Revision, Nostalgia, the Kuhreihen and the Voyager Recordings
Updated: Nov 29, 2018
Lately, I’ve been working on revising an old essay that I wrote for my MFA thesis about nostalgia. Some revisions come fairly easy. This one, though, is looking like it’s going to be a complete rewrite. It’s a tough essay, dealing with a lot of personal loss. It centers around a collection of family documents I’ve been carrying with me, move after move (San Diego to Portland to San Diego and now Minneapolis), that include letters, tape recordings, photographs and videotapes of people who aren’t living anymore. Each time I move I have to open up the boxes and sort them, and it brings me right back to that time. It’s raw and painful, especially now, after moving back to the place where my loved ones were from. In the last draft of this essay, I can see myself on the page doing my best to dodge those feelings, to not let myself be truly vulnerable. It’s time to do that really hard work now.
So I’m thinking, and reading, about nostalgia. The word for the feeling was first coined by the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer in his 1688 dissertation. It is a combination of the Greek words nostos, or journey home, and algos, or pain. It’s a construction similar to other medical terms like cephalgia (headache), myalgia (muscle pain), or neuralgia (nerve pain). These words are like maps pointing out the location of the pain: it hurts here, with a big red arrow. Nostalgia, then, hurts in the journey home. We make that journey (To what home? Is it a question of where? Or when?) in our minds, again and again. We rehearse it, we dwell in it, sometimes to the point of ecstasy or insanity.
Hofer’s nostalgia was a serious medical malady, fatal if taken to its extreme. He attended a fellow student at Basel. The patient – a young man, like Hofer – was sick and lonely, suffering from anxiety, fatigue, fever, and other ailments. When nothing could be done, he was sent home, presumably to die, in a litter. He made a complete recovery as soon as he was on his way.
Hofer was himself a student. At the time of his dissertation, he was only 19 years old. I wonder, was he far from home too? Was his interest in this newly identified disease a reflection of his own homesickness? Were his studies a way to distance himself from his own melancholy? I can’t find much information on Hofer himself, but I like to think that the term he invented reveals as much about him as it does his patients.
Hofer provided a name for nostalgia and was the first to categorize it as a pathological condition, but the concept was older than that. The Swiss at this time were thought to be more disposed in general to homesickness, or mal du Suisse, than anyone. Many young Swiss men worked as mercenaries in foreign armies. The young men, far from home, became sick with missing their home. It was so bad that a particular kind of music, the Kuhrehein – a traditional, simple melody played on the horn by Alpine cattle herdsmen – was banned from their camps because of the severe nostalgia it would produce.
Thinking about the Kuhrehein reminded me of a poem by Rumi that I recently read:
Remembered Music ’Tis said, the pipe and lute that charm our ears Derive their melody from rolling spheres; But Faith, o’erpassing speculation’s bound, Can see what sweetens every jangled sound.
We, who are parts of Adam, heard with him The song of angels and of seraphim. Our memory, though dull and sad, retains Some echo still of those unearthly strains.
Oh, music is the meat of all who love, Music uplifts the soul to realms above. The ashes glow, the latent fires increase: We listen and are fed with joy and peace.
The Kuhrehein or other songs of our homeland (and by home I think I mean, also, the past more than a place) cannot be endured for the severe longing for home that they produce. There is a more fundamental home than that, according to Rumi, where the music we heard was the rolling of the planets in their orbits. The place we were at before we existed. Rumi is full of longing and homesickness for that home and reading him, I am too. I’m hurting in the journey home.
On that note, I wanted to end this post with the ultimate Kuhrehein, the actual music of the spheres. Sort of. The Voyager space probes recorded space noise – plasma fields, electromagnetic radiation, the solar winds – from around the solar system on its epic journey into interstellar space. The result, when converted to actual audio, is a series of hypnotic and oddly soothing ambient noise. This is the same mission that carried the Golden Record with representative Earth noises and music out of our solar system, so it seems fitting that it also deliver new sounds back to our planet. NASA released a series of albums called The Symphonies of the Planets based around these recordings, and they are delightful. Below are some of those sounds