Philosophical Reflections on Nostalgia and Solastalgia

This essay was written by Ingo Farin, for the exhibition ‘ Solastalgia’, at Landscape Art Research Queenstown (LARQ), 2015. 

 

After the devastation of World War II, Martin Heidegger wrote: “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.”[i] He thought that the technological-scientific assault on the earth and its consequent transformation into a mere “standing reserve” for human exploitation would lead to the loss of all human relation to the earth as a home and place of dwelling. Not only did he think that nature as such would be turned into “a gigantic gasoline station, an energy resource for modern technology and industry,”[ii] he also foresaw the very real danger of the total destruction of the earth through technological-imperialistic warfare.[iii]

It would be wrong to relativize Heidegger’s statements as rash responses triggered by World War II. In 1969 he reiterated his diagnosis of “homelessness” as the destiny of “world civilization,” adding that this condition was characterized by “the predominance of the natural sciences, [….] the economy, politics, and technology” such that “everything else” was “not even a superstructure, but rather a ramshackle lean-to.”[iv] In other words, art, religion, philosophy, learning, and everything else that makes life worth living beyond the endless and dreary cycle of production and consumption is forgotten and pushed aside, deemed either inessential or even counterproductive to the overriding aim of the relentless exploitation of all natural resources. Thus homelessness is not only the physical destruction of home environments, the expropriation and expulsion from the homeland, but also the intellectual and spiritual displacement when humans lose the capacity to feel, express, and articulate a sense of home and belonging. For Heidegger, the uncanniest of all things is that “modern man is about to settle in this homelessness.”[v] Expropriated and expelled from his home, modern man is roaming the earth as an eternal tourist, forever sightseeing and racing to new wonders of the world. In fact, modern man has become a tourist in his own homeland.

Yet, the memory of home is still haunting us, individually and collectively. The longing for home is called homesickness or nostalgia [nostos = home; algos = pain, distress]. This longing is not some ahistorical distress or disorder of the soul, found at all times and all places. Rather, nostalgia is the predominant state of mind in modernity as such, because modernity means nothing other than the total and permanent revolution of all conditions in society, disrupting and destroying home environments, displacing and evicting masses of people from their homes for the sake of industry and commerce. It is a token of the victory of this permanent economic revolution that nowadays the adjective “disruptive” is positively charged, for instance, when new technologies are described as “disruptive” and “innovative.” The more destructive modernity is, the more pregnant the feeling of nostalgia will be.

The destructive and disruptive impact of modernity has been aptly described by Karl Marx in a well-known text:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of productions, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned […]. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.[vi]

The debris that accumulates in the storm of progress is precisely what Walter Benjamin describes in his ninth thesis on history:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His faced is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[vii]

The word “progress” literally means “to go forward.” Whether one decides to move “forward” on one’s own or is swept along by the violent forces of progress, one leaves behind the familiar space-time of the home world. Nostalgia, longing for the home, is predicated on this “progressive” loss of a sheltering home. It is most poignantly felt in a foreign country or strange environment, when one is spatially separated and cut off from one’s home. However, nostalgia is also characterized by a temporal displacement arising from the forever receding past of the familiar home of one’s early childhood. Nostalgia is a feeling of estrangement or alienation brought about by progress. To the extent that traditional societies lack the experience of “progress,” nostalgia can hardly be felt there.

Svetlana Boym has argued that the very word “nostalgia” entered our vocabulary as a freshly minted medical term in 1688 when the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer coined it for the medical diagnosis of “a sad mood originating from the desire for return to one’s native land.” As Boym explains, Hofer found this “nostalgia” in “the displaced people of the seventeenth century, freedom-loving students from the Republic of Berne studying in Basel, domestic help and servants working in France and Germany, and Swiss soldiers fighting abroad.”[viii] Closer at home, it appears that the first medical diagnosis of nostalgia in the English language goes back to Joseph Banks on board of the Endeavour. On September 3, 1770 he wrote:

The greatest part of them [i.e., the ship’s crew] were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia; indeed I can find hardly anybody in the ship clear of its effects but the Captain, Dr Solander, and myself, indeed we three have pretty constant employment for our minds which I believe to be the best if not the only remedy for it.[ix]

The busy mind not only plans, engineers, and manages the exodus from home, but it also keeps at bay nostalgic longing. It lets us forget that originally we dwell at home, belong to and are accepted in a homeland.

However, today we are increasingly faced with the rapid disappearance of the familiar home environment while still staying in our own homelands. If our home environment has been so degraded, exploited, and destroyed as to show little resemblance with its original state and function as a sheltered dwelling place, one can suffer homesickness or nostalgia even when one has not left the home at all. We can yearn for the solace and security of a home while dwelling in the ruins of our desolated homes and home environments. The Australian scientist Glenn Albrecht studied this yearning for the solace of a safe and sheltering home environment in the midst of the desolation felt by people living in the Upper Hunter region in NSW when it was transformed into a 500 square kilometre open cut coaling mining district. He aptly coined their condition “solastalgia,”[x] nostalgia while at “home.”

While it is customary to think of nostalgia or solastalgia as a kind of paradoxical and backward longing for what has been lost, it seems to me that this underestimates the sheer resistance in such memory of home. It misses the point that it is for safe keeping that we consign experiences of home to memory, i.e., for keeping them alive. And that means that through memory we prepare ourselves to redeem our experiences of home in the future. There is resilience and hope in any nostalgic or solastalgic mind. The sheer negativity of loss of the home environment is the driving force to found a true and lasting home. That is to say, the longing that beats in the nostalgic or solastalgic heart resists all false acquiescence in loss as the final word of history; it looks forward to the future fulfilment. Home is not so much what is lost in the past, but a promise for the future. It is in this sense that Ernst Bloch writes:

True genesis is not at the beginning but at the end, and it starts to begin only when society and existence become radical, i.e., grasp their roots. But the root of history is the working, creating human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts. Once he has grasped himself and established what is his, without expropriating and alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been: homeland.[xi]                                

 

[i] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, revised and expanded edition (Routledge: London, 1993), 243.

[ii] Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, ed. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (Harper Torchbooks: New York, 1969), 50.

[iii] Martin Heidegger, Überlegungnen XIV, ed. Peter Trawny (Klostermann: Frankfurt, 2014), pp. 237/38.

[iv] Martin Heidegger, Reden und andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 16, ed. Hermann Heidegger (Klostermann: Frankfurt, 2000), 711/12.

[v] Reden und andere Zeugnisse, 711.

[vi] Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Hackett: Indianapolis, 1994), 161/62.  

[vii] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, transl. Harry Zohn (Schocken Books: New York, 1969), 257/58.

[viii] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, Perseus Books Group: New York, 2001), 3.

[ix] Papers of Sir Joseph Banks, Endeavour Journal, 3 September 1770 (Series 03.741), at www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks/series_03/03_741.cfm, accessed 3/5/2015. The OED lists Banks’ use of the word as the first one in English. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1991), 1182.

[x] Glenn Albrecht, “The Age of Solastalgia,” in The Conversation, at http://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337, accesses May 1, 2015.

[xi] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, Vol. 3, transl. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice & Paul Knight (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995), 1375/76.