Friday, August 1, 2014

The Swiss Disease

by Jean Roberta

Nostalgia, like masturbation, was once thought to drain “vital energy” from the afflicted patient. Both of these conditions, according to doctors, could lead to death.

Other similarities between masturbation and nostalgia would be worth exploring, but that is a different post.

A Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer invented the term “nostalgia” (parallel to “neuralgia” and the rest of the “algia” family) in 1688. He also called it “mal du pays” and “mal du Suisse” as well as “Schweizerheimweh” because it was often seen in Swiss mercenaries in France and Italy who missed their native mountain landscape. (Think of the songs from The Sound of Music: “The Hills Are Alive” and “Edelweiss”.)

Symptoms of nostalgia, according to Hofer and later medical authorities, included weakness, fainting, fevers, indigestion, and stomach pains. Could any of these have been caused by bad food, unsanitary conditions, contagious diseases, or (in the case of mercenaries) the stress of war? Nah.

Being “grounded” in your native land was considered essential to good mental and physical health in those days. Travel—not to mention emigration--was unusual and dangerous. Does anyone still remember that Count Dracula, in the late Victorian Age, always keeps a small sample of his native earth with him in his coffin? In some sense, this keeps him “alive,” or at least undead.

Of course, Count Dracula is a traditionalist who comes from a past century. By the 1890s, when Bram Stoker wrote about him, “nostalgia” was a symptom of emotional sensitivity, not a life-threatening disease. Between Johannes Hofer’s medical treatise and Dracula, hordes of English Romantics had travelled to Switzerland to admire the Alps and find out why this small country had such a pull on its native inhabitants. (Note that Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818, is a happy Swiss until he messes up his life by experimenting with body parts in the lab.)

I can understand why anyone who grew up surrounded by mountains would miss them while living on the plains. Sometimes I still dream about views like this:

Nostalgia for the mountains of one’s youth makes sense to me. I grew up (from ages 4-15) in Idaho, a state which is completely on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. (The eastern border of Idaho is the Great Divide, the highest point of the mountains. Rivers on the western side flow into the Pacific Ocean. Rivers on the eastern side flow to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.)

My nostalgia for the earliest home I can remember clearly is bittersweet. The mountains were spectacular, and the sound of the train whistle echoing off the lava walls at the base of the mountains closest to my home (on an acreage outside the small town of Pocatello) was poignant. At the time, I felt “nostalgic” (if that’s the right word) for places I couldn’t remember well: the cities of New York and Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, where my parents had lived when I was a baby. All those places seemed much more cosmopolitan than southern Idaho, where conservative Mormon values dominated the culture.

By the time I reached puberty, the tension between the local culture and my parents’ expectations for me was becoming unbearable. All my classmates, including the girls I hung out with and the boys I dated, thought I was ready for marriage by age fourteen, since they thought it was the fate of all womankind to start having babies as soon as possible, and to keep house until death. My parents were academics, and they thought my mind would be wasted if I didn’t graduate from high school and go on to university. Either my parents were insane (and vaguely Communist-inspired), as all my “friends” believed, or I was surrounded by shallow-minded rednecks, but they couldn’t all be equally grounded in reality.

Clashing belief-systems dominated my life, but the mountains rose above human culture, eternally serene. Just looking at them every morning helped keep me as sane as possible.

Ironically, by the time my father was hired by a university in Canada, and we moved north, I had already decided to find a way out of Idaho after high school. In the summer of my sixteenth birthday, I told myself that I had two years left, at most. I still had relatives in New York, and my parents had academic friends in Chicago and California. My plan was to keep my grades as high as possible so I could get into a university in one of those places, and never return to the Rockies, the sagebrush, or the Snake River of southern Idaho.

I can identify with Swiss mercenaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Much as they might have loved the Alps and the mountain meadows where their sheep and goats grazed, no one can live on clean mountain air and a picturesque view alone. Leaving one’s childhood home to become a paid soldier in someone else’s war looks to me like a sign of desperation. A need for money will drive people out of many a beautiful landscape, where affluent travellers from other places like to go to get away from the “ratrace” of their urban lives.

Many immigrants to cities in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and western Europe miss their homes in what is now called the “Third World.” When they can afford it, they go home to visit. In some cases, a visit to the Old Country is like a brief return to childhood, but no one can live in that state forever.

As some others have said on this topic, feeling “nostalgic” for a place often means missing a particular time in one’s life, or an era in history. We can live there in dreams, and in fiction.


  1. What a far-reaching post, Jean! I had no idea of the origins of the word "nostalgia".

    As one of those souls who has left her native country to live on foreign soil, I do sometimes feel nostalgic for the Sierras and the Rockies - even the White Mountains, closer to where I lived. My present abode is mostly flat and what counts as mountains are really hills by U.S. standards. This isn't a deeply felt longing, though. The benefits of living where I do far outweigh my sense of regret.

    Last autumn I was in New England at the peak of foliage season. The weather was perfect, with crisp nights and sunny, blue-skied days. That's something I do miss. Then I remind myself it only lasts a week or two.

  2. Good linguistics history lesson, Jean. I've theorized that seeing mountains in the distance is good for the psyche. You'll hear that looking off into the distance can rest our eyes, and on flat ground, if they're are buildings, all you'll see is what's in front of you, whereas if there are high points, looking into the distance is easier. Living in California, with all the differences in the land's height I can see miles away pretty much any time of day, no matter where I am.. Maybe that's why I don't have much nostalgia for Trenton, New Jersey. :>)

    1. 'if *there are* buildings' … Danm splel chelk!

  3. Jean:
    The history lesson on nostalgia is so interesting. it says al lot about the cultural definitions of mental health. I'm not sure but I doubt that the DSM-4 or what ever number they are on would call nostalgia an unhealthy state of mind. The fact that you wanted to get to the city while everyone there wants to get to the pristine mountains is telling as well. It reminds me of the maxim (Vonnegut I believe) Wherever you go, there you are.

  4. Lisabet, Daddy X, and Spencer,

    Thanks for reading and commenting! If only we could keep the advantages of the places we came from, and bring them to the places where we live now! I don't think I know anyone who still lives in the place where s/he grew up. It does show that standards of mental health are specific to certain eras and cultures.

  5. I actually live now about an hour from where I grew up, and about twenty minutes from where I went to college. I've lived briefly in various other places, the longest period being three years in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s, so of course I feel intense nostalgia for that time and place, and finding it changed when I've revisited it a few times does nothing to change that.

  6. That's not surprising, Sacchi. The Bay Area was considered the place to be in the 1960s - a distinct time and place.

  7. First things first, according to those doctors you mentioned at the beginning, I'd be dead twice over. I'm very prone to nostalgia.

    I know what you mean about the mountains of one's youth. The last time I went to visit home, the shape of them through the window made me feel a sort of comfort I don't get anywhere else. I felt as if I slept better in their shadow.

    And, being from Hawaii, I also know what you mean about how the need for money, etc drives some people to cosmopolitan areas, away from places others go to "get away." If I could afford to go home, I would...