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The Two Faces of Nostalgia

The proper formula for pleasurable memories is less nostos and more algos.

“Tent Camping on Mountain Lakes” by Emilian Robert Vicol / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
Source: “Tent Camping on Mountain Lakes” by Emilian Robert Vicol / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

A friend of mine recently attended a reunion at a summer camp he used to visit when he was a boy. During the two-day event, he toured the familiar old playgrounds and cabins, and even ran into some of his fellow campers, now decades older than when he had last seen them. Summing up his feelings about the reunion, he told me that his visit to the old campground had left him feeling nostalgic. “But it was the good kind of nostalgia,” he added, implying that there must also be a “bad kind” of nostalgia.

When most people speak of nostalgia, they are referring to a predominantly positive emotional experience, and the prevalence of nostalgic themes in both advertising and entertainment testifies to the generally positive attitude with which the concept of nostalgia is viewed. Nonetheless, I understood what my friend meant by specifying that the nostalgia he experienced during his reunion was the “good kind,” rather than its opposite. While many of our pleasurable experiences are also the stuff of pleasurable memories later on down the proverbial road, some recollections of happy experiences from earlier in our lives can leave us with a bad taste in our mouths, seeming to remind us less of the pleasure those experiences brought us than the fact that they are now behind us, never to be enjoyed again.

In her classic cultural study The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym identifies two distinct types of nostalgia: "restorative" nostalgia and "reflective" nostalgia. Tracing the term "nostalgia" back to its coinage by a 17th century medical student, Johannes Hofer, to describe a crippling brain disorder afflicting Swiss mercenary soldiers and other wanderers far away from home, Boym delineates between the two root words of Hofer’s neologism. Restorative nostalgia, as Boym describes it, “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.” Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, “dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”

These two types of nostalgia represent fundamentally different attitudes toward the past, and it is this difference that largely determines whether our memories of those happy days of yore will evoke feelings of joy or of sadness. Restorative nostalgia, involving a desire to “rebuild the lost home,” views the past with an eye toward recreating it—a desire to relive those special moments. It is what spurs us to pull out our phone at 1 a. m. and call up an old boyfriend or girlfriend because we just heard “our song” on the radio.

Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, accepts the fact that the past is, in fact, past, and rather than trying to recreate a special past experience, savors the emotions evoked by its recollection. This acknowledgment of the irretrievability of our autobiographical past provides an aesthetic distance that allows us to enjoy a memory in the same way that we enjoy a movie or a good book. If “our song” were to come on the radio at 1 a.m., reflective nostalgia would be more likely to make us reach for an old photograph than for our phone, evoking in us a momentary sense of emotional pleasure rather than a restless urge to recreate a special moment from our past, and a sense of sadness when we realize the futility of that desire, that special moment, as it was lived, being forever sealed off from the present we inhabit. With reflective nostalgia, it is the very fact that an experience is sealed off from the present that makes it a source of pleasure. Like a favorite movie or book, it possesses an aesthetic wholeness that allows us to savor it again and again with no nagging uncertainty about how it will turn out.

The way Boym describes it, restorative nostalgia is really a kind of homesickness—a homesickness for the past—more akin to the original pathological definition of nostalgia than to our current view of the term. The pleasurable feeling my friend experienced at his summer camp reunion was reflective nostalgia. Rather than pointlessly longing for a youth that is decades behind him, never again to be restored, he savored a youthful memory that is perpetually available to him in all its freshness, since he has no illusions that it still exists anywhere but in his mind.

The difference between “good” nostalgia and “bad” nostalgia, then, has far less to do with the actual content of our remembered autobiographical past, than with our expectations about what those memories can do for us. It is not the past itself, but rather our attitude toward the past, that makes all the difference.

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