“[…] the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
– C.S. Lewis
While our English term nostalgia translates more or less directly across Indo-European languages – nostalgie, nostalgija, nostalgi – there are additional terms in many of the same languages that connote a nation-specific nostalgia, intricately tied to national cultural histories. A well-known example would be that of German Heimweh, a word rooted in nostalgia’s linguistic birth in the late 17th century. In 1688 Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer coined the term as an equivalent to Heimweh to describe the condition of Swiss mercenaries abroad, who became physically ill with longing for the mountainous landscape of their native land. While nostalgia came to be understood in a medical sense as a curable illness akin to a common cold, with the turn of the 19th century, Heimweh became a poetic term and eventually a collective obsession with poets such as Hölderlin, Heine and Ludwig Tieck littering the page with ache and longing (weh) for the rural homeland (Heim). The concept was a central characteristic of the German late Romantic Movement increasingly concerned with mourning for a lost rural haven in the face of the city-crowd’s alienating force.
A further key notion of German Romanticism was Sehnsucht, notoriously difficult to translate into English but of which attempts have included wistful longing and indeed nostalgic yearning. Sehnsucht held particular significance in the early writings of C.S. Lewis, who used the German term to articulate the inconsolable yearning that haunted his youth. Neither nature nor Christianity fulfilled his longing, which led in part to his rejection of the Christian faith after his mother died when he was just twelve years old. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, he describes the feeling as follows:
“The first is itself a memory of a memory… It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me… It was a sensation of course of desire, but desire for what? And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.”
Sehnsucht for Lewis was the secret at the core of every being, and crucially, the desire for something never experienced, a glimpse of paradise and the simultaneous realisation that that which we long for is unattainable. With his eventual return to the Christian faith, Lewis’ understanding of Sehnsucht as a longing for the unobtainable transformed into a kind of spiritual nostalgia, a hopeful yearning that restless souls would one day be soothed by God’s presence and that life is but a long, winding return journey to the ultimate spiritual home.
A more secular interpretation of this restlessness at the core of humanity is expressed in the core absence resulting from what the American intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra terms structural, or transhistorical trauma. Like Sehnsucht, structural trauma is often framed as a phenomenon beyond representation, analysis or inquiry.
“[Structural/trans-historical trauma] may be evoked or addressed in various fashions: in terms of the passage from nature to culture, the eruption of the pre-Oedipal or pre-symbolic, the entry into language, the encounter with the Real, the inevitable generation of the aporia, and so forth. Structural trauma is often figured as deeply ambivalent, as both painfully shattering and the occasion for jouissance, ecstatic elation, or the sublime.”
While historically determined trauma, for example that of a generation of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, relates to a specific loss of lives, territories or material goods, transhistorical trauma relates to a universal, constitutive absence that cannot be quantified. It is the sense that we have lost something impossible to locate – paradise, community, authentic memory – objects which are wholly abstract but which we desire nonetheless. LaCapra asserts that structural trauma is often represented as an experience that is both painful and pleasurable, even sublime.
The paradox, already apparent to an extent in German Sehnsucht and C.S. Lewis’ bittersweet yearning, appears again and again in nation-specific articulations of nostalgia. The contradiction is exemplified by, for example, the Portuguese term saudade, which again has no equivalent in English. A concise definition of the word from The Origins of the Portugese Language, the 1606 treatise by Duarte Nunes de Leão, describes it as ‘a memory of a thing with the desire for this same thing’. It is the resurfacing of the sensations and memories associated with a feeling, event, place or person, which, now absent, inspire what writer Manuel de Melo defined in the same year as ‘a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy’. Unlike heimweh or nostalgia, inherent in saudade, as in Sehnsucht, is the pleasure in yearning, a joy derived from both the mourning of what is lost and the faint hope of recovering it, or at least filling the void it left behind. The word derives from the Latin solitates (solitudes) and first appeared in its original form, soidade, in the thirteenth century ‘cantigas d’amigo’, troubadour songs sung primarily by women lamenting the absence of departed loved ones away at war, on crusades or sea voyages. The term came into common use in the sixteenth century when the then King, Sebastian, disappeared during the historic defeat of the Portugese at the hands of Moroccan forces at the battle of Alcazar (Acácer Quibir). Without a successor to the throne, Portugal was subject to the Spanish crown, a blow which prompted a period of collective mourning and embedded saudade into the Portuguese psyche with the twofold sense of sorrow and hope that despite its losses, the nation would one day be redeemed.
