The 20th century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary. The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots, nostos meaning “to return home” and algia “longing.” I would define it 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. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images — of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment one tries to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.
The word “nostalgia,” in spite of its Greek roots, did not originate in ancient Greece. “Nostalgia” is only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek. The word was coined by the ambitious Swiss student Johannes Hofer in his medical dissertation in 1688. (Hofer also suggested nosomania and philopatridomania to describe the same symptoms; luckily, these failed to enter common parlance.) Contrary to our intuition, “nostalgia” came from medicine, not from poetry or politics. It would not occur to us to demand a prescription for nostalgia. Yet in the seventeenth century, nostalgia was considered to be a curable disease, akin to a severe common cold. Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches, and a journey to the Swiss Alps would take care of nostalgic symptoms. Among the first victims of the newly diagnosed disease were various displaced people of the seventeenth century: freedom-loving students from the Republic of Berne studying in Basel, domestic help and servants working in France and Germany, and Swiss soldiers fighting abroad. The epidemic of nostalgia was accompanied by an even more dangerous epidemic of “feigned nostalgia,” particularly among soldiers tired of serving abroad.