Nostalgia

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Published on: 28 February 2007

Contrary to our intuition, nostalgia comes to us from medicine, not from poetry or politics. The word – and amalgam of the Greek word nostos (“return home”) and the New Latin algia (“longing”) – first appeared in 1688 in the medical dissertation of Johannes Hofer, a Swiss student who coined the term to describe “the sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land.” (Hofer also suggested nosomania and philopatridomania to describe the symptoms.) Among the first victims of the newly diagnosed disease were various displaced people from the seventeenth century — freedom-loving students from the Republic of Berne studying in Basel, domestic help and servants working in France and Germany, Swiss soldiers fighting abroad. Nostalgia, it was said, produced “erroneous representations” that caused the afflicted to lose touch with the present. Longing for their native land became their single-minded obsession. The patients acquired “a lifeless and haggard countenance” and “indifference towards everything,” confusing past and present, real and imaginary events. Hofer thought that the course of the disease was mysterious: the ailment spread “along uncommon routes through the untouched course of the channels of the brain to the body,” arousing “an uncommon and ever present idea of the recalled native land in the mind.” Longing for home exhausted the “vital spirits”, causing nausea, loss of appetite, pathological changes in the lungs, brain inflammation, cardiac arrest, high fever, as well as marasmus and a propensity for suicide.
Every language now has a special word for homesickness that its speakers claim to be untranslatable–the German Heimweh, the French maladie du pays, the Spanish mal de corazón. Czechs have the word litost,which means at once sympathy, grief, remorse, and indefinable longing. The whispering sibilance of the Russian toska, made famous in the literature of exiles, evokes the claustrophobic intimacy of the crammed spaced whence one pines for the infinite. The same stifling, almost asthmatic sensation of deprivation can be found also in the shimmering sounds of the Polish tesknota, which adds a touch of moody artistry unknown to the Russians, who are enamored of the gigantic and the absolute. The Portuguese and the Brazilians have their suadade, a tender sorrow, breezy and erotic — not as melodramatic as its Slavic counterpart yet no less profound and haunting. Romanians claim that dor, sonorous and sharp like a dagger, is unknown to other nations and speaks specifically of a Romanian dolorous ache. Although each term hews to the specific rhythms of its language, all these untranslatable words are, in effect, synonyms, but synonyms that share a desire for untranslatability, a longing for uniqueness.

Svetlana Boym. ‘Paradise Misplaced.’ Harper’s. March 2001 vol 302 no. 1810

Secondo voi poteva Ulisse provare nostalgia di Itaca?
La risposta è decisamente no! Al massimo aveva voglia di tornare a casa.
Contrariamente alla nostra intuizione, infatti, la nostalgia è stata codificata dalla medicina, non dalla poesia.
La parola, che è una commistione del greco νόστος (ritorno) e άλγος (dolore), apparve per la prima volta nel 1688 in una dissertazione medica di Johannes Hofer, uno studente svizzero che ha coniato il termine per descrivere “il sentimento di tristezza che deriva dal desiderio di tornare alla terra natia” (Hofer suggerì altri due termini per descrivere la sindrome: nosomania and philopatridomania).
Fra i primi a vedersi diagnosticare questa nuova “malattia” furono ragazzi della Repubblica di Berna che studiavano a Basilea, domestici e servitori svizzeri che lavoravano in Francia e in Germania e soldati spostati qua e là per il paese.
Secondo Hofer, la nostalgia esauriva lo “spirito vitale”, causando nausea, perdita di appetito, danni ai polmoni, infiammazione cerebrale, arresto cardiaco, febbre alta, marasma e propensione al suicidio.

Svetlana Boym scrive

Every language now has a special word for homesickness that its speakers claim to be untranslatable–the German Heimweh, the French maladie du pays, the Spanish mal de corazón. Czechs have the word litost,which means at once sympathy, grief, remorse, and indefinable longing. The whispering sibilance of the Russian toska, made famous in the literature of exiles, evokes the claustrophobic intimacy of the crammed spaced whence one pines for the infinite. The same stifling, almost asthmatic sensation of deprivation can be found also in the shimmering sounds of the Polish tesknota, which adds a touch of moody artistry unknown to the Russians, who are enamored of the gigantic and the absolute. The Portuguese and the Brazilians have their suadade, a tender sorrow, breezy and erotic — not as melodramatic as its Slavic counterpart yet no less profound and haunting. Romanians claim that dor, sonorous and sharp like a dagger, is unknown to other nations and speaks specifically of a Romanian dolorous ache. Although each term hews to the specific rhythms of its language, all these untranslatable words are, in effect, synonyms, but synonyms that share a desire for untranslatability, a longing for uniqueness.
Svetlana Boym. ‘Paradise Misplaced.’ Harper’s. March 2001 vol 302 no. 1810

1 Comment
  1. erri says:

    Interessante… però oggi usiamo nostalgia anche per indicare il rimpianto di ciò che non può tornare: il passato, le persone amate che sono irraggiungibili o non ci sono più… Questa tristezza di ciò che non potrà più tornare c’è già nella poesia antica.

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