Nostalgia

by Lorenzo Piccoli


What is the connection between Swiss Kohreihen songs, modern tourism, and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel?


The term nostalgia was coined in the late 1600s by an Alsatian student, Johannes Hofer. He used it in his medical dissertation to describe the specific emotional state felt by the Swiss mercenaries uprooted from their mountains, stationed in the service of Louis XIV, and weakened, in fact, by what was previously called la maladie du pays. The 1767 Dictionnaire de Musique by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, himself a citizen of Geneva, claimed that Swiss mercenaries were threatened with severe punishment to prevent them from singing their Ranz des Vaches or Kuhreihen songs.

Nostalgia would become an important trope in Romanticism. This led, among other things, to the development of early tourism in the Alps. Trips to the Swiss mountains became widespread among the European cultural elite in the 19th century. The first organised tourist holidays in the world were organised in Switzerland by British impresarios (Thomas Cook and Lunn Travel companies). It was the genesis of what we know today as ‘going on vacation‘.

For some people, nostalgia continued to designate a medical condition typical of those who are far from the place where they were born. Well into 1946, in the United States doctors still referred to nostalgia as “the immigrant psychosis” due to people pining for their home countries as they attempted to process life in a new one.

In Europe, nostalgia had lost its exclusive connections with a place and was no longer considered a medical condition. Poets started to use the word when longing for the past or even for the present. Nostalgia represented a very powerful concept in the Austrian literary school of the early nineteenth century of Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Their writings inspired for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film imbued with sentimental nostalgia.

Recent research finds that nostalgia can have positive psychological functions, such as to improve mood, increase social connectedness, enhance positive self-regard, and provide existential meaning. In a study tracking the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on entertainment choices, more than half of consumers reported finding comfort in revisiting both television and music they enjoyed in their youth. There are many other examples of how people can find comfort in nostalgia in times of isolation.

Of course, this is quite a change from the initial findings of Hofer, who described the syndrome of nostalgia through its symptoms: fainting and high fever, stomach pain and death. Among the suggested treatments: opium, leeches and, in extreme cases, terror. The latter was adopted by a Russian General who, in 1733, decided to bury alive soldiers incapacitated by nostalgia. It is reported that “after two or three burials, the outbreak of homesickness subsided“.