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15 Jan 2023

Anemoia, nostalgia, and memory – In my previous entry, which was mostly about Christmas—at least on the surface of things—I mentioned the term “anemoia,” a neologism that is defined as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” If you follow that link to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and watch the accompanying video, you’ll see that the coiner of this word (John Koenig) had in mind the desire for a time before we were born. After reading my entry, Kevin emailed to tell me that a certain Korean carbonated beverage and its bubblegum flavor has always made him feel anemoia for the 50s (which, to be clear, happened well before he was born).

“...when we remember something, we are not so much retrieving a memory as we are reconstructing it.”

Of course, the word can have a much broader range of meanings. I used it to talk about HJ’s longing for a Christmas coziness that she never knew as a child. I had some former students over for dinner at the beginning of the month, and when they walked into our place and saw the tree and other decorations, they started talking about how warm and cozy they felt. I introduced them to the idea of anemoia and asked them if that was what they were feeling, and they all responded with enthusiastic nods. Apparently Christmas anemoia is not an uncommon thing here.

When I got the email from Kevin that I mentioned above, I tried to think of situations where I’ve felt anemoia. I remember my father, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, used to say that he was born in the wrong time, and when I was growing up I remember thinking that he would have made a good pioneer or frontiersman. No doubt he felt anemoia for the romantic Old West, and I can understand the appeal. Even though I know that life was harsh and unforgiving(not to mention often short) on the frontier, there is something appealing about the idea of carving a home out of the wilderness and living off the land. I think every kid with a love of camping and spending time out in the woods has often imagined him- or herself on the wild frontier, maybe even exploring the unknown like Lewis and Clark.

That being said, the first thing that sprang to mind after reading Kevin’s email was not the old American frontier—it was Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Granted, for much of its history, Middle Earth was far more terrifying a place than the American frontier ever was, but I grew up with Tolkien and would often escape to his created world. Then, in 2014, HJ and I visited New Zealand, and during our trip around the North Island we stopped by a small place called Matamata and visited Hobbiton. Well, to be more precise, we visited the film set of Hobbiton that was built for the Hobbit trilogy (the original Hobbiton from LOTR was a temporary set and had been partially torn down). I knew it was all fake—the hobbit holes look real from the outside, but behind the doors are short, empty passages that end in blank walls—but I didn’t care. Standing there in front of Bag End, I imagined myself overhearing Gandalf and Bilbo’s conversation that one sunny morning. Looking up at the party tree (which is a real tree and is incredibly impressive when seen up close), I could almost hear the hobbits dancing and singing in the background. And when our tour ended with a trip to the Green Dragon Inn—a fully furnished pub—I grinned like an idiot as I sat there in front of a roaring fire with my overpriced meat pie and pint of ale.

If all that sounds silly and ridiculous... well, to be perfectly honest, I don’t care. I know it’s just a film set. I know it’s a tourist attraction that is designed to part tourists from their dollars. But it was worth every penny, because as I stood there in front of Bag End I was absolutely giddy with the completely irrational feeling that I had come home. I had spent so many hours as a child imagining being in Middle Earth; seeing as how Middle Earth doesn’t actually exist, this was the closest I was ever going to get to it. Does that qualify as anemoia? Can we feel nostalgia not only for a time we’ve never known, but for a time that never even existed in the first place? I think we can.

Before I follow this line of thinking any further, I want to head off any criticism that I am twisting the definition of anemoia. After all, the original definition in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows specifically mentions a time, not a place. I would argue, however, that time is meaningless without place. For example, when Kevin said that the bubblegum flavor reminded him of the 1950s, he meant 1950s America, not 1950s Korea (which was not the happiest of places to be, for obvious reasons). Also, the concept of nostalgia, which the definition of anemoia references, is originally about place rather than time—it is a combination of Greek roots that essentially means “homesickness.” So I think I am justified in talking about the possibility of anemoia for a place that has never existed.

One thing I realized when talking to my students about their anemoia for Christmas was that it was a product of media exposure—all of the stories they had read, all of the films and television shows they had watched, etc. This is obvious, of course; if they had not been exposed to Christmas firsthand, how else would they develop those nostalgic feelings for Christmas if not through media exposure? That being the case, one could argue that not only is the Christmas they long for something they have never known, it is something that never existed in the first place. It is the idealized version of Christmas depicted in media representations. I don’t know about you, but despite all of my fond memories of Christmas from my childhood, I never experienced a Christmas like you see in the movies.

