Why do some people look back and others refuse to? What are the pleasures of “nostalgia”? The word itself has its etymology in the Greek nostos(homecoming) + algia (pain), but the condition is more multifaceted, combined of equal parts of homesickness, self-indulgence, sentimentality, and an alertness to the genuine, confected, or nonexistent pleasures of other times, other ages, and other places. In Updike, and many others of us, the pleasure of remembering predominates, not the pain.
The word, if not the condition, is modern, coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer as a translation of the German Heimweh (homesickness) to describe the depression he witnessed among Swiss mercenaries longing to get home following service abroad. That its coinage coincides with the beginnings of the ages of Enlightenment and then Romanticism suggests that words both come out of their historical circumstances and affect subsequent conditions. They respond to cultural stimuli and then create new feelings, or new articulations of older ones. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym distinguishes between two nostalgias, a “restorative” version, a longing for return to the favored place, and a “reflective” one, which is all about irreparable loss. But in America today, the original pain of nostalgia is often replaced by the diluted pipe-dream pleasures of self-indulgent trips down Memory Lane.
—Willard Spiegelman writing for The American Scholar about memory, nostalgia, and his 50th high school reunion.