- Nostalgia and Auto/Biography: Considering the Past in the Presentby Hilary Dickinson and Michael Erben
In Nostalgia and Auto/Biography: Considering the Past in the Present, Hilary Dickinson and Michael Erben explore the rich concept of nostalgia with a particular focus on the role of nostalgia in the construction of the autobiographical self. From the backdrop of nostalgia's medical roots (for example, nostalgia as disease), Dickinson and Erben delineate the changing conceptions of the term over time, especially highlighting the psychoanalytic and sociological approaches to nostalgia.
The authors stress that nostalgia is a "secondary" (rather than "primary") emotion. As such, nostalgia is not identified as a basic, innate emotion in the same way that, for instance, fear and anger typically are. The categorizing of nostalgia as a secondary emotion, however, does not negate its significance; in fact, the emotion may have heightened importance insofar as nostalgia is "an emotion that we can … contemplate as we experience it" (2). Dickinson and Erben suggest that the term "elaborated" emotion is more fitting than "secondary" in describing nostalgia. Referring to an emotion as elaborated highlights the necessity of language, human expression, and, most importantly, a social context in which the emotion manifests. Nostalgia is an especially intriguing experience in the sense that it can be said to rely upon a combination of the physiological, the cognitive, and the somatic. Dickinson and Erben note, "Emotions may be evoked by internal thought processes and also, frequently, by an interaction between the external and internal worlds—as when a smell, a taste or a place can conjure up Nostalgic memories" (21). In this context, the work of Dennis D. Waskul, Phillip Vannini, and myself on the relationships among olfactory perception, memory, nostalgia, and the self is relevant. The limbic region of the brain is where memories and emotions are stored. The sense of smell evokes the past, often in quite powerful ways. While a particular smell or taste might "conjure up" the nostalgia, this sensory experience is complemented by cognitions, perceptions, and evaluative reflections. Nostalgia is indeed a multifaceted emotion! [End Page 504]
In their chapter "Nostalgia and Children's Literature," Dickinson and Erben discuss the theme of childhood as a time of innocence in early children's literature. In their consideration of classics such as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderlandand J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, they convincingly demonstrate how nostalgia is incorporated into these books as an adult concern, thus giving us insight into the writers' own experience with memory and nostalgia. The chapter on children's literature is followed by a chapter in which Dickinson and Erben trace, as precursors to contemporary conceptions of nostalgia, the idealizing of the pastoral. Examining poetry from the classical period, Dickinson and Erben juxtapose pastoral poetry with pastoral elegy, cleverly depicting the two key aspects of nostalgia: an idealized countryside and the loss of such a place (and time). An agrarian lifestyle was seen as embodying fundamental values conducive to a healthy community, for as Dickinson and Erben state, "The poet longs for a different world, for the simpler and purer consciousness of country folk that has been lost" (57). It follows, then, that the realization that urbanization threatened this ideal was met with a sense of loss.
Dickinson and Erben proceed with a description of the research study they conducted with seventeen participants who provided written descriptions of a nostalgic experience. Key themes in the rich qualitative data include the natural world, freedom and adventure, nurturance and love, quietude and regularity, and release of tension. The authors share lengthy excerpts from the narrative data that illustrate these key themes and, in so doing, also make the case for the role of nostalgia in the development of the self over time. Moreover, their interpretation of the data suggests that nostalgia is a prominent emotion in establishing a moral perspective. The nostalgic episodes the research participants describe highlight the significance of interpersonal relationships, as the memories they recall typically feature...