Monday, May 12, 2008

Exoticism & Nostalgia

In her late 80s, my great grandmother Viola started leaving her home late in the evening, sometimes in the middle of the night, packed suitcase in hand. She never managed to venture far before a neighbor spotted her in the street, called my grandmother Göta, who then came to save her from her hapless wanderings.

My great grandmother, we soon learned, kept leaving her apartment of more than twenty years because she wanted to go home.

My cross-breed terrier, Futti, did the same towards the end of her life, but, at the risk of offending the memory of my great grandmother, she was more properly excused: She was a dog after all, and when she died at the age of 112 dog years, she had lived in more places than your average military child.

It began one day when she escaped my mother’s garden, running for dear life toward my father’s house. Or at least so we presumed. After a while she started leaving my father’s house as well, sneaking out through the bushes on the patio, running in the direction of my mother’s place. When my mother found her at the police station one day, locked behind bars, we finally accepted that neither my father’s nor my mother’s place constituted the home she was searching for.

Nostalgia, homesickness, I just learned from Wikipedia, is a “longing for the past, often in an idealized form”. It was coined in the 17th Century by a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, to describe “the pain a sick person feels because he wishes to return to his native land, and fears never to see it again." For almost two centuries Nostalgia was regarded as a disease, whose anatomic and functional manifestations, such as melancholy, loss of appetite, and weakness, where often diagnosed among soldiers at war.

After 1870, nostalgia ceased to be considered a medical condition, and, as far I understand, somewhat lay dormant until it became the mot du jour in 1980s postmodern discourse. By then it had morphed into a less restrictive concept, referring not only to the longing for one’s native land, but, as one encyclopedic website puts it, “for things, persons, or situations of the past.” The nature of the pain instituted by the longing had changed as well. Nostalgia became bittersweet, wistful, and romantic, and not necessarily something that needed remedy.

After my recent trip home to Copenhagen, during which I came to feel excessively sentimental on several occasions, I read the piece “Nostalgia for the Present” by literary critic and theorist Frederic Jameson. What I found particularly interesting is that, to Jameson, nostalgia is not a longing for the familiar. Rather, it is a longing for the defamiliarized familiar.

Writing about the cause or the constituting factor of nostalgia, namely the human (as well as historically periodic) tendency to historicize, Jameson notes: “Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future: It can first and foremost be defined as a perception of the present as history; that is, a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it and allows us that distance from immediacy which is at length characterized as a historical perspective.”

When I looked into the concept of nostalgia, it was, admittedly, because I wanted to find clues as to why it can be that the feeling evoked by the encounter with the familiar, can sometimes resemble the feeling evoked by having encountered its very antithesis: The unfamiliar, the exotic.

Roland Barthes makes an interesting observation on the familiar and the unfamiliar in his book Camera Lucida, namely in regard to the appeal of some of his favorite photos of landscapes. Even though he has never visited the places, he notes that looking at them makes him feel certain that he was already there or will be there. Via Freud he concludes that such images contain the heimliche, the homely, insofar that it awakens the mother figure in his mind. The mother figure, or more specifically, the mother’s body, is the one and only place where you can with absolute certainty claim: I was once there.

At the risk of going all psychoanalytic/post-colonial on this, I suppose the common denominator between the nostalgic and the exotic is that is it conditioned not by a representation of a past or future reality, but rather a misrepresentation of now as it could have been or could become.

One definition of exoticism describes it as “the charm of the unfamiliar”. Somewhere else, most likely on Wikipedia, I found that a certain scholar by the name of Alden Jones defines exoticism in art and literature as “the representation of one culture for consumption by another.” Both Nostalgia and exoticism, in other words, are shaped by the desire for the present in the borrowed plumes of the unfamiliar and unrealizable past or future. Which makes the whole charade bitter-sweet: You can’t have now, and you can’t eat it either. You can only know with certainty that you were once in its womb.

I once read an interview with the comedian Sarah Silverman, in which she discussed the depressions she suffered through her teens. What specifically left an impression on me was her description of her mental state as feeling “like homesickness even though I am home.”

Apparently there is a neologism for this too: Solastalgia. A form of homesickness or nostalgia one gets when still at home, coined with particular reference to environmental change in one’s surroundings.

Perhaps because I am inclined to depressions and bouts of melancholy myself, I can’t help but find Silverman’s description keenly discerning. And not only in regard to my moments of lowness. I think I recognize that paradoxical homesickness from looking at old family photos as well as photoshopped images of sandy beaches and palm trees.

They both contain the heimliche regardless if they hold a nostalgic or exotic appeal.

I wonder to which extent the longing for home that my great grandmother and my crossbreed terrier felt resemble this strange oscillation between the familiar and unfamiliar, the nostalgic and the exotic, the heimliche and uncanny. Did they after all recognize their surroundings like home, yet have a relentless feeling that there was a different place where the pathology of homesickness could disappear altogether? And if so, where did that idea come from?


Glenn said...

Hi Sarah, have a look at:

then follow the link to 'Ice'. I have a short essay that follows the images in the book.

I developed the concept of solastalgia in 2003 and even then defined it as "the homesickness you have when you are still at home". Interesting that Silverman had the same thought. There is much more to be done to develop these ideas ....


Sarah Carlson said...

Thank you Glenn, I'm sincerely grateful you took the time to comment. I will most definitely read your article as I find the concept genuinely interesting - and yes I agree, it appears to be much food for future thought in that subject.