I’ll go out even further on this limb and venture to say that, in a sense, all nostalgia is manufactured. To explain what I mean, I want to talk a little about how memory works. We often think of our memories as the “hard drives” of our minds where we store all the little bits of information we might find useful (and plenty of bits that we don’t find useful!). Then, when we want to recall a memory, we just search through the hard drive until we find where that information is located and we pull it out intact. Of course, this is not how human memory works. It’s not even how hard drives work! Files are not stored intact but are broken up and scattered across various locations around the drive; when the time comes to retrieve a file, the system finds the scattered pieces of that file and puts them back together again.

How hard drives actually work is sort of like how our memory works, to a certain extent. That is, the things we remember are stored in fragmentary form in our memory. But the analogy quickly breaks down. On a hard drive, a file may be stored in bits and pieces here and there, but all of the pieces are in fact there and merely need to be put back together again. Human memory, though, does not store every last detail of a given experience or memory. As a result, when we remember something, we are not so much retrieving a memory as we are reconstructing it. And that reconstruction process is not infallible. Our identities as people are closely tied to our memories, so we may choose to remember certain things in certain ways in order to protect our images of ourselves. For example, if we have a memory of an experience that we are ashamed or afraid of, we may slowly change that narrative over time to be more in line with the type of person we like to think we are.

I’m not saying that we lie to ourselves. I mean, I’m not saying that we don’t, because we most definitely do, but that’s not the mechanism I’m talking about here. Information in our memories can be overwritten—just like data on a hard drive—whether through the influence of external forces or just repeated reconstructions of a memory that gradually veer away from the original version. This is not necessarily a malicious process; it can indeed be very innocent. I used to be an avid journal writer, particularly when traveling, and I’ve often gone back to my journals to revisit fond memories. If enough time has passed since the original journal writing, I will invariably be surprised by some detail that I now remember quite differently. In fact, this happened to me when I went back to my journal from my New Zealand trip to check on my original reaction to Hobbiton for this very entry. I’ll be honest: I was a little disappointed in the cursory nature of what I had written. I did express excitement about being there, but it doesn’t match what I now remember about the experience.

So did I underplay the experience in my journal or have my memories been tinged with nostalgia? Or were both processes at work? Whatever the case, I think it’s safe to say that my memories of the experience are not exactly the same as my immediate reaction to the experience. My memories—and my nostalgia—are indeed based on actual experience, but they are also a construction of a fantasy that never really existed, at least not in that exact form. I think, in the end, we might be able to distinguish between actually experiencing something for ourselves and merely consuming media representations of it—which is ultimately the distinction between anemoia and “actual” nostalgia—but the mechanisms and processes of our brains in creating nostalgic feelings are the same.

I don’t want to just leave things there, though, because it all sounds a little cynical—nostalgia is just a manufactured fantasy, we can’t trust our own memories to be an accurate recounting of the past, etc. I do think that there is a more positive way of looking at how our perceptions of the past change over time, and that is as a matter of perspective. Put simply, the more time passes after an experience, the broader our perspective on it becomes. We better understand how that experience fits into our lives as a whole because we’ve had time to step back and see the bigger picture. We are able to judge the value of various aspects of that experience more clearly. After all, experiences are rarely ever entirely positive or entirely negative—they are usually a mixture of both. And when an experience is happening, the negative aspects may somewhat overshadow or at least minimize the effects of the positive aspects. It is only after some time has passed that we realize those negative aspects weren’t really that bad after all, or that they didn’t matter much in the greater scheme of things, and thus we are able to better appreciate the positive aspects. In my journal entry on our trip to Hobbiton, I was much more affected by the artificial nature of the experience, to the extent that my excitement was somewhat dampened. In the years since then, though, I’ve come to care less about the artificiality of it and more about just letting myself feel things. That is, I’ve lost a little bit of my cynicism.

So the fact that our perceptions change over time is not necessarily a bad thing; why should my feelings about an experience now be any less valid just because they are not the same as my feelings about that experience when it happened? Just as my feelings at the time were valid for that time, so my feelings now are valid for now. If nostalgia is a combination of perspective and creative reinterpretation of our memories, is that really such a bad thing? It connects us to our past and forms an important part of our identities. The same could be said for anemoia. The thing we feel nostalgia for may be something we’ve never known, it may not have existed in the form we long for, and it may never even have existed at all. But the way we feel about that thing shapes who we are and how we live our lives. There’s more that could be said on the subject—I could talk about the nature of mediated experiences and what it means for something to be “real,” for example—but I don’t want to carry on for too long. This seems like a good, positive note to wrap things up on, so that’s what I’m going to do. See you next time.

Send me your thoughts.

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