BMCR 2016.09.35

Nostalgia: When Are We Ever at Home? Translated from the French by Pascale-Anne Brault; first published 2013

, Nostalgia: When Are We Ever at Home? Translated from the French by Pascale-Anne Brault; first published 2013. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. xi, 78. ISBN 9780823269518. $19.00 (pb).

Publisher’s Preview

This book aims to present a new conceptualization of nostalgia, based in language rather than place. To do this, the author presents (in order) her own experience of home, analyses of Odysseus’ and Aeneas’ wanderings, and finally a section on Hannah Arendt.

In the first section, “Of Corsican Hospitality,” the author muses on the seeming paradox of feeling nostalgia for a place one was not born. This leads her to pose the question of her book: can we divorce nostalgia from patriotism, and make the world a more welcoming place, free of belonging? Home, after all, is merely a “human fiction” (p. 3). Cassin then proceeds to consider the linguistic implications of many keywords of nostalgic inquiry, including a brief history of the term “nostalgia” itself. Of particular interest to the author is the distinction between a “fatherland” and a “mother tongue,” as well as the double meanings of friendship and foreignness in the trio hôte, xenos, and hostis.

The second section, “Odysseus and the Day of Return,” rehearses familiar moments of the Odyssey in order to determine when Odysseus truly achieves his nostos, and concludes that recognition (Odysseus’ recognition of Ithaca, Argos’ or Eurykleia’s or Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus) is essential. The Odyssey as a source-text for nostalgia, however, presents many quirks, generally thought incompatible with true nostalgia: Odysseus wishes to return home even though he does not expect it to have remained the same, and must leave Ithaca again after just one night in his own bed. The author suggests that Odysseus suffers from Fernweh as well as Heimweh, and thus becomes the cosmopolitan hero as well as the bourgeois individual. Odysseus’ home is the entire Mediterranean of his wanderings.

In a section of approximately half the length, “Aeneas: From Nostalgia to Exile,” the author reads the Aeneid as an epic of foundation, particularly the foundation of a language. Aeneas, in exile, carries his fatherland on his back, and repeatedly fails to found a new Troy. Only when his nostalgia is transmuted into a desire for what is to come, when he leaves the Trojan women behind and accepts a foreign marriage and a new language, can Aeneas truly find a home. Cassin cements the importance of Latin to imaginary and imperial Rome by recalling Ovid’s anxiety about forgetting his language while in exile.

Finally, “Arendt: To Have One’s Language for a Homeland” develops interviews and writings of Hannah Arendt to argue for a post-national sense of home: where “we are welcomed, we ourselves along with those who are close to us, together with our language, our languages” (p. 63). Opposing the “fatherland” to the “mother-tongue,” Cassin considers Nazi co-option of the German language through the testimony of exiled speakers of German, principally Arendt. In the now common or even normal experience of exile, Cassin argues, nation and language are no longer coterminous; in fact, the “elsewhere” must be sought and cultivated in order for the language to retain its life and meaning.1

This volume is directed at philosophers of language and identity, perhaps meant for the specialist in Arendt, and not written for the Hellenist or Latinist. Cassin does not engage with secondary literature on Homer or Vergil, preferring her own readings. Her familiarity with the material is evident, but might be better served by acknowledging the work of other scholars (the complicated nature of Odysseus’ various recognitions, e.g., is hardly untreated in the field). Cassin engages no further with nostalgia studies than Bolzinger’s 2007 Histoire de la nostalgie and two further articles, which deal only with nostalgia’s medical aspects. Like Illbruck in his own recent volume on nostalgia, Cassin ends with an unanswerable, hopeful plea for the future; unlike Illbruck, the preceding chapters present only a selective and impressionistic history.2

The argument about language, apt in the Arendt chapter, struggles in the sections on the ancient epics, since those poems present vast landscapes that possess no linguistic differentiation. Both Odysseus and Aeneas, at each point of shipwreck or disaster, whether they are welcomed or not, encounter no surface difficulties of communication. Cassin herself points out the ancient dichotomy of Greek-speaker and barbarian (and the variant dynamics of imperial Latin), but fails to note that Homer’s Trojans, not to mention his fantasy peoples, speak Greek as well as the invaders or refugees. Juno demands that Aeneas and his followers speak Latin henceforth, to be sure, but in the text of the Aeneid, no person—Trojan, Italian, or Punic—has spoken anything but Latin. The exigencies of genre are responsible, no doubt. Yet Cassin never quite manages to bridge the gap between her arguments about twentieth century Germany and historical Greece and Rome and the world of the epics. As a result, the volume presents a series of intriguing possibilities rather than a unified line of reasoning.

The translation is clear yet retains individuality. The translator is, moreover, careful to note when the French deviated from the original Greek or Latin text, which is helpful in a volume that relies heavily on linguistic arguments. The endnotes (sometimes the author’s, sometimes the translator’s) would be better as footnotes; a bibliography would be of use to the reader who wished to pursue Cassin’s scholarly antecedents.


1. It is surprising that the author does not advert to Heinrich Heine’s apposite formulation, though German Romanticism plays a role elsewhere in the volume: “Und dieses Wort ist ja eben unser heiligstes Gut, ein Grenzstein Deutschlands, den kein schlauer Nachbar verrücken kann, ein Freyheitswecker, dem kein fremder Gewaltiger die Zunge lähmen kann, eine Oriflamme in dem Kampfe für das Vaterland, ein Vaterland selbst demjenigen, dem Thorheit und Arglist ein Vaterland verweigern” (Heine, Heinrich, “Die Romantik” in Shakespeares Mädchen und Frauen und Kleinere literaturkritische Schriften = Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke 10. Ed. J.-C. Hauschild. (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1993), 194-6).

2. H. Illbruck, Nostalgia: Origins and Ends of an Unenlightened Disease. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2012.