The Break with the Past

In the days when nostalgia was a disease people were punished for looking back. A nostalgic soldier might have been buried alive for expressing that they miss home.

“For a little boy who missed his wet nurse, doctors brought her back and then slowly conditioned him to spend time away from her. The soldiers sometimes were treated with less patience. French doctor Jourdan Le Cointe thought nostalgia should be treated by “inciting pain and terror,” as Svetlana Boym describes in her book The Future of Nostalgia.

Le Cointe cited the example of the Russian army’s outbreak of nostalgia in 1733, on its way to Germany. The general told the troops that the first one to come down the nostalgic virus would be buried alive, and actually made good on his threat a couple times, which nipped that right in the bud.

When nostalgia finally made its way to the United States, after the Civil War, the “scare it out of them” tactic was replaced with “shame it out of them.” American military doctor Theodore Calhoun thought nostalgia was something to be ashamed of, that those who suffered from it were unmanly, idle and weak-willed. He proposed curing it with a healthy dose of public ridicule and bullying.”

The tendency for society to make breaks from the past in order to make the present (or future) more accessible and more highly valued appears to stretch into the seventeenth century when nostalgia was coined as a medical term and practices developed to combat it.

Adoptees see this practice from the inside. How does the break with the past affect how you relate to it and feel about it? Is nostalgia part of your interest or is it something else? If it is different than nostalgia, what is it?

8 thoughts on “The Break with the Past

  1. Whatever it might be that transports me to the past, it is seldom “nostalgia” as it is most commonly defined, for there is not a great deal there that prompts happy recollections or makes me feel homesick. I have no particular desire to “break with the past” except as to feelings that may be inordinately painful because my past is a significant part of my being.

    • Here I am thinking of overcoming the break with the past that was done to adoptees in particular so that it is no longer a simple or self-evident thing that the “past is a significant part” our being.

  2. Mark: thank you for flagging the history of nostalgia s a disease.

    I apologize for the sketchiness of this in advance. I imagine in cultures where formal rituals initiate children into adulthood that nostalgia probably appears less, so the very yearning all over again for “childhood” (or whatever “simpler time” we imagine) must arise in part because the Devil’s Bargain of acculturation (as an adult) no longer has the rewards it once did. I don’t officially know if initiatory rites really did anything to preempt later nostalgia (and the difference between nostalgia and memory itself needs further distinguishing), so perhaps the absence of initiatory rites over the last 300 or so years in the west has left people (men especially?) vulnerable to attacks of nostalgia.

    Adult privilege would apply this to all children, insisting they put away childish things and grow up. But there’s an obvious double-standard introduced by this for the adopted child. I don’t think that dwelling on the offense of adoption falls into the category of nostalgia, though adult privilege may certainly call it that and treat us accordingly.

    Nostalgia seems to involve falsified memories of real events; we experience real memories of falsified events.

    The standard insistence against nostalgia = “Face the real facts, and get on with it.” that’s precisely what I’d like to do as an adoptee, but I’m not permitted access to the facts.

    So the “break with the past” for the adoptee may involve rather an assent to the offense committed. Certainly, from a tactical or psychological standpoint, we might benefit from simply ignoring that and going forward, but it has this annoying habit of coming up gain and again. Even if the people who raised me were not living memories of the offense, eventually I will wonder what sort of unpleasant surprises my genes might have for me, etc. At that point, my broken past needs repairing to answer the question. And so once gain, I’ve come full circle back to the need for actual facts.

    Pathologizing that request (or demand) for facts resembles telling those who wanted a Truth Commission in Chile that they were crazy.

  3. It is curious to me that the war-based need to stamp out nostalgia as a dis-ease is, at the same time, based in cultures that do nothing but memorialize their wars and warriors.

    At the same time, the destruction of history is a given within capitalist cultures where the ever-new is valued over the past, which becomes an obstacle.

    If I really examine the premise of “treating” soldiers suffering from “nostalgia”, I might argue that there was a need to replace various and vital local histories, cultures, and identities with a supremacist national one.

    This expands upward, such that today’s globalized empire requires a supra-national ever-present untroubled by any kind of harking back. And thus cosmopolitan “culture” with no past.

    In Lebanon, this takes the form of endless discussions of “memory” as a trope in and of itself, with a disallowance of any actual attempts to find some kind of national reconciliation for the Civil War.

    I had a student last semester who wanted to do his thesis paper on “nostalgia” for Lebanon’s so-called better days. Much of his research was spent realizing that those “better days” were, in fact, equally fabricated; not so much a remembrance, but a construction of the same economic and political forces that disallow history.

    On a personal level, my digging into what might be my own past here is based in a desire to establish a historical record that acts as antidote to such erasure. I see “history” (as troubled a term as it is; let’s say “histories”) as a counter-tactic to any attempt to erase or neglect it.

    By this I mean to say that given the economic and political need to erase history, looking back is not so much nostalgic but a much-needed countervailing force.

    I’m not nostalgic for the past; I don’t feel the present makes sense without it though.