Moving beyond this point of historic specificity, through the Renaissance and with the rise of modern Western philosophy, the term came to encapsulate a universal, existential state, and was eventually absorbed into Portugal’s founding myth: that Lisbon was conceived of in a dream by Ulysses, the symbolic father of the many Portuguese sailors, soldiers and crusaders who like him wandered the earth separated from their homeland and loved ones. Inherent in saudade is the experience of journeying and migration, and, subsequently, of the concept of the nation state and a sense of belonging. In more recent history, saudade and its unique quality as a phenomenon that is singular to Portugal was instrumentalised by politicians to assert a national, cosmopolitan character, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century. Traditionally a country whose foreign relations were directed away from Europe, save for its long-standing alliance with Britain, after the 1974 revolution that ended António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship and having reluctantly renounced sovereignty of its remaining African colonies, Portugal had little choice but to join the European Community, becoming its poorest member in 1986. As the Portuguese philosopher and critic Eduardo Lourenço argues, the disparity between Portugal’s self-perception and the way it appeared to the rest of the world developed in part as a result of the nation’s innate saudade: the simultaneous pride and longing for an imagined past and the glory days of Empire.
If Lisbon, ‘City of Ulysses’, is the mythical capital of saudade, Istanbul has long been the capital of its Turkish counterpart, hüzün. The word, which has Arabic roots and appears five times in the Koran, referred historically to the spiritual anguish experienced by devout Muslims with their growing attachment to material pleasures on earth. However, as Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning author asserts, the term developed over the centuries to refer specifically to the collective melancholy of the people of Istanbul. Pamuk is credited with being the first to introduce the concept of hüzün to the Anglophone world in his autobiography ‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’. Like saudade to the Portuguese, hüzün is key to the cultural history and identity of Istanbul’s inhabitants and denotes a deep sense of loss, which in line with the now familiar paradox is, as Pamuk notes, ‘ultimately as life affirming as it is negating’. For Pamuk, Istanbul’s melancholy stems from its yearning for the imagined harmony and peaceful co-existence under the Ottoman Empire in the face of Modernity’s growing homogenisation and nationalism.
As with saudade, hüzün has been figured both as a sentiment akin to what LaCapra refers to as a structural absence, of, for example spirituality or a sense of community, and as a historically locatable loss, like that of sovereign power and Imperial territories. In the latter case however, the nostalgia is for an imagined past, re-spun and re-told over generations to the extent that the line between history and mythology is blurred. The terms for nostalgic, bittersweet yearning that appear, with slight variations, across countless languages – Sehnsucht (German), hüzüm (Turkish), saudade (Portuguese), hiraeth (Welsh), toska (Russian), natsukashii (Japanese), kaiho (Finnish), malinconia (Italian), dor (Romanian) – all share a common feature: the physical and temporal ambivalence of the object of longing. It is intrinsic in human nature to ascribe meaning wherever there is uncertainty, validity/authority where there is ambivalence, but meaning-making can be as adverse as it is advantageous for individuals or communities experiencing the trauma of loss, or indeed of an absence they cannot locate. In his writings on history and trauma, LaCapra warns of the conflation of historical loss and transhistorical absence, arguing that it results in, for example, the instrumentalisation of putative events such as Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, or the death of Christ, as rationalisation for the persecution of women or Jews. Such was the case in Salazar’s Portugal, where Fado music, the original art form used to express saudade, was co-opted by the regime as a means through which to push its conservative and regressive ideologies. Today, the danger also lies in Turkey, where nostalgic sentiment is directed increasingly towards the ostensible heyday of the Empire, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian administration advances its blue-print of neo-Ottomanism.
While disillusionment, authoritarianism and radicalism is fed by any number of socio-political and historically locatable causes, it is worth considering the less quantifiable sentiments of loss and absence, nostalgia and utopian yearning, as drivers of human action. Bearing in mind the sheer quantity of terms that exist across different languages to articulate the sentiment, the existence of a far more ambiguous yearning inherent in human nature, be it religious or secular, cannot be negated. As LaCapra indicates in his warning of the conflation of loss and absence, history and myth, the ambiguity of human yearning is what makes it so easily directed towards more concrete, locatable phenomena, even when these are purely utopian conjurings of imagined pasts. The danger of this conflation grows daily with the rise of nationalism and isolationism in Europe and the United States where fear and uncertainty are trump cards for those competing for power. Invocations of belonging and of nationhood, combined with fear-mongering concerning globalisation and migration, are used time and again to mask political ideology and justify regressive foreign policy.