July 10, 2013

Nostalgia, memories, and the unconscious

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be — but it’s looking a lot better, according an article in the NYT today that reports about a decade of study on the subject! Apparently "Nostalgia was originally described as...
“a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” by Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688. And nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future."

And the word "nostalgia" cannot be uttered without me thinking of one of my favorite Kundera novels...but I've blogged about that earlier here and here. It is almost 20 years now since I first read Kundera after being introduced to his work by a friend of mine and coincidentally, just this morning I was unpacking my books and arranging the various Kundera novels I bought in the 90s on the bookshelf. I have long wanted to re-read some of those early Kundera novels that I have not read now in 15+ years; not sure when I will get back to them - for now, they just sit mutely perhaps nostalgically waxing about past glories when they actually got read instead of sitting unopened in a book-shelf or a box for years! 


And speaking of nostalgia and remembrance of things past, via Twitter I learned that it is Proust's birthday today; born on this date in 1871.
“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature.” – Marcel Proust, in' In Search of Lost Time' or alternatively titled 'Remembrance of Things Past'. (French: À la recherche du temps perdu).

And a related quote:

“This is the irony of Proustian nostalgia: it remembers things as being far better than they actually were. But Proust, at least, was acutely aware of his own fraudulence. He knew that the Combray he yearned for was not the Combray that was. (As Proust put it, “The only paradise is paradise lost.”) This wasn’t his fault: there simply is no way to describe the past without lying. Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.” – Jonah Lerer, “Proust: The Method of Memory” from Proust Was a Neuroscientist (p. 88)
Also, I was reading something earlier about the Examined Life and psychoanalysis and Freud [1] and it is interesting that in finding the above quotes, I also found this excerpt from a book Milton L. Miller titled: 'Nostalgia: A Psychoanalytic Study of Marcel Proust,' which compares Proust's work to that of Freud's queries into the human mind and the unconscious.

"Proust's pursuits revolved around his impressions of the functioning of the unconscious. Thus we are led naturally to a comparison with Freud's beliefs, and with some very recent research into the nature of behavior patterns. The compelling nature of those patterns that seem to have determined Proust's subject matter and the precise way he dealt with what he had to say seem to require some comment from psychoanalytic as well as literary experts. It is not surprising that two men of genius explored the unconscious within the same generation, the one aesthetically, the other scientifically. Proust developed his aesthetic approach to the unconscious in a country which was, in subtle artistry, a leader among nations; his predecessor, Anatole France, helped introduce a tradition of delicate introspective analysis, which was later enhanced by André Gide, a great critic and writer who looked deeply into the unconscious. Meanwhile, from among the Austrians, Hungarians, Germans, English and the Swiss came most of the outstanding pioneers in psychoanalysis. In France, Janet's followers at first accepted psychoanalysis somewhat reluctantly, omitting theories of symbolism; and the earliest psychoanalysts came from the provinces, not Paris. Yet Paris provided the atmosphere in which the great impressionist painters and symbolist poets introduced their theories to the world. The aesthetic rather than the medical approach to the unconscious predominated in France." 

[1] A NYT article about a recent book “The Examined Life - How We Lose and Find Ourselves” by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. It seems like it would be an interesting book to read - kind of like some of Oliver Sacks books that I have enjoyed reading in the past. The title (and apparently the book chapter titles) sound like it is one of those self-help books but it isn't. Rather it is "an insightful and beautifully written book about the process of psychoanalysis, and the ways people’s efforts to connect the past, present and future reflect their capacity to change. The book distills the author’s 25 years of work as a psychoanalyst and more than 50,000 hours of conversation into a series of slim, piercing chapters that read like a combination of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks. They invite us to identify with Mr. Grosz’s patients and their losses and regrets, even as we are made to marvel at the complexities and convolutions of the human mind."

Note: see earlier posts on the subject here and here.

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