06 January 2008

Homesick for Some Place I'll Never Be and for Some Place I Already Am

With a Christmas gift voucher, I treated myself to a print copy of the January edition of Wired. In this month's issue, as well as an interview with Thom Yorke (another former patron of the Sandwich Shop of Dreams), the confessions of a Scrabulous cheat and instructions for surviving on two hours of sleep per night (TLDR: take a short nap every four hours), there was an article on climate change in which one paragraph in particular caught my eye: 

 [Glenn] Albrecht has given this syndrome an evocative name: solastalgia. It's a mashup of the roots solacium (comfort) and algia (pain), which together aptly conjure the world nostalgia. In essence, it's pining for a lost environment. "Solastalgia," as he wrote in a scientific paper describing his theory, "is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home."

What struck me was the Pynchon-like oxymoron of being homesick while still at home. I spent much of last year trying to find a quotation about nostalgia from Gravity's Rainbow, which I eventually discovered was, "For this crew, nostalgia is like seasickness: only the hope of dying from it is keeping them alive." With hindsight, I actually prefer Ian McEwan's nostalgia quotation from Atonement: "her improbable nostalgia for a time barely concluded."

The concept of nostalgia consists of two basic subconcepts: the idea of having good or comforting thoughts about the past or about home and the idea that the happiness associated with these thoughts is no longer available and so looking back upon them makes one sad. (The etymology being the Greek nostos (homeward journey) and algia (pain), nostos being first applied to Odysseus on his journey from Troy. Like bittersweet, it is an oxymoron and I rather like both words. 

Ian McEwan's play on words is clever because nostalgia by definition applies to the feelings one has for a time in the past (although, obviously there is no limit on how far in the past this must be) and Albrecht's solastalgia is clever because the word implies that the feelings one has are for a place where one is not and yet it is the place itself that is changing over time rather than the thinker. Ah, I remember when nostalgia was a simple concept...those were the days!

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