The Undying Yearning for Home and The Call of the Paradise Lost
In 1983, Andrei Tarkovsky released one of his most powerful cinematographic creations: “Nostalghia”. The story follows a Russian writer, Andrei Gorchakov, who travels to Italy in search of information about an XVIII century composer, Pavel Sosnovsky.
During his stay in Italy, Andrei is tormented by a deep longing for Russia. The writer aches for his home country and feels lonely in a foreign land. These emotions are amplified by his friendship with a madman, Domenico, who claims to have successfully crossed through the waters of a mineral pool with a lit candle. Both Domenico and Andrei are feeling separated from their surroundings as they long for belonging and understanding.
Throughout the movie, Tarkovsky reveals one of the most profound insights about the notion of “home”: without a place to call home, that is without somewhere to belong to, we are as lost as a mad person, trying to find their way back through a world which does not provide the path to do so and therefore, we are condemned to feel incomplete and alienated.
“Nostalghia” is a masterpiece with multiple themes to meditate upon. For example, the speech given by Domenico during the last scene, on the need for people to love each other, to generate great masters and to move forward towards a simpler way of living, evokes the centuries-old lesson that those who see reality differently, in particular those who believe in miracles, in the world of spirit, in the capacity of man to overcome his earthly nature, have been regarded as fools, mad or unwell. “What kind of world is this if a madman tells you [that] you must be ashamed of yourselves!”, shouts Domenico.
This perspective is well depicted by German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” when Zarathustra realises that the people do not (and many cannot) take his insights, deemed too abstract and thus impractical, seriously, let alone to act upon them: a prophet of individual enlightenment alienated by the very society he was so keen to help to improve itself. “Night came at last, and a cold wind blew over the lonely one.”
However, despite other universal themes that Tarkovsky’s creation touches upon, the story in the movie is also personal as it is, to an extent, autobiographical. “Nostalghia” is partly based on the director’s visits in Italy prior to his self-imposed exile from the Soviet Union in the Summer of 1984.
The reason for the exile was the Soviet authorities’ strict censorship of his work, which they deemed anti-Soviet even if the director “loved Russia with all his heart”. Therefore, Tarkovsky was himself, in a sense, trapped between Russia and Italy as his place to call home, suffering from nostalgia himself.
The origins of the word “nostalgia” are Greek, from “nostos” (homecoming) and “algos” (pain), literally translating into “aching to return home”.
Today, we seem to have lost the essence of the word “home”. We use it nonchalantly to describe buildings – houses, flats, studios – and even social and economic ills, like “homelessness”. This butchering of the deeply personal meaning of the word “home”, which is so closely link to who we are and who we become as individuals, devalues both the notion of belonging and the feeling of actually belonging somewhere.
As America-Jewish writer, Frances A. Lebowitz, explained a few years ago in an interview: home “is an incredibly loaded word […] and a very difficult thing to attain […] when I was younger it was consider very vulgar to call” a house a home; “[…] a house is a thing”, while a home is not.
Homelessness therefore is not an issue of not having a property or a roof over one’s head but a feeling of disconnection with the world around, a discomfort that stems from feeling alienated, from not belonging. Homelessness is a spiritual and psychological phenomena, not a social or economic one.
This yearning to belong is what nostalgia evokes: it is akin to hearing the silent call of a familiar voice, one that is bittersweet in its personal but distant tone; an echo which tells us with conviction that there we belong, that there we can be true to our own nature and develop our individuality.
Therefore, nostalgia and, what Sir Roger Scruton called “oikophilia”, or love of home, are closely interlinked. Scruton argued that “human beings are foremost home seekers in what he referred to as a “vale of tears”. We all seek a person or persons, a place and a community to form the ground of one’s being, to build our identity and become who we are. […] Roger then expanded this concept to the land and country, partly inspired by his life as a farmer and countryman.”
Home therefore is not just a place or a building or a person. It is a combination of all these things – a fertile spiritual and psychological ground in which our own personhood can plant its roots and from which our own identity can start to develop. In this sense, home is not just an idea confined to the material world: it is also set of values and customs that we share with the people around us and with those that have been around before us.
Consequently, the concept of home can be slowly expanded from one’s own body and self to one’s family and dwelling, close circle of friends, neighbours and the local community, town and county and, finally, to one’s country or nation.
What unifies the individual to the wider community is primarily tradition: the institutions and customs that the members of a community inherit and partake in, even if they hold different ethical believes and political views, make of individuals fellow men and women.
Tradition is the cohesive energy that turns the earth and the buildings upon it into something personal and intimate and that provides a common ground from which the rules that we all abide by arise. It informs our aesthetics, it provides a mythological past from which we all came, as children of the gods, it provides us with venues to talk to the gods and to create deeper bonds between ourselves.
