“Nostalgia” plays a significant role in the lives of both Ethan and Rachel in my books The Last Day of Forever and An Eternity of Four Years. It was officially defined and named Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 1980 to describe the mental issues suffered by Vietnam veterans. But it existed long before that, at least as long as war and trauma have been visited upon mankind. It was known by other names during different periods of history. It was called “shell shock” in WWI and during WWII, it was called “battle fatigue.” In the mid 19th century, during the American Civil War, it was called “nostalgia.”
That term was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. It was described as a form of melancholy.
The Greek origin of the English word is nóstos álgos. Nóstos is usually translated “homecoming” but carries the idea of returning home after a long journey to find that everything is the same, yet just a shadow of what it had been before. Álgos refers to pain. Literally, we have “homecoming pain.”
I think that 17th century medical student had in mind the pain of a soldier returning home after a war to find that while everything may look as it did before he left, he sees things differently because stressful wartime experiences have changed his life perspective, usually not for the better. Depression, nightmares, and anger are often symptoms.
I believe nostalgia is related to the saying, “seeing the elephant,” often used by soldiers during the American Civil War and since. The idea behind “seeing the elephant” is that of the profound disappointment and disillusionment associated with having one’s “grand” notions about war dashed by the brutal reality of the killing fields. It suggests the soldier has seen enough, and he is sick of all the misery, pain, and death. He has “seen the elephant,” and it was an exceedingly ugly beast.
Nostalgia, or known by its current title PTSD, is not limited to veterans of war. It can be caused by any manner of stressful conditions such as rape, witnessing something terrible like an accident or death, a near death experience, or really anything that can leave a profound and lasting impression of fear or anxiety. Ethan suffered his first bout of nostalgia as a result of his witnessing the death of Cornelius as a child of three, and later as the result of losing Rachel, followed by what he saw and did during the war in places like the Shenandoah Valley, Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville, and especially Gettysburg and its aftermath. Rachel also “saw the elephant” and it affected her as well.
Both Rachel and Ethan had come from a comfortable lifestyle of plenty in a time of peace to one of horror and death in a time of war, a war described by author Paul Fussell as “long, brutal, total, and stupid.” Should we not expect such might affect a sane person?