by Claudia Ruvinetti

Who knows what our contemporaries would have said about Simone Weil, when in 1943 she wrote that "of all the needs of the human soul none is more vital than the past," today, when we are constantly projected into the future, imagining a perspective space that engulfs every past and present dimensions.

Does progress have an ending?

One of the most common axioms of naive philosophy and psychology, an implicit assumption that is then reflected in public political discourse, is that time is linear, whereby each human dimension extends in a straight line into an undefined future. This conception can be likened to the assumption of "human progress," within which each era summarizes and erases the previous one.

The concept of progress as we intend it today was developed during the Enlightenment, out of a stubborn and contrary reaction to the past, as it was identified as pre-scientific in absolute, harbinger only of superstitions and idola tribus. Beyond the development of technology, which largely mirrors this linear and scientific model, Man's very existence is immersed in a cyclical or spiraling time in which memories and myths are actualized every day. In a world where everything is fluid, even nostalgia is not what it used to be but changes according to the shades of meaning given to this term. The adjective "nostalgic," for example, is referred to all those political or human groups that have an entrenchment in the past, seen, however, in a stereotypical and sterile perspective. In reality, the term traces its origins from medical science and originated precisely in the late 17th century in the military field, to describe a condition similar to melancholia that affected militia recruited in foreign camps.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

The author of this linguistic definition is the medical scientist Johannes Hofer, who borrowed two Greek words - nostos and algos - in 1688 to coin the neologism nostalgia, which literally translated would be "the pain of being unable to return home." The term nostos in Greek has a more charged nuance than just travel in physical space; it is a return to a beloved land, with its load of bittersweet emotion within a journey of the mind and soul.

In his Dissertatio medica Hofer describes the homesickness as "a continuous sadness, the homeland as the only thought, disturbed sleep or insomnia, loss of strength, decreased sensitivity to hunger and thirst, anguish and palpitations of heart, frequent sighing, dullness of soul focused almost exclusively on the idea of the homeland, to which must be added various disorders, both preceding the illness and consequent to it, as well as continuous and intermittent fevers, quite stubborn if the patient's wishes are not fulfilled."

One should not underestimate the historical context in which this term was born, which appeared in the late seventeenth century, forty years after the end of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), a major war episode that marked the progression of modern armies and the urbanization of many European peoples. By the late 18th century, military leaders had realized that they could hire humble civilians from the countryside with the hope of better subsistence, soldiers who, however, became such without ideal preparation and often mercenaries, thus fighting for a foreign country far from home. The first homesick soldiers were in fact reported by Hofer to be among the Swiss militia fighting in the French army, uprooted from a bucolic and simple life. It was precisely the Swiss, Hofer recalls, who coined the vernacular word Heimweh with the pain produced by sweet memories of the homeland in mind.

Del PCI c'è ben poco da celebrare ma tanto da ricordare

The ideal figure of the soldier - writes Foucault in Discipline and Punish - was once that of "someone who can be recognized from afar" who bears the marks "of vigor and courage, imprints of his pride." The soldier used to be embedded in a "corporal rhetoric of honor." Then, at the end of the 17th century, "the soldier has become something that is fabricated; from a shapeless paste, from an inept body, the machine that is needed has been created." It is not in the purpose of this article to imprint a discussion on the desirability or otherwise of conscription, so much as to describe the history of a concept that has to do with the human need to have roots, physical places of the soul and to return to or at least to draw on as baggage in times of discouragement.

Nostalgia is good for the soul

Regarding psychology, the concept of nostalgia has not been explored in depth for a long time because it was equated with a melancholic sphere, thus dysfunctional and harmful to humans. Actually, recent research tells us that in comparison with the destructive pain of depression, nostalgia has functional features in grief elaboration and existential dynamics.

Originally, there emerged a tradition of research that looked at nostalgia as a maladaptive factor, but since 2004, several authors have carried out studies showing that getting lost in nostalgic memories increases mood in the long term, strengthens self-esteem, and enhances feelings of closeness to others.

Routledge and colleagues sought to answer this question and carried out a series of studies based on the hypothesis that nostalgia has the function of supporting and reinforcing the attribution of meaning to life. Already in previous studies, it had been seen that in response to stimuli that increased awareness of the inevitability of death, people with a greater tendency to experience nostalgia reported greater perceptions of meaning in life and had fewer thoughts of death, compared with participants with a lower propensity to be nostalgic.

In a historical period such as ours that tends to want to create a caesura with the past, sometimes in the terms of denial, often even in the dimension of iconoclastic fury, it is also right to be able to rebel against this view, not only to preserve local traditions and cultures, but for an even more vital purpose, summarized by the title of the latest book by Francesco Borgonovo Conservare l’anima. Manuale per aspiranti patrioti.

In this essay, the author takes a historical survey of modernity, criticizing in particular those aspects of it that tend to destroy the foundations of society: spirituality, the idea of the sovereignty of Nations and family ties. The beauty of this essay, in addition to its enthralling prose style, lies in its vocation: it is not (only) a manual of politics but a spiritual exercise, an exhortation to the reader to awaken from slumber to preserve what is most human in us, the art of soul-making.


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A graduate in Psychology, a political activist, she cultivates in parallel a passion for the topics of political communication, the relationship between the sexes and military history.