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Nostalgia, Nowak

19th of March, 2022

Nostalgia used to be considered a medical condition. The word itself was coined in the 17th century to describe a psychological condition of anxiety that afflicted mercenaries fighting for long periods of time away from their homes. It’s a compound of two Greek words, nóstos and álgos, which translates literally to Homecoming Ache. For most of the world, nostalgia refers to something that more closely resembles homesickness than pining after lost times. Franco Piavoli’s 1989 film Nostos: The Return embodies the abstraction of the condition. Though the film is ostensibly an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, the film uses long takes and an ascetic treatment of human emotion in its acting to shave away the drama of the epic poem and leave behind only the most abstract and general sort of longing and desire for home.

Desire is best understood as an assemblage. We do not desire objects or people, but the situations and possibilities that those things engender. What does it mean to desire a place? Is it the desire for one’s body to be moved to that place? For those afflicted with chronic nostalgia, this is not what is going on. The emphasis is not on the place itself, but on the movement. Desire for a special sort of movement into a place, any suitable place perhaps. When every available locale inspires alienation, there is no possible destination for this sort of movement. Every place simultaneously pushes; it's like trying to win an arm wrestle against yourself. Nostalgia’s contemporary English meaning, to do with time and memory instead of space and distance, does not describe the desire to return to the past. It describes the combination of pleasure and sadness that thoughts of that past inspire. What the word has lost—connotations of deterritorialisation and the historical and geographical inflation and contraction of the planet's surface—it has gained in its new emotional subtleties. The past is not desired. What is desired is an assemblage that includes the past in a dialectic with home, comfort, and sadness. To the patient of nostalgia then, home is not a place but a timbre. The listlessness of Piavoli’s film is in its resignation to the fact that timbres are not places we can return to.

Still image from Nostos: The Return

Almost everywhere in Europe in the 21st century, babies are given hereditary surnames. Though the names are now inherited there is, in the recognition that the names were once given for other reasons, an implied history in these names. The most common surnames in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia are, respectively: Smith (cognominal: an ironworker), Martin (cognominal: war-like, from the God Mars), Müller (cognominal: miller), Rossi (cognominal, red), García (patronymic, probably from an older Basque cognominal name), and Ivanov (patronymic, son of Ivan).

“There's a new class consciousness. Not socioeconomic classes, but RPG classes. Character memes, astrology for gamers, tropes and stereotypes that define approaches to ‘problems’: how to kill, how to steal, how to conquer, how to win. Means. When you project real, actual history through this lens of class, you get a lot of distortion. The boring human struggle for life in hard, sparse times prior to technology is replaced by the magic of magic and the insanely selective time dilation of myths.”
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Paris is famous for telling its own autobiography in its street names, metro stations, and kebab shops. The Rue la Fayette and the Stalingrad Metro Station are so immediately historically striking because they bear the names of clearly delineated, important, and discrete individuals and events. What makes the history implicit in the patchwork of names more difficult to spot is its simultaneous ubiquity and anonymous generality. The history of physical characteristics, of topographies, of localities, and of socioeconomic subclasses: a materialist history told in Platonic archetypes.

As the middle ages came to a close, Europe began to abandon these descriptive names and take on the familiar modern hereditary surnames. The nobility had been using hereditary names for centuries to define their aristocratic houses—their all-important divine lineages—but as historical development continued to tamper with the social relations of gentry and peasant the cultural practices of the elites began to leak out of that class. A peculiar story emerges at the intersection of time and place. Throughout most of Europe, hereditary names were already common for peasants by the late 15th century, but in Poland there was no legal push for the documentation of surnames until the late 18th century: a uniquely formative time for the shifting demography of village and town. This curious artefact of chance smears a streak through history. The most common surname in Poland is Nowak. Cognominal, and meaning ‘newcomer’ or ‘stranger’. As the new forces of production shifted in their modes, the breakdown of the old mediaeval orders produced in the people of Poland a plurality of the population that were defined only by their rootlessness. Historical transposition from that time to this produces in those names the image of a lost nation of strangers.

Further Reading:

Ballet for Inanimate Dancers
Worldbuilding and the Cantu a Tenore of Sardinia