Nostalgia

Nostalgia is an attitude in which the past is seen in an idealised, very positive light and admired for certain features which have been lost. The past may even appear as more attractive to live in then the present and this can make people want to imitate and re-live the past, and to invent 'ancient' traditions. Nostalgia is the opposite to the idea of progress.

We are nowadays familiar with such a mood from the strong nostalgic atmosphere which the heritage industry radiates in our own society and is itself a product of (Bower 1995). Nostalgia is no doubt one of the dominant themes in contemporary Western history culture (Davis 1979; Fischer 1980; Lowenthal 1985; Johannisson 2001). It has been argued that modern nostalgia is due to an identity crisis or a weakness of self-confidence in the present, which is compensated by turning to an idealised past (Greverus 1979). David Lowenthal remarked thoughtfully in this context (1989: 29):

"Significantly, one thing absent from this imagined past is nostalgia—no one then looked back in yearning or for succour.... What we are nostalgic for is not the past as it was or even as we wish it were; but for the condition of having been, with a concomitant integration and completeness lacking in any present."

In this vein, ancient monuments become valued not despite but because of their art- and age-values. Ever since the early travellers in the 18th and 19th centuries, such nostalgia has been an important part of cultural tourism. It is probably also underlying a great deal of contemporary new paganism and parts of archaeoastronomy.

Volker Fischer argued (1980: 264-5) that the category of nostalgia can be understood as a metahistorical way of appropriating the past, which is shaped by the distinctive conditions of particular cultural contexts. It can therefore be applied, in principle, to all (pre-)historic periods. Malcolm Chase and Christopher Shaw singled out three key requirements under which nostalgia develops (Chase and Shaw 1989: 2-4):

  1. a view of time as linear and with an undetermined future, as is typical for (but not restricted to) modern Western societies;
  2. a sense that the present is deficient, applicable to societies and cultures as wholes or to particular groups or indeed individuals within a society; the undesirable state of the present is compensated by a turn towards the past: "in yesterday we find what we miss today" (Lowenthal 1985: 49);
  3. objects, buildings, or images from the past must be available in order to become appropriated nostalgically (cf. Shils 1981: 69-70).

People in ancient Egypt and Greece may thus likewise have experienced nostalgic moods. And why not people in later prehistory too?

Perhaps at some point people wanted to recreate elements of their heritage when they imitated megalithic burial mounds in their own grave architecture. Slavic burial mounds may at places be indistinguishable from Neolithic or indeed Bronze Age mounds, because this is exactly what they were meant to achieve. Likewise, people may have decided out of nostalgia to continue certain traditions, and keep ancient objects for new uses. Nostalgia can also be seen as one reason why later prehistoric people visited ancient monuments, leaving material traces at the sites themselves or in their neighbourhood.


Literature

Bower, Mim (1995) Marketing nostalgia. An exploration of heritage management and its relation to the human consciousness. In: M.A.Cooper, A.Firth, J.Carman and D.Wheatley (eds) Managing Archaeology, pp. 33-9. London: Routledge.

Chase, Malcolm and Christopher Shaw (1989) The dimensions of nostalgia. In: M. Chase and C. Shaw (eds) The imagined past: history and nostalgia, pp. 1-17. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Davis, Fred (1979) Yearning for yesterday. New York: Macmillan.

Fischer, Volker (1980) Nostalgie. Geschichte und Kultur als Trödelmarkt. Luzern and Frankfurt/M.: C.J.Bucher.

Greverus, Ina-Maria (1979) Zur Kulturstimmung Nostalgie [1973]. In: I-M.Greverus, Auf der Suche nach Heimat, pp. 171-81. München: Beck.

Johannisson, Karin (2001) Nostalgia. En känslas historia. Stockholm: Bonnier.

Lowenthal, David (1985) The past is a foreign country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lowenthal, David (1989) Nostalgia tells it like it wasn't. In: Chase & Shaw (eds), pp. 18-32.

Shils, Edward (1981) Tradition. London: Faber and Faber.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 2 January 2003