Thursday 28 November 2019

Fatal Nostalgia

Image result for basel old printNostalgia was once a very serious disease. It could be fatal, especially to the Swiss.

Nostalgia is a Greek term and literally translates as home-sickness: nostos + algia. Indeed, the two terms are first recorded in English in the same sentence written in 1756. Before that it was unknown in Britain.

At least it is thus Scheuchzer endeavours to vindicate the nostalgia, pathopatridalgia, or the heimweh, i.e. home-sickness, with which those of Bern are especially afflicted.

Heimweh is German for the same thing and pathoptridalgia is, so far as I can tell, just disease-homeland-disease. The term had been around before, you see, but only in German, because only Swiss people ever suffered from homesickness. The rest of the world was fine and dandy, but the Swiss yearned for watches and fondue, fell ill and died.

It was a serious problem, first identified by a Swiss scholar at the University of Basel in 1688. And importantly it was considered not a light and fluffy emotion, but a real and serious disease; albeit one that only Swiss people could catch.

But then it spread beyond those neutral borders. People started to suffer from it in Britain, where, again, it was treated as a serious medical condition. The great botanist Joseph Banks whilst sailing around the South Seas in 1770 noted that the ship's crew had a case of "the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia."

It crossed the Atlantic to America, where it took an active and serious role in the Civil War. An official report by the US Sanitary Commission recorded that:

In the first two years of the war, there were reported 2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause. These numbers scarcely express the real extent to which nostalgia influenced the sickness and mortality of the army. To the depressing influence of home-sickness must be attributed the fatal result in many cases which might otherwise have terminated favorably.

And that was just on the Union side.

It could get even worse, though. The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine (1835) has an entry for Nostomania "the same morbid desire aggravated to madness", and hence, of course, there were nostomaniacs.

And then as strangely as it had arisen, it petered out. As with so many once-serious psychological terms - neurosis, narcissism, hysteria - it became just a feeling, a vague longing for what has gone before, a sentiment, a whimsy; felt for a moment and then blown away by a pufflet of wind.

Perhaps, we decided that home simply wasn't as we remembered it. The other English term that comes from nostos is nostos. It's a usually literary term to describe a homecoming scene. Usually it's Odysseus' return home to Ithaca, where he finds all the suitors drinking his wine and wooing his wife. But it can also apply to other homecomings, other nostoi, usually miserable, like Agamemnon and Bilbo Baggins.

And nobody dies of it any more, not even the Swiss.

Image result for fondue
O true apothecary, thy drugs are quick.

1 comment:

  1. people who commit suicide and leave no note might have died from it