In an earlier blog post I have identified love as one of the most threatening and dangerous cultural diseases of our time. Of course, love itself is a wonderful feeling but only a few relationships survive or manage to uphold the fascination experienced in the early days of romance. If this initial feeling of love is lost, a new cultural disease takes its place: Nostalgia.
The term “nostalgia” was coined in 1688 by a young Swiss student of medicine who used it to describe the physical illness that results from homesickness (nostos = to return home, algos = pain). In these early days, nostalgia was a pure physical disease which could be easily treated by taking the patient back home or even by merely promising him this desired return.
In the 19th century, however, the term was more and more applied to a mental state of pain and longing. Its spatial nature was displaced by a temporal location, which instantly made the patient’s treatment more problematic. Nostalgia now refers to a longing to travel back in time to an idealized past that actually never existed in the first place. The past is glorified and will always serve as the Other to current dissatisfaction.
This form of nostalgia is everywhere: it is the reason why we love museums and why we watch documentaries. It exists in our longing for the pastoral, peaceful time of Jane Austen in which we just need to wait for Mr. Darcy to stop by and to take us back to Pemberley, thus also explaining the Austen cult. However, in this process, many problematic and troubling aspects of this reimagined past are glossed over: the BBC-Austen-adaptations do not let us glance at the poor and they gloss over Austen’s socially critical irony in order to foreground the romance plot and successfully to exploit our nostalgic sensitivity.
Nostalgia and economic exploitation are closely connected. An engagement with the past allows you to escape your daily life and to indulge in former glory. Historical reproductions, which are often taken to be the original, are another aspect of nostalgia with one of the prime examples being the rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at London’s Southbank. We do not have an exact idea of what the original Globe theatre actually looked like and all the information we have is basically drawn from some written accounts and a sketch taken from an original sketch, which is lost. Original authenticity is unrecoverable which allows us to speculate freely and to refashion a past as we would like to see it. A past that is always already infiltrated by our own retrospective.
The past is always history and this history is always already our own favourite fiction.