Looking forward to yesterday?


In the late 1600s, a group of Swiss soldiers stationed abroad started to come down with a mysterious contagious illness. They reportedly fainted, often saw hallucinations, couldn’t fight, and complained of a longing for things like home-cooked meals. A young physician, Johannes Hofer, would later term the condition nostalgia – an ache for homecoming – marked by, among other symptoms, 'stupidity of the mind attending to nothing hardly other than the idea of the fatherland'.

Now, it’s no longer the alien sickness of Hofer’s time; nostalgia is a something we experience every day, be it the Fall colours, the aroma of a simple soup or a now-cringeworthy track from the 2000s.

But more recently, in the past couple of years, nostalgia has been pivotal to how we process the pandemic and how we hope for its next phase to be. From the very beginning, we’ve yearned to go back to normal. This particular choice of vocabulary was no accident, for the idea of yesterday is a powerful and effective political tool, take ‘Make America Great Again’ for instance. And in all honesty, this carrot of a certain past instead of an uncertain future has functioned, in its own brutally haphazard way.

But as a new abnormal unveils globally – a maze of travel restrictions, masking requirements, vaccination approvals and ‘intelligent’ lockdowns – I wonder how much of this makeshift system we would cling on to or if we will give in completely to the calls from the past. For instance, despite the initial glitches of the shift to online meetings for work or education, it grew on us unexpectedly quickly. While in the past, organizing the committee to be physically present for PhD defences used to be a game of Twister with the many conflicting schedules, a few members attending remotely is a given by now. The same is true for large conferences, still dabbling with international travel, that are slowly trying to cater to both online and offline attendees, hopefully equitably.

But I also have an inkling that equilibrium between the two states is still something to be ironed out in the coming period if the formats are more of a choice than a compulsion. The same applies to masks; despite the government’s removal of masking requirements from a majority of activities, they do continue to appear in supermarkets and university corridors, attracting awkward snickering and approving nods in equal measure.

There’s probably many more of these, vestiges of what we mistakenly call was the year of the pandemic. They are certainly in conflict with all that had happened before 2020, real or imagined. But that’s the peculiar nature of nostalgia, the yearning need not be tied to something tangible or even real as long as it is powerful enough to evoke an emotion to go back to it.

Personally, I felt quite moved when the Thursday night quiz at the Carrousel started again last week. There was an air of deep longing in the room filled with former regulars. We had trudged through another day in this pandemic. But some things remain as before, and we absolutely bombed the music round which was appropriately themed: Back!

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