Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance  Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.

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In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.

Here is the original link

 

The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-
Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes
more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern
industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be
nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that
this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and
Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating
from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her
specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled
“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer
Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary
sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an
overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness.
American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer,
the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place
without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the
immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim
settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and
freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality
were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,
despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage
the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and
who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was
especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.
From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the
various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual
motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of
forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to
reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].
Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had
a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying
opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and
management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns
such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the
Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more
susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors
for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public
attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed
thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families
were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence
of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the
military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is
revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of
attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation
from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness
among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This
attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of
the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great
sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.
The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This
was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in
the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist
John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive
affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the
denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving
children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to
parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation
of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated
the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The
interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,
ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a
matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how
the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically
dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the
Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is
complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous
communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet
these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.
Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition
of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the
rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,
one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended
family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded
and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them
Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite
everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities
emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of
things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of
social and economic pressures while making a strong case that
emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social
engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little
of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary
historians freight their work
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of
homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish
readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is
eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More
fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will
find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We
may not always go through the same social transformations as
America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to
them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent
emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too
relevant.
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent
moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper
response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband
and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have
lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter
where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant
note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-
provoking work.
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Tim Miller on the Bush funeral and “the sad truth of public theatre”

At his blog Truth and Silence, Tim Miller has a post on the funeral of George H W Bush and what it reveals about the media and our culture..

We have a funny view of politicians. Someone once said that politics is the only profession in which every says they would prefer an amateur to a professional (it was phrased a lot more fluently than that)

As mentioned before I have been reading quite a bit of Edwin Friedman lately. It has provoked a lot of thought for me about leadership, responsibility, and the recurrent patterns of our relationships. It struck me how much is projected onto leaders. Personally, I have always felt I would vote for someone who announced “Public administration is complex and challenging. I don’t have all the answers. Also, there are lots of things I and any government cannot possibly control. I have principles, relevant experience, and will respectfully listen to expertise and respectfully listen to concerns and  complaints – but won’t promise blind obedience to experts or that I can solve every problem.”

Would such a candidate get any, or many votes? Would a political party with a platform of “we don’t know the exact answers, but we will do our best” get anywhere? It seems too trite to load onto politicians the freight of taking the brunt of the decline in influence of organised religion – although I have a feeling they may identify with this post on clergy burnout, for similar reasons.  

Leaders tend to be the landing place of many projections. And when disappointed, the electorate are unforgiving. To give one of many examples, it is reasonably safe to say that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are the most despised politicians of the recent past in Britain and Ireland respectively – yet both were the most successful electoral performers of the last twenty years.  Of course, both are despised for very specific things, but some of the intensity is surely due to the rage of our own self-projections proving fallible.

Behind the scenes it does seem most politicians are hard-working strivers trying to do their best and navigate the various competing interests (which, of course, includes you and me and our own interests)

Anyhow, Tim Miller captures this better than I am. Here are some bits I especially liked:

Many of these moments—at least the ones that are now fodder for Twitter and cable news (I put Twitter first on purpose)—are clearly staged to some extent. But it’s also true that many of these kinds of meetings and friendships are genuine. Yet the cynicism of the 2016 election, and the mistrust of public figures and public spectacle that has been going on for decades, begs the question of what is going on here. How can Al Gore be talking to such an evil man as Dick Cheney, and how can Dick Cheney be talking to such liberal scum as Al Gore? Isn’t this the very kind of hypocrisy that normal people despise in politicians? And for those who aren’t talking and are just in the same room together, how can Donald Trump sit so close to Hillary Clinton without doing all he can to finally lock her up? Are these forms of public spectacle just the highest examples of the contradiction and insincerity that lies at the heart of political and social life, or are they examples of what civilization actually is, that people who disagree usually come together, and in some cases are friends?

No one in my lifetime anyway has had the ability to change how politicians and public figures are presented; at best, they are only the manipulators of the media landscape they live in. If anything, Donald Trump merely picked up what was already on the ground and used it better than anyone ever has, and it’s doubtful he would have been elected if the ways we communicate and receive the news wasn’t already so degraded.

That very degradation cannot deal with the complexity and the actual truth that these powerful people embody: that those with vastly different visions for how the world should work just might get along, and that outside of the kinds of rallies and invective the media encourages and the public seems to want, the truth is actually much quieter. So the real sadness of watching George H. W. Bush’s funeral is this: that while the politicians, supposedly the most insincere people in the world, realize the complexity of their positions, the public at large does not.

 

…Even more powerless than the politicians to change how we interact with others and the world, we regular citizens blindly accept the public theater as actual reality and have ended up despising one another, and quite literally rupturing any sense of wholeness, or a shared soul. Gore and Cheney can talk peacefully, while voters who admire one or the other are proud to hate each other. For my part, I’ve stopped believing that the right or the left can possibly be as idiotic, ignorant, childish, or brutal as the anecdotes that make it onto Twitter or Reddit or cable news claim to show. That is not who we actually are, and while I never thought I’d say such a thing, it’s taken politicians to show me this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a post on my other blog “A Medical Education” inspired by a passage in Helen Pearson’s “The Life Project”, which I reviewed in the TLS.

