Nostalgia – ‘hypchondria of the heart.’

June 25, 2015

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.’


It sounds like a clever neologism, something coined in the last few years as a wry comment on a feeling that became a lucrative industry.


Nostalgia can now kick in a few short years after the thing itself has been and gone. In musical terms, acts that probably spent the last two decades driving cabs suddenly find themselves earning big bucks again on carefully packaged nostalgia tours. Vinyl is cool, and the whole hipster vibe is resolutely retro. As the nineties revival takes hold, it can be quite distressing for people of a certain age to walk past cool boutiques and see ‘vintage’ clothing that they donated to charity shops a decade ago now being sold again with a high price tag.


But that neat phrase actually has a longer lineage than most people realise.


“Things ain’t what they used to be and probably never was,” is a phrase attributed to Will Rogers, an American cowboy, actor, vaudeville artist and writer who lived between 1979 and 1935. He didn’t use the word ‘nostalgia’, because back then it had a different meaning. But during his lifetime, nostalgia became what it is today.


The word derives from two Greek terms: nóstos, meaning ‘returning home’, and álgos, meaning ‘pain’ or ‘ache’. It first enters common usage in the seventeenth century, when Swiss mercenaries fighting in Europe would fall ill with what could only be described as ‘homesickness’, a longing for the peaceful mountain meadows they left behind. The Swiss doctor 1688 Johannes Hofer coined the word ‘nostalgia’ to describe what he felt was a treatable disease, and our English word ‘homesickness’ is a derivation from it.


In the nineteenth century, the Romantic poets adopted this longing, and trips to the Swiss Alps became fashionable. In other words, people started to be ‘homesick’ for places they had never been – a condition that starts to sound a little more familiar to modern ears.


Nostalgia acquired its modern meaning in the 1920s. Since the birth of the industrial revolution, and particularly during the Victorian era, society had been driven by the idea of progress. Driven by technology, we were moving ever forward to some future, shining utopia, that began to be described in the first science fiction novels.


The First World War changed all that.


If mustard gas, tanks and barbed wire meant progress, an increasing number of people started to suggest that maybe the past was actually better. Rather than a treatable illness caused by absence from a faraway place, nostalgia came to mean a longing for a past that was no longer here – and perhaps never had been.


The innate appeal of nostalgia is that it is melancholy, bittersweet rather than simply depressing. There’s comfort in the sadness. One doctor described nostalgia beautifully as a ‘hypchondria of the heart,’ that thrives off its symptoms.


My own musical nostalgia is for the 1960s. I was born in 1968 and my earliest musical memory is of hearing Middle of the Road’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep on the radio when I was two or three years old. But I obsess over 1968 in particular, deluding myself that if I had been a teenager then I would have been hanging out in Haight Ashbury tripping with The Byrds rather than working down a pit and perhaps buying a copy of I Pretend by Des O Connor (which heavily outsold Hey Jude that year.)


I’m just old enough to remember punk. I was nine and at the time I followed my parent’s line that punks were just a bunch of hooligans who should be locked up.


When I finally was a teenager, I was the perfect age for acid house, the last great musical trend to become a bigger social movement. But I spent my late teens listening to twee indie instead.


Now, I’m nostalgic for all these movements. I’m even nostalgic for bands like Duran Duran and Adam & the Ants, bands I resolutely hated at the time, because they are so evocative of a period that I remember – well, not even fondly – but a period I remember and can make sense of because it’s in the past, all neat and ordered, unlike the uncertainty of the present and the stark fear of the future.


We all do it. A few years ago I met up with an old school friend who said, “Ah, do you remember when we were all into The Smiths and danced like Morrissey at the school disco?”


I replied that no, I remembered me dancing like Morrissey at the school disco, and him and his Marillion-loving mates taking the piss out of me relentlessly for doing so, even shoving my face in the dirt when I uprooted some daffodils to put in my back pocket.


It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. We’re comforted by memories of an earlier time – whether they are true or not –because they remind us of when we were thinner, had more hair and fewer aches and pains.


Now, people who are still young enough to own the present seem to increasingly favour a past they can’t remember. The more of the past there is, and the more perfectly it is preserved, the more nostalgic we can be.