Close up picture of a record player, playing a record

Nostalgia a thing for the past in time of Covid-19

In the days of lockdown, we found ourselves cooped up at home with, say, two small children, three dogs and three cats, not to mention the goldfish mouthing disdain through his tank window. After months of homeschooling while also working from home, the days were blending into each other. If this was Covid-19, it must be Tuesday — again.

And so our thoughts turned to the 'good old days'; we hankered after better times, reimagined magic moments, and streamed, repeatedly, Lost In Translation and Groundhog Day, if only for consulation in knowing we were not alone in being stuck in a world that repeated itself, over and over again.

Suddenly, nostalgia is no longer a thing of the past. The lockdown has had us, in yearning for those 'good old days', recalling first loves, first child, first anything-you-care-to-mention. "I believe many are turning to nostalgia as a stabilising force and a way to keep in mind what they cherish most," says my psychologist friend from Magherafelt. "People find comfort in nostalgia during times of loss, anxiety, isolation, or uncertainty."

In one study tracking the effects of Covid-19, more than half said they found "great comfort" in revisiting TV and music they had enjoyed in their youth — Friends, Cheers and The X-Files popped up (Casablanca too), along with The Sex Pistols and early U2 and our 'adopted' David Gray.

Even old family boards games and retro fashion from the back of the wardrobe have come to the fore, and memories of sporting glories, along with surreal dreams that have found us in awkwardly adolescent moments with first loves — I speak from, eh, a personal perspective on the latter.

The modern definition of nostalgia is "a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, a period or place with happy personal associations". Its history, however, is less pleasant and more complex, it being once considered a disease with odd and potentially harmful treatment options.

Apparently this feeling of longing and heartache started back in the 1600s, towards the end of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the phenomenon was dubbed 'el mal de corazon', the 'evil of the heart'. But it was Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer who coined the term 'nostalgia' in a 1688 dissertation by combining two Greek words, nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain).

The medical community during that time considered it a psychopathological disorder that was a form of depression and melancholia. When Irish and other immigrants flooded to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, doctors referred to nostalgia as the "immigrant psychosis", because our forefathers were pining for the old country as they attempted to start life in a new one.

Psychologists today recognise the benefits of what they call 'personal nostalgia', which is when we reminisce about details of our own past, often triggered by life changes and milestones such as graduations and weddings and deaths, in the time of coronavirus or otherwise. By contrast, what they term 'historical nostalgia' is tied to valuing a time that happened before we were born — like a former friend who is obsessed with the Roaring Twenties — and it can reflect dissatisfaction with what is happening in the present.

All of this begs the question: can we ever go back, recapture that idyllic childhood holiday, that first romance, that precious moment when, before Covid-19, everything seemed right with the world? And, if we could, would the experience match up to our memories of that moment in time, long since lived out?

During lockdown I went back to Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again, published posthumously in 1940. The novel tells of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book that makes frequent references to his home town of Libya Hill. The book is a success but the town’s residents, unhappy with what they view as Webber's distorted depiction of them, send the author menacing letters and death threats.

Wolfe explores the changing society of the 1920s, including the Wall Street crash, the illusion of prosperity, and the unfair passing of time which prevents Webber ever being able to ‘return home again'.

The title comes from the denouement of the novel in which Webber realises: "You can't go back home to your family, to your childhood ... back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting — back home to the escapes of time and memory."

Nostalgia, it seems, just might not be what it used to be.

Read Paul Hopkins every week in the Meath Chronicle

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