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What is nostalgia and what causes it to arise

"I open my eyes and see how the sun lays narrow strips across the floor and onto my arm. Just like in my childhood. My room in the house on 26 Baku Commissars Street faced east, and the morning always began with these sunny stripes, as if heralding happiness. I sniff the air. There should be the smell of my mum's pancakes, but it's not there. That's disappointing. There are other lovely smells—pine and peaches—but it's not the same. I fully awaken, filled with both happiness and disappointment. It seems that's exactly how nostalgia is experienced."

Despite the lack of a medical understanding of "nostalgia," sociologists and cultural experts not only discuss the prevalence of this phenomenon, referring to it as a modern-day epidemic, but also attempt to rank nostalgia, identifying different degrees of severity—from latent to very severe—with varying prognosis and a wide range of psychological and somatic manifestations. These manifestations often subside after people return to their familiar environment. However, there is a considerable body of work indicating that such "healing" does not always occur. Perhaps this is due to the nature of nostalgia, which primarily involves simultaneously experiencing the absence of something important in the present and the memory of the presence of that important thing in the past, often unrelated to "geographical" changes.

Began pondering nostalgia. I've been reading everything I can get my hands on, including Averintsev's article published in "Novy Mir" in 1996. While I vehemently disagree with many of his words, he remarkably accurately described nostalgia as a phenomenon.

"Oh, not about the good old times; my time of initial impressions—that's the time when, as a six-year-old (Averintsev was born in 1937) or thereabouts, I was solemnly told in response to my babbling (the contents of which I cannot recall) by one of the family's elderly friends: 'Remember, if you ask such questions to others, your parents will be gone, and you'll end up in an orphanage.' It's the time when, learning to read, I looked questioningly at a newspaper page with confessions of political trial defendants, blaming themselves for who knows what, while my mother, barely parting her lips, almost inaudibly and without any expression, uttered just two monosyllabic words, which were more than enough: 'They're beaten'... And yet—looking at myself with amazement!—still, it's nostalgia."

Nostalgia is a longing for something that no longer exists or, as many researchers write, "never existed." According to Boym, it's "a feeling of loss and displacement in time, but also—it's a romance with one's own fantasy," which can only occur when the object (a home, a time, a situation) of love or yearning is distant. It's a distorted version of memory. The past, place, or situation is idealized and mythologized. It's a memory as a dream, a post-memory of happiness, about that "lost or hitherto unattained" experience that, as Tarkovsky says, people seek in the cinema. It's the overlay of memory of the past onto our conception of it. It's not quite what it was; rather, it's what should have been according to the laws of a happy life, and what is absent in the present.

Therefore, the manifestations of nostalgia are quite diverse. Most authors suggest that the primary nostalgic experiences involve joy, happiness, mixed with feelings of loneliness and regret. However, there are studies describing how people, tormented by nostalgia, find an outlet in deviant behavior, including displays of aggression as a means of release. The feelings can be so overwhelming that a person starts "daydreaming awake" and finds themselves in that very "present past" that St. Augustine wrote about when contemplating time.

It's no coincidence that this experience often arises when there is some kind of void in the present, an absence of something essential. These are periods in life when there's a lack of support, social connections, and often meaning in the present. These are situations where the connection between the past, present, and future may feel disrupted. When what was built in the past and what a person relied on suddenly turns out to be unreliable or cannot be "brought" into the present. Of course, moving to another country or a sudden deterioration in the political situation in the country where a person resides can serve as such triggers.

Recently, among my relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, nostalgia has ceased to be an abstract concept. After a year and a half since the start of the war, instead of being in what one of my professional colleagues aptly described as a "laboratory for experiencing acute trauma," we increasingly encounter various manifestations of nostalgia.

I cannot speak for others, but for me, the greatest (and perhaps the only irreparable) loss after nearly three years of emigration has been the inability to live in my native language, which surrounded me from birth. It seems to me that I understand what Brodsky meant when he wrote: "The exiled writer is like a dog or a person launched into space in a capsule... And your capsule is your language...".

In addition to the reference to language in this metaphor, there seems to be a hint of a threat to subjectivity, a sense of coercion. Indeed, nostalgia is often associated with the feeling that a person does not choose—or there is an illusion of lack of choice, or a rejection of the fact of choice.

The complexity and mixed nature of nostalgic experiences provide ample room for projections. My happiest memories are intertwined with Moscow. I lived in Moscow for 50 years, managing, as my son put it when congratulating me on my birthday, to transition from the kingdom of youth to the kingdom of old age ("50, Mum, is the transition from the kingdom of youth to the kingdom of old age")—just two months before moving to London. The sunlight streaks on the floor of my room, the taste of the remnants of Napoleon cake cream that could be scraped from the bowl, the warmth of the wooden leg of the table under which we played while listening to the adults' intelligent conversations, my brother's story about the hypotenuse on the way home from kindergarten, the incredible tenderness of my daughter's palm (the list is endless)—all of this is Moscow. One doesn't need to be a psychotherapist to understand that this "my Moscow" does not include the queues, poverty, blue chickens in orders, persecution of dissidents, lingering schizophrenia, OVIR, refusals, or the anonymous note written to my father by Comrade Sudoplatov (yes, the son of that famous NKVD man), possibly costing my father his life. All of this is also Moscow, but it takes effort for me to acknowledge both sides. Otherwise, it's not only untrue but also dangerous.

These projections underlie social nostalgia, retrotopia, where personal happy experiences are interpolated onto the city, nation, or country and combined with an imagined past. We long to expand our cozy past, extend it to the city, the country, the people. This is essentially the basis of the post-memory propaganda, the distorted past intertwined with fantasies of how it should have been ("it used to be good," "our country was taken away," "we need to rise from our knees," "regain lost strength, restore happiness"). "Today, Moore's utopia has risen in the form of retrotopia—in pictures of the lost/stolen/abandoned and ghostly past," as Bauman said. Astonished and outraged by the rewritten textbook, we sometimes write our own beautiful book in our memory.

There are quite physiological reasons behind the desire to see the good in the past and long for it. Several neurobiological studies conducted in various countries over the past decades have shown that during nostalgic experiences, brain regions involved in experiencing attachment, significance, happiness, and anticipation of something good are simultaneously activated. However, it is precisely the recognition that our happy memories are only part of the truth that allows us to preserve them. Nostalgia proves to be a very important experience if one manages to acknowledge reality and separate warm and joyful memories of the past, this experience of happiness and stability, from projections and fantasies. Nostalgia allows one to feel the connection of time, to keep what was really there, and to understand that it can no longer be taken away. Experiencing nostalgia, a person develops a more optimistic view of the future, learns to build good relationships, maintain psychological stability, and adapt better.

Indeed so. When one has experienced happiness, stability, and comfort, they know precisely what is possible. Sometimes, they may even surmise how to achieve it in different situations and times. Such experiences serve as a sort of anchor, providing guidance on what actions and decisions might lead to similar feelings in other circumstances. Simply recalling those moments of happiness and comfort can inspire and motivate us to strive for them in the present. Moreover, this experience helps us better understand what truly matters to us and what brings us genuine satisfaction.
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