence he offered an account of drastic treatment of nostalgia successfully undertaken by the Russians. In 1733 the Russian army was stricken by nostalgia just as it ventured into Germany, the situation becoming dire enough that the general was compelled to come up with a radical treatment of the nostalgic virus. He threatened that “the first to fall sick will be buried alive.” This was a kind of literalization of a metaphor, as life in a foreign country seemed like death. This punishment was reported to be carried out on two or three occasions, which happily cured the Russian army of complaints of nostalgia. 7 (No wonder longing became such an important part of the Russian national identity.) Russian soil proved to be a fertile ground for both native and foreign nostalgia. The autopsies performed on the French soldiers who perished in the proverbial Russian snow during the miserable retreat of the Napoleonic Army from Moscow revealed that many of them had brain inflammation characteristic of nostalgia.

While Europeans (with the exception of the British) reported frequent epidemics of nostalgia starting from the seventeenth century, American doctors proudly declared that the young nation remained healthy and didn’t succumb to the nostalgic vice until the American Civil War. 8 If the Swiss doctor Hofer believed that homesickness expressed love for freedom and one’s native land, two centuries later the American military doctor Theodore Calhoun conceived of nostalgia as a shameful disease that revealed a lack of manliness and unprogressive attitudes. He suggested that this was a disease of the mind and of a weak will (the concept of an “afflicted imagination” would be profoundly alien to him). In nineteenth-century America it was believed that the main reasons for homesickness were idleness and a slow and inefficient use of time conducive to daydreaming, erotomania and onanism. “Any influence that will tend to render the patient more manly will exercise a curative power. In boarding schools, as perhaps many of us remember, ridicule is wholly relied upon. . . . [The nostalgic] patient can often be laughed out of it by his comrades, or reasoned out of it by appeals to his manhood; but of all potent agents, an active campaign, with attendant marches and more particularly its battles is the best curative.” 9 Dr. Calhoun proposed as treatment public ridicule and bullying by fellow soldiers, an increased number of manly marches and battles and improvement in personal hygiene that would make soldiers’ living conditions more modern. (He also was in favor of an occasional furlough that would allow soldiers to go home for a brief period of time.)

For Calhoun, nostalgia was not conditioned entirely by individuals’ health, but also by their strength of character and social background. Among the Americans the most susceptible to nostalgia were soldiers from the rural districts, particularly farmers, while merchants, mechanics, boatmen and train conductors from the same area or from the city were more likely to resist the sickness. “The soldier from the city cares not where he is or where he eats, while his country cousin pines for the old homestead and his father’s groaning board,” wrote Calhoun. 10 In such cases, the only hope was that the advent of progress would somehow alleviate nostalgia and the efficient use of time would eliminate idleness, melancholy, procrastination and lovesickness.

As a public epidemic, nostalgia was based on a sense of loss not limited to personal history. Such a sense of loss does not necessarily suggest that what is lost is properly remembered and that one still knows where to look for it. Nostalgia became less and less curable. By the end of the eighteenth century, doctors discovered that a return home did not always treat the symptoms. The object of longing occasionally migrated to faraway lands beyond the confines of the motherland. Just as genetic researchers today hope to identify a gene not only for medical conditions but social behavior and even sexual orientation, so the doctors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries looked for a single cause of the erroneous representations, one so-called pathological bone. Yet the physicians failed to find the locus of nostalgia in their patient’s mind or body. One doctor claimed that nostalgia was a “hypochondria of the heart” that thrives on its symptoms. To my knowledge, the medical diagnosis of nostalgia survived in the twentieth century in one country only—Israel. (It is unclear whether this reflects a persistent yearning for the promised land or for the diasporic homelands left behind.) Everywhere else in the world nostalgia turned from a treatable sickness into an incurable disease. How did it happen that a provincial ailment, maladie du pays , became a disease of the modern age, mal du siècle?

In my view, the spread of nostalgia had to do not only with dislocation in space but also with the changing conception of time. Nostalgia was a historical emotion, and we would do well to pursue its historical rather than psychological genesis. There had been plenty of longing before the seventeenth century, not only in the European tradition but also in Chinese and Arabic poetry, where longing is a poetic commonplace. Yet the early modern conception embodied in the specific word came to the fore at a particular historical moment. “Emotion is not a word, but it can only be spread abroad through words,” writes Jean Starobinski, using the metaphor of border crossing and immigration to describe the discourse on nostalgia. 11 Nostalgia was diagnosed at a time when art and science had not yet entirely severed their umbilical ties and when the mind and body—internal and external well-being—were treated together. This was a diagnosis of a poetic science—and we should not smile condescendingly on the diligent Swiss doctors. Our progeny well might poeticize depression and see it as a metaphor for a global atmospheric condition, immune to treatment with Prozac.

