rivers, bells, nostalgia


The didactic poetry of the end of the eighteenth century often put the ideas of doctors and philosophers into verse. It wanted on the one hand to spread admiration for the conquests of science, to invent the De rerum natura of the new learning, while on the other hand it was not slow to sound the alarm about the disenchantment of the world caused by the successes of meas ure ment and calculation. The truths of science being universal, commonplaces were established at a time when scientific knowl edge itself remained indebted to poetry. So it was with the knowledge that was formed under the sign of the neologism “nostalgia,” an amalgam of two Greek words (nostos, return, and algia, pain), proposed in a Basel medical thesis of 1688, defended by Andreas Hofer of Mulhouse and presided over by Johannes Jacob Harder of Basel. This term gave a learned warranty to the popular notion of “homesickness” (Heimweh), [1] and gathered in the memory of a poetic tradition going back to Homer. But the medical cases cited told of recent observations. The malady, the author affirmed, most often affects students and soldiers, illustrative examples of those who are separated from their birthplace by constraint. These were “modern” examples, which took over from the older examples of the exile and the prisoner. The medical neologism, nicely fashioned into a feminine trisyllable, was gradually introduced into current vocabulary. A whole European tradition, of religious or Platonizing inspiration, had developed the motif of the soul’s exile. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with their long-distance journeys some times imposed by force, a sharper awareness of the diversity of social conditions involving uprootedness and the loss of freedom allowed the motif to be brought up to date—to be laicized.

more from Jean Starobinski at The Hudson Review here.