  4. Thank you, Mark, for this post.

    I’ve been avoiding all adoption-related reading and writing of late, (ha ha – trying to break with the past – or at least keep it at a manageable distance) but this post compels me…

    Would that I could be genuinely nostalgic about my history. I have nostalgia envy. I am sometimes obsessive/engrossed by the nostalgia of others. It is not only a window on the past, but a critique of the present, and a measure of changing or timeless values.

    I find nostalgia to be a state that presents itself in direct opposition to conditions which are increasingly untenable: when things are going fine, there is no cause to focus on a memory – accurate or revisionist — and typically selective — of a better time, a time not-like-this. Nostalgia rears its head as a symptom of discomfort or discontent with the present.

    Korean people are famously nostalgic / sappy nostalgic. They are also famously morose / melancholic. Yet we should recognize that their nostalgia is romanticized and brought out when convenient, just as memories of hardship and oppression are brought out when convenient. And nostalgia can often be a symptom of nationalism and xenophobia. (And nostalgia and romanticism has historically been a tool of facism) So, unlike The Atlantic article, for a tough Korean man to shed a tear as he waxes romantically about his past will only bring admiration from fellow Koreans, who will appreciate his nostalgia as a show of solid Korean values, especially if they are conservative/timeless values of home town, mom, classmates, or first love. In fact, the entire nation presses the false nostalgia button in their addiction to historic dramas, feeling a false nostalgia for a past they couldn’t know and most likely a class they could never aspire to and still can’t aspire to. And the sick thing is I believe that this collective nationalistic nostalgia is connected to the same conservative fear of not prevailing that caused us to be forfeited in the first place.

    This preoccupation with the past is something quite stunning that hits the adoptee when they return. The returnee adoptee, who is preoccupied with sleuthing clues about the past, of the time which they were present, finds their reality conspicuously absent in the nostalgic narratives and can never place themselves within that shared/national appreciation because they are part of a history that Koreans want to forget and have literally erased, except for adoptee portrayal in modern media, which is used by the Korean people as a proxy container to house all their own societal fears. Real adoptees are an inconvenient truth, un-useful to them in their current discontent. And it doesn’t seem to matter which country we are in – birth or adopted – there is always an expectation that we must cater to anyone else’s needs but our own.

    I found myself getting irritated with my fellow adoptees for replicating/adopting this shared nationalistic nostalgia as they reached — stretching hard to make connections which were often either extremely tenuous or non-existent — for a romanticized history that was hardly kind to them, searching for a kinder gentler society of their ideals, searching for something in which to embrace, searching for something that will affirm their cultural capital. In many ways, the nationalistic nostalgia becomes another token of culture to wear. It is a token we have to borrow. And return.

    I watched adoptees having to self medicate in order to avoid the truth that you can never go home, not after you’ve been severed so completely. You can start over, but what’s lost is lost…and I think some of this unfulfilled expectation that finding-family-will-fix-everything and going-back-will-fix-everything has to do with how little we are allowed to grieve. Our stories are almost always stories of familial and societal dysfunction yet they occurred at the very same time those heart-warming memories of those who were fortunate enough to stay were being formed. And they are all truths.

    Previously, the people who adopted us were instructed to dismiss/gloss over the longings of adoptees for their history, which resulted in disaffected and alienated adoptees. Later, the people who adopted us were instructed to provide us with cultural tokens that were supposed to make up for that loss and give us a sense of belonging. Love the person who gives you tokens of something they made impossible for you to ever truly be a part of again and love the of culture of your dysfunctional rejector seems to be our only choice these days, since we’re not allowed to be upset about our unnatural fate.

    Nostalgia is just a signifier of loss, a kind of micro grieving. In Korea, a nation where one out of ten families has lost a family member due to family separation, a nation that is ashamed of sending its children away, nostalgia can also be a tool of deflection because the really meaningful losses are too horrible to contend with. For us diasporic adoptees, we are denied nostalgia as a signifier of loss. For us diasporic adoptees, we are denied any expression of loss. Or deflection. Maybe that’s why nostalgia is such an attractive study for me.

    My reality is I can have no true feelings of nostalgia for a history I have been severed from, because that memory is too deep to reach. Yet the direction of my entire life has been dictated by this history that is collectively avoided. Our past is tied up in that collective national tragedy, a tragedy of which we are full card carrying members. And that is not nothing. That is a very strong something.

    And so I carry the weight of Korean history. My being raised halfway around the globe with no knowledge of my past is a direct result of that country’s history. I am helpless to do anything about it. It is helplessness which connects me to the people/nation/culture that bore me. We not only lost and are not allowed to grieve, but they too lost and – even though they spend inordinate amounts of energy grieving – they dilute the real content or switch the labels on the jars, so it never satisfies. It is that unexpressed loss which they don’t deal with/that we aren’t allowed to deal with that connects us. It has nothing to do with nostalgia yet everything to do with what motivates humankind to wax nostalgic.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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