What distinguishes modern nostalgia from the ancient myth of the return home is not merely its peculiar medicalization. The Greek nostos , the return home and the song of the return home, was part of a mythical ritual. […] Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them.

The diagnosis of the disease of nostalgia in the late seventeenth century took place roughly at the historical moment when the conception of time and history were undergoing radical change. The religious wars in Europe came to an end but the much prophesied end of the world and doomsday did not occur. “It was only when Christian eschatology shed its constant expectations of the immanent arrival of doomsday that a temporality could have been revealed that would be open to the new and without limit.” 13 It is customary to perceive “linear” Judeo-Christian time in opposition to the “cyclical” pagan time of eternal return and discuss both with the help of spatial metaphors. 14 What this opposition obscures is the temporal and historical development of the perception of time that since Renaissance on has become more and more secularized, severed from cosmological vision.

Before the invention of mechanical clocks in the thirteenth century the question, What time is it? was not very urgent. Certainly there were plenty of calamities, but the shortage of time wasn’t one of them; therefore people could exist “in an attitude of temporal ease. Neither time nor change appeared to be critical and hence there was no great worry about controlling the future.” 15 In late Renaissance culture,Time was embodied in the images of Divine Providence and capricious Fate, independent of human insight or blindness. The division of time into Past, Present and Future was not so relevant. History was perceived as a “teacher of life” (as in Cicero’s famous dictum, historia magistra vitae ) and the repertoire of examples and role models for the future. Alternatively, in Leibniz’s formulation, “The whole of the coming world is present and prefigured in that of the present.” 16

The French Revolution marked another major shift in European mentality. Regicide had happened before, but not the transformation of the entire social order. The biography of Napoleon became exemplary for an entire generation of new individualists, little Napoleons who dreamed of reinventing and revolutionizing their own lives. The “Revolution,” at first derived from natural movement of the stars and thus introduced into the natural rhythm of history as a cyclical metaphor, henceforth attained an irreversible direction: it appeared to unchain a yearned-for future. 17 The idea of progress through revolution or industrial development became central to the nineteenth-century culture. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the representation of time itself changed; it moved away from allegorical human figures—an old man, a blind youth holding an hourglass, a woman with bared breasts representing Fate—to the impersonal language of numbers: railroad schedules, the bottom line of industrial progress. Time was no longer shifting sand; time was money. Yet the modern era also allowed for multiple conceptions of time and made the experience of time more individual and creative.

“The Origin of Consciousness, Gains and Losses: Walker Percy vs. Julian Jaynes”
by Laura Mooneyham White
from Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind
ed. by Marcel Kuijsten

Jaynes is plainly one who understands the human yearning for Eden, the Eden of bicameral innocence. He writes of our longings for a return to that lost organization of human mentality, a return to lost certainty and splendour.” 44 Jones believes, in fact, that Jaynes speaks for himself when he describes the “yearning for divine volition and service [which] is with us still,” 45 of our “nostalgic anguish” which we feel for lost bicamerality. 46 Even schizophrenia, seen from Jaynes’s perspective as a vestige of bicamerality, is the anguishing state it is only because the relapse to bicamerality

is only partial. The learnings that make up a subjective consciousness are powerful and never totally suppressed. And thus the terror and the fury, the agony and the despair. … The lack of cultural support and definition for the voices [heard by schizophrenics] … provide a social withdrawal from the behavior of the absolutely social individual of bicameral societies. … [W]ithout this source of security, … living with hallucinations that are unacceptable and denied as unreal by those around him, the florid schizophrenic is in an opposite world to that of the god-owned laborers of Marduk. … [He] is a mind bared to his environment, waiting on gods in a godless world. 47

Jones, in fact, asserts that Jaynes’s discussion of schizophrenia is held in terms “reminiscent of R. D. Laing’s thesis that schizophrenics are the only sane people in our insane world.” 48 Jones goes on to say that “Jaynes, it would seem, holds that we would all be better off if ‘everyone’ were once again schizophrenic, if we could somehow return to a bicameral society which had not yet been infected by the disease of thinking.” 49

Jaynes does not, in my opinion, intimate a position nearly as reactionary as this; he has in fact made elsewhere an explicit statement to the effect that he himself feels no such longing to return to bicamerality, that he would in fact “shudder” at such a return. 50 Nonetheless, Jaynes does seem at some points in his book to describe introspection as a sort of pathological development in human history. For instance, instead of describing humanity’s move towards consciousness as liberating, Jaynes calls it “the slow inexorable profaning of our species.” 51 And no less an eminence than Northrop Frye recognized this tendency in Jaynes to disvalue consciousness. After surveying Jaynes’s argument and admitting the fascination of that argument’s revolutionary appeal, Frye points out that Jaynes’s ideas provoke a disturbing reflection: “seeing what a ghastly mess our egocentric consciousness has got us into, perhaps the sooner we get back to … hallucinations the better.” Frye expands his discussion of Jaynes to consider the cultural ramifications of this way of thinking, what he terms “one of the major cultural trends of our time”:

