The Future of My Nostalgia

MONTANA, United States. ─ “The Future of Nostalgia” is a complex book by Svetlana Boym. Until her death in 2015, at the young age of 56, Boym was Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Born in Leningrad, USSR (Now, once again, Saint Petersburg). Professor Boym’s work explores homesickness, particularly the nostalgia of Russian exiles escaping from communism. In this column, I borrow from her work as I consider parallels to the Cuban exile experience and to my own.

Professor Boym defines nostalgia as 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.” That is, we may feel nostalgia for a place, but we are actually yearning for a different time. Boym explores nostalgia for a place, but also our nostalgia “for the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that became obsolete.”

Nostalgia is not melancholia, which is mostly concerned with individual consciousness. Nostalgia is more about our individual biography and the history of our nation. Nostalgia is about the relationship between our personal memory and the collective memory of our countrymen.  Nostalgia is about seeking “repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial.”

The word nostalgia was coined by the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in his 1688 medical dissertation. The newly diagnosed disease, evident in displaced people of the time, 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.” In those days, nostalgia was thought to be a demonstration of the patriotism of those who loved their homeland to the point of sickness. This “hypochondria of the heart” or mal de corazon was a disease curable with leeches, hypnotic emulsions, or opium, but the best remedy for nostalgia was a return to the homeland.

Nostalgia has an interesting history from what was thought to be a curable disease in the 1600’s to today’s incurable condition of lost youth, and lost chances. The study of nostalgia still frustrates psychologists, sociologists, philosophers and other specialists.

Professor Boym distinguishes between two kinds of nostalgia that she labels as restorative and reflective. Restorative nostalgia evokes a national past and seeks a timeless reconstruction of the lost home, whereas reflective nostalgia focuses of the longing itself. Reflective nostalgia is more about our individual and cultural memory.

If we are a reflective nostalgic, we look at old photographs and tell family stories. As reflective nostalgics we miss the past, but we do not really want the past back because we recognize that the old homestead is destroyed, and we would not like it as it is now.

On the other hand, if we are a restorative nostalgic, we want to “rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.” Restorative nostalgics do not recognize that the past may have been flawed. Restorative nostalgics, like many of my countrymen, have a cartoon-like recollection of history.

For freedom-seeking exiles, the idea of freedom is initially limited to the concept of freedom from the oppression of their former governments. Exiles think of that freedom as constantly in danger. It is perhaps for this reason that exiles often appear to be more dedicated to the ideals of freedom than the natives of their adopted homelands. Yet, as exiles we do not renounce critical thinking even as we embrace a profound emotional bonding with our history. And although our inability to return home is a personal tragedy, it is also an enabling force.

Professor Boym tells of a Russian saying that the past has become much more unpredictable than the future. The Cuban exile experience has lasted a lifetime and, as memories fade, our past has indeed become unpredictable. We do well to remember Emily Dickinson’s iconic poem, “Forever is Composed of Nows.”  Our exile nostalgia can be a creative emotion if we chose to be nostalgic not for the past the way it was, but for the past the way we could have made it.  Such is the future of my nostalgia.

Dr. Azel’s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners”.

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