Did you know that the during WWI, an American soldier fighting in France died of nostalgia? (In fact, he was apparently the last person to perish from the horrible affliction.)
In her brilliant TED talk, “The cultural history of emotion,” historian Tiffany Watt Smith offers a glimpse into the history of nostalgia. “How is it possible,” she asks, “that you could die from nostalgia less than a hundred years ago, but today, not only does the word mean something different—a sickening for a lost time rather than a lost place—but homesickness itself is seen as less serious, sort of downgraded from something you could die from to something you’re mainly worried your kid might be suffering from at a sleepover?”
She also offers historical insights quite valuable to the high school teacher. She notes that twelfth-century troubadours viewed yawning not as an indication of sleepiness or bordeom, but as a “symbol of the deepest love.” (My students must really love me!) Boredom, in fact, did not exist until the Victorian Era, and it arose in response to an increase in leisure time and new feelings about how one should spend it.
I love this talk because of the elegant way in which Watt Smith describes the pleasures of deep engagement with the past. “One of my favorite parts of being a historian,” she says, “is when something I’ve completely taken for granted, some very familiar part of my life, is suddenly made strange again.” She calls this dépaysement, a French word that “evokes the giddy disorientation that you feel in an unfamiliar place. . . . Dépaysement is unsettling, but it’s exciting, too.”
Similarly, John Lewis Gaddis opens his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, with an explication of Caspar David Friedrich’s early nineteenth century painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (which also serves as the cover image). Gaddis writes, “The impression it leaves is contradictory, suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. We see no face, so it’s impossible to know whether the prospect confronting the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both” (p. 1). Dépaysement? For Gaddis, the painting serves as a visual metaphor for the paradox of historical consciousness. The more we come to learn about the past, he writes, “We understand how much has preceded us, and how unimportant we are in relation to it” (p. 6). Such a realization might be liberating, but depending on one’s perspective, it might also induce a serious bout of nihilism.
To me, this “giddy disorientation” is akin to the feeling one gets when traveling abroad. Two clichés come to mind: First, that travel expands one’s horizons, and second, that “the past is a foreign country.” But unoriginality does not make these statements any less true. As both an avid traveler and an avid student of history, I can say that both have expanded my worldview, and this points to the real value of history, especially for those who don’t intend to become professional historians.
In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, John Fea writes, “If the past is indeed a foreign country, how does a historian navigate such a strange place? Any historical investigation of the past requires two important virtues: empathy and humility” (p. 58). Fea equates the historian to a tour guide in the “foreign country” of the past, and argues, “It is our responsibility to enter the past for the purpose of making sense of people, places, communities, and cultures that are different from our own” (p. 63).
Like overseas travel, then, the study of history should both terrify and exhilarate. A regular dose of dépaysement leads us reckon with our own conceptions of the world and our very limited place in it while exposing us to the breadth of human experience. In short, it should humble us and help us see through the eyes of another. The world could use more of that these days.