Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

Military field hospital, US Civil War

Military field hospital, US Civil War


Almost everyone is guilty of it – some more than others.

The common belief that “things ain’t what they used to be”, and in most cases, a wistful belief that things were better “back in the day”.

There are a million arguments to be had concerning exactly what part of the past was better, and which parts were worse.

It all depends on the exact times and places being compared.

There is also the small matter of human memory, which is shown time and time again to be far from an accurate record of the past.

What we choose to remember and choose to forget is often an act of moral exoneration, or an attempt to bury painful things which might otherwise paralyse or kill us.

Here in the western world, we live in a time and place where people are often advised not to bury trauma – people are encouraged to grapple with hard memories and inner demons.

Whether this is the best approach to take in every case is impossible to say.

As a reader and writer, I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of shared community suffering and whether this can lead to a wider cultural trauma.

What is the long term legacy of war, violence, slavery, plague, and famine on groups of people, on nations?

This brings us to the difference between how we deal with personal trauma and memory, and how we deal with group trauma and memory.

The management of group memory might be called “history”.

American memory and history is difficult to “manage” in any collective way due to the completely different levels of highs and lows, triumphs and traumas experienced by different groups and communities over the past 400 years.

Where any of us find ourselves today is the product of a myriad of variables past and present – our sex/gender, our skin color, our education, loss of family members, birth location, prevailing economic opportunities and conditions, religion, wars, political decisions, natural catastrophes, injury, illness, disability, hunger, and disease…

This is why some people in America can dress up in Confederate uniforms and attend “battle reenactments” with a sense of group nostalgia – with war as Cosplay, stripped of any real meaning or jeopardy.  They can afford to feel nostalgia because their family and forefathers shielded them from the burden of a painful collective memory, replacing it with warm and fuzzy self-delusion.

This is a kind of public and group version of domestic “skeletons in the closet”, such as when a mother knows her husband molested their daughter years ago, but after he’s dead, she curates the family memory, choosing to remember her husband at family gatherings as “a good provider”.

The daughter must move through a world of silences and lies spoken and unspoken, her inner pain sublimated to the will of false group memory.

The same is true for many of the trans-generationally poor and brutalised American underclasses, who are forced to witness endless public celebrations of fake or highly selective “national memory”, and latterly, a nostalgia for “making America great again”.




Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, though.

Literally. Really.

The word “nostalgia” was invented by German-speaking Johannes Hofer in 1688 as an alternative, medicalised Greek language word for the German word “Heimweh” – the pain one feels when thinking of home, when home is far away.

Up until the 20th century, “nostalgia” was used primarily as a medical diagnosis, especially among doctors working with traumatised soldiers.

During the American Civil War, about 750,000 people perished.  If the USA were to have a similar war today, such a number would be equivalent to around 8 MILLION dead.

For every three soldiers killed on the battlefield, another five died of war-related causes such as typhus, smallpox, or dysentery.

But one of the biggest diagnosed killers of young men during the Civil War was “nostalgia”.

Boys so traumatised by war and violence, missing their homes and families so acutely, that they wasted away, went insane, or committed suicide.

Today we would probably diagnose this “nostalgia” as a form of PTSD, and instead of questioning the politicians who create war, we offer the victims anti-depressants or opioids, along with the mostly hollow platitude of “thank you for your service”.

Another ten years max, and we’ll see politicians speaking nostalgically about Iraq and Afghanistan, praising the brave and misunderstood Americans of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Or waxing lyrical about the heroes of The Second 6th of January Insurrection

And someone will be getting rich off the Cosplay accessories.

#nostalgia #history #civilwar

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *