COLUMN: Nostalgia

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Nostalgia’s come a long way.

It used to be classified as a medical condition (though doubtful in the same category as tuberculosis) and comes from words meaning “homecoming ache”.

There’s not been much scientific investigation into nostalgia, but some evidence from different academic studies elevates it from a mooning melancholic state to something that has an important psychological function.

Nostalgia is believed, for instance, to affirm one’s sense of self and increase your social connectedness. It can lift your mood and self-esteem, and help frame meaning. Interestingly, in one study, people who dwelt fondly on past memories had an increased perception of physical warmth.

A certain slant of light reminds you of the smells of childhood suppers. The cooing of doves in the late afternoon can become the queasy reminder of quiet Sundays that heralded the beginning of another boarding school week. And a scent can spiral you right back to swirly ice-creams at the beach in Durban in 1979, or the conflicting loneliness and joy of being in Paris by yourself in 1998.

Place is central to nostalgia. Our memories are often linked to emotion and place simultaneously – like a feeling of powerlessness linked to the shape of the front gate beyond which you were not allowed to venture alone, or the feeling of safety linked to the floral patterns of a grandmother’s curtains.

Good travel writing evokes nostalgia without being overtly nostalgic. If the writer has succeeded in transporting the reader, he or she makes one long for a place that is foreign but feels vicariously familiar.

Apart from the fiction I read this month – each novel with a strong sense of place (Tuscany, Miami, New York) – I also read two non-fiction books that made me aware of how we place ourselves geographically as part of the project of understanding the roads that have lead to our current selves.

The first book was Mark Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg. It is a memoir, mapped along the streets and rivers, the cemeteries, “locations” and mine dumps, the forests and green lungs, of the city of Johannesburg.

It is a looping, thorough, generous work that avoids solipsism by providing greater historical and social contexts for Gevisser’s own life events and mental shifts as he grew up in the city. It is an expansive work: evocative and instructive. It’s a love song to urban spaces and the way in which places makes us, the way in which we project on to them, and they reflects us back to ourselves. The way they mould our creative, relational and intellectual endeavours.

The book made me seek out a travel book that has been recommended to me from time to time, but suddenly felt urgent to read: Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines.

“Songlines” are tracks across Australia mapped out through indigenous people’s songs and stories. They are a kind of oral cartography of the landscape, a way in which itinerant people were able to find their way, while roaming, using landmarks noted in song.

This wasn’t an easy concept for me to get my head around and I expected the first few pages to set it all out neatly for me, to define songlines in a way that made sense to me as a white person with a modern Western education in the Christian tradition. Soon, however, how exactly the songlines worked became secondary as Chatwin himself moulded the Australian outback for me, recreating the sullen heat, the chilling racism and the merciless countryside through his own brand of observational narrative journalism.

The unexpected and unusual joy of the book were the sections in which he transcribes parts of his previous travel journals – entries of varying length linking Western literature, indigenous art, archaeology, poetry and storytelling, and hunting and foraging, with various nomadic traditions.

I’m a homebody mostly. Writers like Gevisser and Chatwin give me rambler’s heart. They give me a homecoming ache.

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