Tradition enables change to happen in a way that is not destructive to our identity, to our home. In a recent issue from The Spectator, author Tim Stanley writes that the essence of conservativism is to “effect change without, all the while giving the impression that nothing has changed at all”. The quintessence of this process, which I call “emancipation through preservation” is tradition: it enables the sense of familiarity and belonging to be maintained throughout time, during good and pad periods.
Nostalgia is amplified by the loss of tradition: without institutions and customs to provide an overlapping ground of values, history and outlook for the future, the individual is not only alone but lonely, alienated and disconnected from the places and people that once enabled something to be called “home”.
Tradition is lost as one’s cultural heritage – the collection of pieces of art, literary works, philosophical writings, scientific discoveries, political structures, customs and rituals, faith, architectural style and the vision of ancestral origins – is forgotten or destroyed.
This process, of diluting or eradicating one’s culture, is often motivated by politics – games of primitive men and women who can never escape the limited world of their own imagination and barren rationality – in an attempt to build new structures of power and commercial routes.
Reforms, revolutions, legislations and any form of forced change that devalues, completely or partly, the cultural heritage of a people are, no matter the promised outcome, poisonous for an individual’s soul: the wound of losing the essence of what enables one to belong to a place and a people will never heal and it will bleed into aeons of human history marked by unrest and conflict.
Cultural deterioration is not the only achieved through political and legislative means. Armed conflict, economic hardship and social unrest are all reasons for which we can become homeless, even if we find shelter and economic means somewhere else. With 82.4 million people displaced worldwide, the world is not short of examples of such cases.
However, probably the most well-known and tragic of all such cases is portrayed by the long history of the Jewish people, which provides undying proof that the feeling of belonging, of having a home, is one of the most profound and universal aspects of human nature.
The state of Israel was formally acknowledged by the international community in May of 1948. But the nation of Israel, as the spiritual, material and psychological home of the Jewish people, existed long before that. However, since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. the Jewish people have wandered the world without a place to call home. As a result, for most of their existence on Earth, the Jews have been homeless.
Isaiah Berlin in “Against the Current” and “The Power of Ideas”, discusses the works and lives of Mosses Hess, Benjamin Disraeli and Karl Marx, from the perspective of what in the XVIII and XIX centuries Europe was known as “the Jewish problem”, a phrase that underlined the essence of homelessness in the case of the Jewish people: can they ever become an completely integrated part of a society with a foreign culture?
Some refused or could not integrate in a foreign society with its own history and customs. These Jews maintained their authentic essence, carrying with them their religious and non-religious traditions. Others have tried to integrate by assimilating the ways of life from the countries they settled in. However, this process of assimilation was met with suspicion by those who were born on those lands and by the Jews who did not or could not assimilate. As such, the wound of homelessness was further widened and deepened by this divide between the Jews who desired to have a new “home” and attempted to become Russians, Germans, English and so on, and the Jews who did not or were unable to assimilate.
Anyone who was forced to leave their natal land understands that the question of assimilation (or accommodation) – that is, of becoming a national (not just a citizen) of the country you settled in, a process which involves building a new identity rooted in a history and traditions that are not part your own cultural heritage – can only be vaguely and incompletely answered in affirmative.
For example, because I was born in Romania, becoming an Englishman, or German, or Chinese or any nationality, is never something that I can do entirely. I am not home because I have a house or an apartment in a different country. I am not home because I made new friends and acquaintances on other lands. Counterintuitively, what keeps alive that core of the old and original self, is nostalgia: the aching for home.
Embedded in the need and feeling of belonging is a deeper aspect of human nature: the yarning for a freedom that only comes with an unchanging world. This idea is apparently paradoxical when read with the eyes of reason. That is how it should be, for its origin is not in the mind but in the soul.
The longing to call something “home” is ultimately the search for something that is unchanged, which is forever familiar, where we feel unshackled by constraints (societal, philosophical and, even, biological): this is the nostalgia for the Paradise lost, a notion which comes from Mircea Eliade’s study translated as “The Nostalgy of Origins”.
In the famous TV series “Mad Men”, the writers defined nostalgia as the “pain from an old wound”. This “old wound” is indeed the loss of connection with our common origins: the Divine, the Universe, the world Spirit, unchanging, forever familiar, where all men and women are children of the gods, equal because of their souls not bodies or intellect or imagination.
This desire to return to primordial times, to the “days long gone”, is not a simple fiction of a romantic mind, but a deep psychological and spiritual need to return home, to our common home, which resides into a mythological past where all of us where closer to the gods. As Romanian philosopher Petre Tutea quoted Plato in his essay on Mircea Eliade’s life and work: “The further we walk into the past, the closer we are to the gods”.
Therefore, nostalgia is more than aching to belong somewhere or to someone anywhere on the planet. It is ultimately a profound calling to return to the Devine. Until we recognise this, even if we have our culture and natal lands, an important part of us will always feel lost, alienated and therefore, homeless.
Categories: Culture and Politics