Class Photo, Glen Osmond Primary School 1955
Nostalgia is a word that is commonly used to describe those enjoyable moments in our respective pasts. We may recall times of riding push-bikes or playing marbles in the gravel on the way home from school. Or for the girls it may be those special dress-up events when they became little pink princesses, or created elaborate afternoon teas. No I am not being politically incorrect or sexist, that is just the way we played as kids.
So why are Baby Boomers nostalgic for that past, the ‘other’, which is so different to the experiences of today? Often the call is made: “It so nostalgic to remember those good old days“.
The defining and understanding of the term nostalgia has changed over more than two centuries of use. Its genesis comes from the Greek nostos, which means a return to your home and algia, meaning a hurtful or agonising ailment. According to Davis (1979, p. 1), nostalgia was a medical condition described by Swiss physician Johannes Hofner, in the eighteen hundreds, as a disease showing signs of melancholy through to suicide. It was caused by extended absences from a person’s home.
However, over prolonged time its medical determination transformed in to a popular understanding of nostalgia being a sentimental yearning for a past that is gone and cannot be relived. Yet there is this desire by many to remember previous times with a degree of longing and angst of loss (Pickering & Keightley 2006, p. 920). Their discussion emphasises that this ache for nostalgia should not be censured, but embraced to show ‘how the past may actively engage with the present and future’ (2006, p. 920). Nevertheless, a blanket acceptance of the comforting cocoon of nostalgia does not assume that this ‘past’ is analytically assessed (Hutcheon 1993, p. 245).
In recounting war-time activities with New Zealand soldiers, Hutching maintained that nostalgia is ‘about their activities as young men’ (2011, p. 237). In a personal observation Australian sportsman, author and journalist Peter FitzSimons (2010, p. ix) views nostalgia as: “through my own experience and that of my family, the simplicity of a time long gone in Australia’s past” is realised. It should not convey sadness or a sense of loss, but needs to offer the magic opportunity to recapture those former and glorious moments (Holak & Havlena 1998, p. 223).
Yet is unrealistic just to evoke, or call on the ‘good times’ and feelings of nostalgia. We cannot bring bygone days to life, and as commented upon by Holak and Havlena (p. 222) this promotes the feeling of sadness and loss, because there is no return to the past. The memory of the “good old days” sets up the conflicting emotions of desire and melancholy. A longing for the past is not necessarily about recalling essential details as it is claimed that “one can be nostalgic for something one never experienced” (Green-Lewis 2000, p. 66).
Nostalgia is a ‘coping mechanism’, helping to support our identity and provide an avenue for forgetting (Mannik 2011, p. 87). It is in our individual memories however they are created, that we recall the myths, emotions, memories and richness of nostalgia.
This outlines why I am struggling with nostalgia. I see it as encompassing both the good and the bad from my past, the happy and sad times and those exciting memories and times of embarrassment.
Still the question remains, what actually is nostalgia? Above I recounted its medical basis and historically it has been described as a cerebral disease and a serious psychiatric condition (Routledge et al. 2011). Marketers and advertisers have ‘tapped into’ this nostalgic concept more recently as it can shape consumer preferences (Holbrook 1993, p. 255; Holbrook & Schindler 1996, p. 36; Stern 1992). Those interested in cultural studies and sociology consider that nostalgia is more than a return to our home; it is the desire to experience the past once again, or to languish in sentiment and the status quo? While the definitions vary somewhat the understanding is similar. The perfection of the past or the future is seen against accepting and embracing the present (Wilson 1997, p. 132). Wilson (1997, p. 138) concludes with the observation that:
Perhaps the real secret pleasure of nostalgia is … experiencing the reality of change, the passage of time, and the existence of that great hinterland of ‘lost time’ that yet somehow is still within us.
She seems to be claiming that while we embrace change we yearn for the past, a paradoxical position. It is argued that nostalgia is searching in the past while concurrently it is a starting point as a guide into the future (Pickering & Keightley 2006, p. 921). I prefer to see nostalgia in a similar manner to that of Routledge et al. and it is more than just a positive memory (2012, pp. 458-459):
It is the self-focused emotional process through which people recollect experiences that imbue their lives with meaning.
There are many facets from which to reflect upon nostalgia.
However, my emphasis and understanding is on the comfortable acceptance of it being memories, cloaked in a warm fondness that can be experienced now and conveyed into the future. To this point I again draw on Wilson and her acquiescence of the ambivalent nature of nostalgia and it embracing both the past and the future (1997, p. 139).
So do you understand nostalgia?
PS. Can you find me in the photograph above? I’m in the back row, third from the left.