‘The Soldier’s Dream,’ an 1860s Currier & Ives lithograph of a Union solder during the American Civil War.
Homesickness. The French called it maladie du pays, the Germans heimweh. But it was the Swiss who first conceived of homesickness as a mental illness. They called it nostalgia.
A Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer invented the word in 1688, taking it from nóstos, meaning ‘homecoming’ in Greek and álgos, which was Homer’s word for ‘pain’ or ‘ache’. Hofer believed nostalgia was caused by the body’s ‘living spirits’. Soon doctors encountered restless migrants and soldiers far from home with curious symptoms: loss of appetite, unconsolable crying, heart palpitations. They were, it was thought, dying to go home. Treatments included opium, weekends in the Swiss Alps, and the ever-popular use of leeches. (Some people with tuberculosis were misdiagnosed with nostalgia and returned home to, in fact, die.)
Like the later phenomenon of mad travel, where sufferers wandered far from home in a state of mania, homesickness was soon pathologised. Nostalgia for one’s home and family was considered pious. At first it was a uniquely Swiss affliction, but soon it spread to the United States and beyond. (The English, those rugged colonizers, were thought to be immune.)
Every generation gets the neuroses it deserves. Nostalgia has gone in and out of fashion over the years, Susan Matt writes in Homesickness: An American History. in the early 1970s, doctors who treated miners in California described their migrant patients as, ‘discontented, restless, enterprising, and ambitious.’ The miner combined ‘the elements of character prone to mental aberration.’ Missing one’s family was certainly the cause, but they also attributed it to a more abstract ‘want of fixedness.’ Doctors said patients had ‘the idea that this [California] is but a temporary home, creating the sensation of being adrift in the world.’ How familiar.
Curiously, California had higher than average levels of insanity, partly blamed on the prevalence of homesickness—which now seems like a reasonable response to frontier life in America.
Nostalgia might have been first considered a virtue, but it was scorned in the Enlightenment. ‘Rather than seeing individuals as defined by their communities and divine will,’ says Matt, ‘followers of the Enlightenment came to see them as having the potential to be self-directed and autonomous, pursuing happiness, possessing rights and abilities that went beyond those conferred by their families, their churches, or their towns. They would be citizens of the world.’ This dialectic, between being adrift and individuality, is a holdover of the times. The modern nomad is adrift by choice, individual by nature, restless by spirit, yet seeking community.
They have a quarrel between nostalgia and individuality. Ask the expat who never intends to go home if he is nostalgic and he will say no. If he were, how could he square his fondness for the place he is from with the place he chooses to temporarily live? And most moves are temporary—Matt says that about 20 to 40 percent of foreigners will eventually return home. (That’s not to mention the problem of defining ‘home’. An American survey in 2008 found that people disagreed widely on whether home was where they were from, where they lived now, or where their families lived. Foreigners most often thought that home was where they currently were, not their country of birth.)
There is one place where nostalgia and individuality, mobility and community can co-exist: the internet. Skype connects us in real-time with loved ones far away, a proxy for time spent with them. Barry Wellman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, talks about ‘networked individualism’ The internet let us be simultaneously networked and individual: We have more connections but weaker ties to those connections. We are moving, Wellman says, from insular communities with clear boundaries to flatter, ‘more recursive’ networks. ‘Unlike a village, where everyone knows (almost) everything about everyone else,’ he writes in the book Networked, ‘modern people live segmented lives in which they cycle among different social networks. They handle things by a combination of compartmentalizing their relationships and overlapping their networks.’
What will this do to nostalgia? The expats I meet in London are hardly nostalgic for anything but their dwindling savings. A few people I meet go home a couple times a year, but many would just as well forget it. And technology, that great enabler, has its limitations. ‘The idea that we can and should feel at home anyplace on the globe is based on a worldview that celebrates the solitary, mobile individual and envisions men and women as easily separated from family, from home and from the past,’ Matt wrote in an editorial for the New York Times. ‘But this vision doesn’t square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring.’
+ Read Matt’s New York Times editorial ‘The New Globalist is Homesick.’
+ Check out her (heavily American) list of the best books on homesickness.
+ Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie’s 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System is a smart, big picture look at the misconceptions of tech-enabled social networks. It’s a good counterpoint to Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and a good primer on social networks (hint: they didn’t start with the internet).
+ Anthony Doerr writes about moving across America 16 times (‘once with a goldfish named Fran’) in Granta’s nature issue. Along with a scene about encountering a cloud of migrating butterflies, the essay looks at how ‘the brain contains, always, two opposing desires: the urge to stay and the urge to run.’ If you can’t dig up an old issue of Granta, watch Doerr read it at PopTech.