noun. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or a place with happy personal associations; Something done or represented in order to evoke feelings of nostalgia.
While our present understanding of the word nostalgia is associated with a return to times or memories of personal happiness, the etymology of the word itself traces back to something rather counter intuitive. The etymology of nostalgia traces back to two Grecian words: nostos, meaning to return home, and algos, meaning pain. And so by looking at the past history of nostalgia, one finds a very different understanding of the word.
In this piece I explore two essentially opposing definitions of nostalgia, past and present, to return to happiness and to return to anguish. You will see two old television screens, a certain type of past technology that when used in the present often evokes feelings of nostalgia for “the olden days.” On one of the television screens, you will find home videos of myself as a young child. There are videos of me playing with my father, sleeping as a baby, and meeting my little brother for the first time. These videos are filled with sweet, joyful, and peaceful moments of a young child who has trouble even saying her first name. These videos hold the cute nostalgic memories that make my parents tear up with joy when they watch them.
On the opposite screen, you will find videos of my ninety-six year old great grandmother speaking of her experiences during World War II, a period of time in history that is strongly associated with pain and suffering around the world. At the time, my Nana was eighteen years old and just out of high school, just as I am now. In this video, as she talks about her memory of the war as a young woman at home, she returns to the pain and hardships of those times. My Nana doesn’t speak about what you would read in a history text book, but rather her personal memories of lost friends and working in the factories while her fiancé, my great grandfather, was in the war.
These two narratives of my past self and my Nana’s past memories, play on top of our present homes. In the background of the home videos, play videos of the beach in my hometown where I’ve grown up. As a child I would spend summer days out there with my Mom and my Brother. Now I spend my summers there with my friends. Behind my Nana, you can find videos of her apartment in an assisted living home just outside of Providence. This is her present home, but it is filled with old pictures and memorabilia. Both of these homes, while they are mine and my Nana’s present homes, are filled with memories of the past just as the videos that play on top of them.
Furthermore, zooming out a bit, these two videos, television screens, definitions of nostalgia, are faced opposite each other on two separate tables. Posing the televisions like this puts these two definitions of nostalgia in conversation with each other about time and across time. The audience, positioned in the valley between the two videos, is then forced to turn their attention from one tv screen to the other as the videos alternate between screens, thus inserting the viewer into the conversation as they watch the dialogue between the past and the present.