Pathological Nostalgia

The Psychosis Behind Tasting It Again for the First Time

Memory is fantasy.

In a psychological sense, fantasy (or, to be accurate, “phantasy) is the medium of imagination that impels thought and feeling. Images come to mind that elicit emotional response. And because it arises out of this process of fantasy, our consciousness—our very personhood—is fundamentally creative. (So remember that whenever you doubt your own creativity.)

We often contrast fantasy with memory as if the latter is some kind of recording we replay at will—a transcript of things as they were. But memory is more than just life as it was, it is life as we wish it to be.

Most psychoanalytic schools believe unconscious fantasies constantly stream like white noise in our background mental processes. These latent impulses are often directed toward others, perhaps manifesting as an instinctual desire to sleep with a coworker or ring the boss’s neck. The ideas might not be rational or “true” in a conscious sense, but the feelings behind them are very real.

And then there are those unconscious fantasies that we attach to our memories. A desire for security and clarity today might take us back to a time when life felt safe and simple, like, say, childhood. I’m thinking about nostalgia—that sentimental attachment to a dreamlike past that can produce intense feelings in the present.

Nostalgia is memory’s orgasm.

There’s no glory in retaining information over time, for that is memory’s modest and workaday purpose. We find only the Darwinian benefit of survival in putting the past to use. Picture an amnesiac existence of reencountering basic physical or interpersonal obstacles—like uneven sidewalks or talkative neighbors—with fresh effort each time. Put another way, we get little joy from recalling routine memories.

On the other hand, nostalgia operates like a reward for an otherwise elemental biological function. The love I have for my favorite bands (recently, Fugazi) or movies (try Freaks) still feels fresh because it draws on the deep well of feeling I mined the first time I listened to or saw them. Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love immediately puts me in the front seat of my friend’s car, high and dumbstruck, cruising north along the lake at three in the morning. The memory is sudden, powerful, and addictive.

That’s why nostalgia is a drug. And like any controlled substance, we can abuse it.

I’ve noticed a parallel between our tendency toward this sort of erotic reminiscence (so because it arrises out of a bodily libido) and mourning. In a brief but important essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud defines the psychology behind this process:

Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.

Experience is by definition ephemeral. As such, we write our personal histories as they happen. Any memory is a lost “abstraction” that, in the future, we might savor for the warm feelings we attach to it or mourn because it, like a lost family member, is gone.

Freud was interested in what actually happens in the mind when a loved one dies. He had an idea about a store of energy that we invest into the “objects” in our life—whether parents, cherished pets, or, perhaps, favorite bands. (I would normally use the specific term from his texts, “cathexis,” but I find the English translation to be too obtuse to be helpful.) Freud, a neurologist, was interested in metaphorical models that could illustrate essentially unrepresentable mental processes.

So this “investment” is a specific quantity of energy that I allocate to, let’s say, my closest friend. In his sudden, perhaps tragic death, I would be left with invested energy in a “loved object” that no longer exists. And this surplus—analogous to an electric charge—needs to go somewhere.

But this is my best friend. It’s not so easy to just let him go. So I’m stuck in a sort of psychological conundrum, an “opposition,” that can be “so intense that a turning away from reality takes place.” Freud suggests that I cling not just to the memory of my friend but also to his corporality “through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis.”

That sounds extreme. Freud’s point is that mourning (no matter how fraught) is a transitory process from which we eventually emerge. For weeks, I can’t imagine my friend is really gone. I see him in that favorite dive bar we frequented, read him in that book I borrowed, or hear him in “Running Up That Hill.” Perhaps I can’t even see the point in continuing on myself. Life doesn’t make sense anymore. The day-to-day—banter with a coworker, my DVR queue, maybe even showering—is meaningless. In other words, I’m in a temporary psychosis.

But we do eventually move on. We find a new object in which to invest that energy—perhaps a pet, partner, or new friend. And we move on into the natural phase of everyday common (albeit wistful) memory.

And this is where I see nostalgia come into play. A warm feeling about a friend who passed away is natural—and to have otherwise might even betray some kind of neurosis. But what about those “objects” that we’ve lost to the unceasing march of time? Some degree of longing for the past is normal. But then there is a sort of extreme version of nostalgia that strikes me as a warped form of mourning.

Death happens to us, but nostalgia is a choice.

I’m compelled to think about a friend who “lost” her childhood home. Her parents, advancing in age, wanted to simplify their lives. Mom didn’t want to bother with the steep set of stairs to the basement. Dad was tired of tending to the modest, but overgrown yard. And she felt the “for sale” sign like a stake to the heart—a fatal blow to her childhood. Going home for the holidays later that year felt like a funeral. The affect eventually waned, but she now views happy memories of Oak Street through a lens of loss—a reminder of something she no longer has.

I’ve written previously about the particular brand of nostalgia that defined the 2016 presidential election—the search for a country that was once great. I’m reminded of that clever, but ultimately psychotic Corn Flakes campaign: “Taste them again for the first time.” The implication is that some fleck of baked cornmeal, the object, is itself the very manifestation of nostalgia. Eating it for the first time would be to taste the past. And any subsequent bowl of cereal would be to reengage with this past as though it was never history but instead a present-tense creation of that memory you will come to savor in the future. It is textbook uncanny—and, in a sense, psychotic.

Nostalgia makes us feel good, just like that glass of scotch we sipped together after Thanksgiving dinner in 2007 or that ecstasy we took during the blizzard of 1996. Which is precisely why I wonder if it’s worth considering the side effects. In other words, vacation is great but we can’t live there forever.

We all have friends and family members who are especially nostalgic (if not are these people ourselves). My sense is this tendency to dwell in the past can reveal an underlying fear of facing the present—whether it’s the realm of the personal, like a dissatisfying job or spouse, or more broadly societal, like the “redefinition” of marriage or continuing racial inequities.

And we see a particularly nefarious side effect of the militant nostalgia that defines an entire block of voters in this country: an aggressive desire to manifest a sentimental past in the very bodies and lives of the people they hold responsible for this unaccountable change.

But on a more fundamental level, a relentless attachment to the past can inhibit one from redirecting that energy toward creating new memories in the moment. Sure, college might very well have been the best years of our lives (for me, it was not). But short of any purely objective way to measure happiness, we can never know if that’s true or prove otherwise. But we can be certain that life always soldiers on, memories are recorded, and good and bad experiences happen. (Let’s hope the former outstrips the latter.)

The question remains how we might use this information to live better in the future. The saying goes, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. But I would offer a corollary: those who fetishize their personal histories might struggle to add new memories to that narrative.