It is widely felt that our present form of consciousness, with its ego center, has become increasingly psychotic, incapable of dealing with the world, and that we must develop a more intensified form of consciousness, recapturing many of … Jaynes’ ‘bicameral’ features, if we are to survive the present century. 52

Frye evidently has little sympathy with such a position which would hold that consciousness is a “late … and on the whole regrettable arrival on the human scene” 53 rather than the wellspring of all our essentially human endeavors and achievements: art, philosophy, religion and science. The ground of this deprecatory perspective on consciousness, that is, a dislike or distrust of consciousness, has been held by many modern and postmodern thinkers and artists besides Jaynes, among them Sartre, Nietzsche, Faulkner, Pynchon, Freud, and Lacan, so much so that we might identify such an ill opinion of consciousness as a peculiarly modern ideology.

“Remembrance of Things (Far) Past”
by Julian Jaynes
from The Julian Jaynes Collection
ed. by Marcel Kuijsten

And nostalgia too. For with time metaphored as space, so like the space of our actual lives, a part of us solemnly keeps loitering behind, trying to visit past times as if they were actual spaces. Oh, what a temptation is there! The warm, sullen longing to return to scenes long vanished, to relive some past security or love, to redress some ancient wrong or redecide a past regret, or alter some ill-considered actions toward someone lost to our present lives, or to fill out past omissions — these are artifacts of our new remembering consciousness. Side effects. And they are waste and filler unless we use them to learn about ourselves.

Memory is a privilege for us who are born into the last three millennia. It is both an advantage and a predicament, liberation and an imprisonment. Memory is not a part of our biological evolution, as is our capacity to learn habits or simple knowings. It is an off-shoot of consciousness acquired by mankind only a hundred generations ago. It is thus the new environment of modern man. It is one which we sometimes are like legal aliens waiting for naturalization. The feeling of full franchise and citizenship in that new environment is a quest that is the unique hidden adventure of us all.

The Suffering System
by David Loy

In order to understand why that anxiety exists, we must relate dukkha to another crucial Buddhist term, anatta, or “non-self.” Our basic frustration is due most of all to the fact that our sense of being a separate self, set apart from the world we are in, is an illusion. Another way to express this is that the ego-self is ungrounded, and we experience this ungroundedness as an uncomfortable emptiness or hole at the very core of our being. We feel this problem as a sense of lack, of inadequacy, of unreality, and in compensation we usually spend our lives trying to accomplish things that we think will make us more real.

But what does this have to do with social challenges? Doesn’t it imply that social problems are just projections of our own dissatisfaction? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Being social beings, we tend to group our sense of lack, even as we strive to compensate by creating collective senses of self.

In fact, many of our social problems can be traced back to this deluded sense of collective self, this “wego,” or group ego. It can be defined as one’s own race, class, gender, nation (the primary secular god of the modern world), religion, or some combination thereof. In each case, a collective identity is created by discriminating one’s own group from another. As in the personal ego, the “inside” is opposed to the other “outside,” and this makes conflict inevitable, not just because of competition with other groups, but because the socially constructed nature of group identity means that one’s own group can never feel secure enough. For example, our GNP is not big enough, our nation is not powerful (“secure”) enough, we are not technologically developed enough. And if these are instances of group-lack or group-dukkha, our GNP can never be big enough, our military can never be powerful enough, and we can never have enough technology. This means that trying to solve our economic, political, and ecological problems with more of the same is a deluded response.

11 thoughts on “The Disease of Nostalgia

  1. This is another post that took a lot of work. I consider it one of my better and more interesting pieces, not to mention on a major topic that remains relevant to the core of the civilizational project and what it means to be human.

    If we don’t understand historical background like this, we don’t really understand anything at all about the world we find ourselves in. And such a state of mass ignorance and collective amnesia further exacerbates our desperate and debilitating sense of anxiety and moral panic.

    Yet there is not a single like or comment. That is the problem with our society. There is little interest in and discussion of what is most important. This is precisely why we remain vulnerable to authoritarianism and totalitarianism, as we see it rise again. So, in not knowing history, it shall repeat once again.

    • Some posts, as I often note, receive many likes and comments. What makes those kinds of posts different from this one is that they tend to be more accessible to a conventional view of society, specifically through a lens of politics and economics.

      Something like ‘nostalgia’, though, is no longer taken seriously and the typical modern American can’t even comprehend exactly why it matters; even though it is one of the many cracks in the foundation of our modern identity. Most of us fear looking down at the crumbling ground beneath our feet.

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