Avishai Margalit, George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and Professor Emeritus at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, starts with the etymology of the word: “Nostalgia is a compound of two Greek terms: nostos (returning home) and algos (pain or yearning) “ [[1], p.272]. With this baseline he then submits that looking back through the lens of nostalgia presents us with a distorted view of the past, often for the better:

“Nostalgia, like its cousin sentimentally, tends to distort reality in a particular way. The difference between sentimentality and nostalgia is that nostalgia distorts the reality of time past. Nostalgia idealizes its object—say, the Village—and locates it in a time of great purity and innocence, thus the object, say the Village, is enshrined with purity and innocence.” [[2], p.273]


Scott Alexander Howard highlights the sense of loss inherent in the experience: “Any adequate view of nostalgia will acknowledge that it involves a felt difference between past and present: the very irretrievability of the past is salient in the experience.” [[3], p.641]It is the sense of irretrievability that is striking for me; it instills an image of grasping at something that is physically just beyond our fingers, yet emotionally present. Continuing, Howard says that the emotional range of our nostalgic response is broader than just those activated by contrasting a preferable past and an impoverished present [[4], p.642], there are other triggers that foster other shades of emotion:

“These views assume that nostalgia depends, in some way, on comparing a present situation with a past one. However, neither does justice to the full range of recognizably nostalgic experiences available to us – in particular, ‘Proustian’ nostalgia directed at involuntary autobiographical memories. [[5], p.641]

So, if nostalgia is sparked by triggers other than a comparison between an idealized past and a flawed present, what are they? Howard draws upon Proust [[6], p.644], which I have summarized below:

  1. They involve the spontaneous recovery of a forgotten scene.
  2. The scene is usually (though not necessarily) about a remote event, such as from childhood.
  3. Their retrieval is heavily cue-dependent, without the influence of any motivation to remember the scene, such as one’s current conditions.
  4. They are typically activated by sensory cues.
  5. They involve a strong sense of reliving the past.
  6. They are accompanied by a strong feeling of joy.
  7. They are typically ephemeral

In a deeper examination of nostalgia, Howard observes “It is the feeling of a vast context restored by a particular sensation [my highlights] that affords … such profound happiness, even when it is bittersweet: ‘the true paradises are the paradises we have lost’ [[7], 228].” [[8], p.644]. It is this “vast context” that in my mind lends mass to the nostalgic experience, that multiplies its volume of affect which, when turned up, can be overwhelming.

Howard concludes by submitting that it is our emotional response that is more relevant than how we choose to perceive the relationship between past and present.

“What is targeted in episodes of nostalgia are memory representations of an unrecoverable past, seen, at least in the moment, as meriting desire. Beyond that, the emotion is more distinctive for its bittersweet affective character than for the sort of past it is directed towards, or the relationship that obtains between that time and now.”  [[9], p.647]

This sense of nostalgia described here is more layered and nuanced than simply one of loss or desire of something from the past. While it can be seen as a contrast between something that was seen to be better than today and a sense of reliving the past that develops a strong sense of joy, nostalgia is spontaneous and ephemeral, often drawing from childhood, often triggered by sensory cues, and it brings with it a vast context that gives it affective weight.  Dorothea Debus submits that “’emotional feelings per se can be recalled’, that is, an ‘emotion itself can be a memory’” [[10]].

[1] Margalit, Avishai. 2011. nostalgia. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 21 (3): 271-80.

[2] Ibid, Margalit

[3] Howard, Scott Alexander. 2012. nostalgia. Analysis 72 (4): 641-50.

[4] Ibid, Howard

[5] Ibid, Howard

[6] Ibid, Howard

[7] Proust, M. 1970. Time Regained. Trans. A. Major. London: Chatto and Windus

[8] Ibid, Howard

[9] Ibid, Howard

[10] Debus, Dorothea. 2007. Being emotional about the past: On the nature and role of past-directed emotions. Noûs 41 (4): 758-79.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *