Nostalgia is not an emotion I tend to feel, despite being a good candidate for it, having lived outside my native country for a quarter of my life. The term, as is well-known, has its origins not in Greek antiquity, but in early modern Switzerland. It was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a medical student at the University of Basel, who observed that a mysterious disease afflicted the young citizens of the Helvetian Nation when they left their native villages. Colloquially called Heimweh or la Maladie du Pays by his compatriots, Hofer wanted to put it on a scientific footing by giving it a medical classification. Combining the Greek word nostos – «return to the Native Land» or «homecoming» such as experienced by Odysseus in Homer’s epos – with algos – suffering or grief – he proposed to call it nostalgia.

When Hofer died in 1752, he could not have foreseen that nostalgia would go from naming an illness peculiar to Swiss adolescents to designating something closer to a global existential condition, as people chose – or more often, were forced – to migrate at greater distances and in greater numbers than had ever been seen before in human history. The radical transformations of capitalist modernity, which included everything from changes in traditional customs and political identity through revolution and imperial conquest to a radically new appearance and organization of the built environment, also meant that one no longer needed to leave home to experience nostalgia.

The solidity that had melted into air turned out to be something one could long for anywhere. For the exile and the immigrant, nostalgia always had a temporal as well as a spatial component – the lost or abandoned home is by definition a part of that person’s past – but when the condition became generalized into what the Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukács, speaking of the uprooted protagonists of the bourgeois novel, called «transcendental homelessness», nostalgia moved into the region of pure temporality.

People came to experience nostalgia not only for the world of their youth – a safer and simpler time and place to some, a fresher and more daring one to others – but also for times they had never known and could never know. It became possible to believe that one was «born at the wrong time», whether because one was «ahead of one’s time» or because one was «belated», the consolation of many a failed romantic poet and the downfall of more than one fictional heroine. Similarly, people started to feel nostalgia for what «might have been» , a counterfactual disappointment in the future, which did not end up meeting one’s expectations or hopes for a more technologically-advanced, culturally-sophisticated, or socially-just utopia nurtured by novels, films, television, and other prostheses of mass-produced fantasy. The future, it became perfectly coherent to say, isn’t what it used to be.

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