An understandable tendency to include as much potentially useful information as possible seemed to have created massive, and ultimately unworkable cohorts. The Life Study would have generated vast data sets: “80,000 babies, warehouses of stool samples of placentas, gigabytes of video clips, several hundred thousand questionnaires and much more” (the history of the 1982 study repeated itself, perhaps.) Then there is the recruitment issue. Pregnant women volunteering for the Life Study would “travel to special recruitment centres set up for the study and then spend two hours there, answering questions and giving their samples of urine and blood.” Perhaps the surprise is that 249 pregnant women actually did volunteer for this.

This passage has come back to me. Aside from the methodological issue of study design, there is a wider issue of trying to do too much of a (seemingly) good thing.

I am brought back to another brief snatch of a book I have stolen for a post, from “The Monks of Tibhirine” by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way.

And, a more recent post here featuring the holiday thoughts of David Mamet:

I thought: we are an Urban people, and the Urban solution to most any problem is to do more: to find something new to eat in order to lose weight; to add a sound in order to relax, to upgrade your living arrangements in order to be comfortable, to buy more, to eat more, to do more business

 

“In any family, taking the suffering for others, or being willing to suffer because of the suffering of others, is absolutely irresponsible if it enables others to avoid facing their own suffering!” – Edwin Friedman

I keep coming back to this post by DeForest London – “A Way Out of Burnout: Cultivating Differentiated Leadership Through Lament”. I originally reposted it on my other blog, A Medical Education. I keep coming back to this rich piece.

I have begun reading the work of Rabbi Edwin Friedman, whose work on family systems and overfunctioning/underfunctioning in relationships London uses as the springboard for his thoughts. This quote from Friedman, which is in a footnote of London’s piece, resonates beyond the world of clergy leadership:

“There are a number of clergy of all faiths who, rather than burning out, almost seem to relish abuse, either emotionally or in their physical surroundings. If they are Christian, they might see themselves as emulating Jesus on the cross. If they are Jewish, they might justify their suffering by recalling the martyrs of Jewish history. In both cases this is sheer theological camouflage for an ineffective immune system. In any family, taking the suffering for others, or being willing to suffer because of the suffering of others, is absolutely irresponsible if it enables others to avoid facing their own suffering! Indeed, the effects of that type of self-abnegation can only increase others’ guilt!”

Russian Modernism and Byzantine Iconography – another false dichotomy

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A recurrent pattern in the history of ideas is a dominant narrative creating dichotomies that, at the time, did not exist. I have blogged about these before – false tension between the Christian and classical worlds in the time of Boethius Victor Watts debunked , or dichotomies between religion and science, much trumpeted by some commentators but which can often be contrasted with the beliefs of working scientists.

From the evergreen Eastern Christian Books blog of Adam deVille, news of a book which looks at another false dichotomy of a dominant historical narrative:

In The Icon and the Square, Maria Taroutina examines how the traditional interests of institutions such as the crown, the church, and the Imperial Academy of Arts temporarily aligned with the radical, leftist, and revolutionary avant-garde at the turn of the twentieth century through a shared interest in the Byzantine past, offering a counter-narrative to prevailing notions of Russian modernism.

Focusing on the works of four different artists—Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin — Taroutina shows how engagement with medieval pictorial traditions drove each artist to transform his own practice, pushing beyond the established boundaries of his respective artistic and intellectual milieu. She also contextualizes and complements her study of the work of these artists with an examination of the activities of a number of important cultural associations and institutions over the course of several decades. As a result, The Icon and the Square gives a more complete picture of Russian modernism: one that attends to the dialogue between generations of artists, curators, collectors, critics, and theorists.

The Icon and the Square retrieves a neglected but vital history that was deliberately suppressed by the atheist Soviet regime and subsequently ignored in favor of the secular formalism of mainstream modernist criticism. Taroutina’s timely study, which coincides with the centennial reassessments of Russian and Soviet modernism, is sure to invigorate conversation among scholars of art history, modernism, and Russian culture.

Adam deVille is good at pointing out the falseness of many oppositions conjured up by ignorance of history. He is especially strong on the pernicious influence of Christians failing to understand, or even try to understand, Marx and Freud.

Blossom Dearie, “Somebody New”

I have long admired the singing of the late Blossom Dearie, who effortlessly conjured up a world of rueful sophistication with immaculate phrasing. “Blossom Dearie” was he real name. This New York Times obituary captures her very well:

Blossom Dearie, the jazz pixie with a little-girl voice and pageboy haircut who was a fixture in New York and London nightclubs for decades, died on Saturday at her apartment in Greenwich Village. She was 84.

She died in her sleep of natural causes, said her manager and representative, Donald Schaffer. Her last public appearances, in 2006, were at her regular Midtown Manhattan stomping ground, the now defunct Danny’s Skylight Room.

A singer, pianist and songwriter with an independent spirit who zealously guarded her privacy, Ms. Dearie pursued a singular career that blurred the line between jazz and cabaret. An interpretive minimalist with caviar taste in songs and musicians, she was a genre unto herself. Rarely raising her sly, kittenish voice, Ms. Dearie confided song lyrics in a playful style below whose surface layers of insinuation lurked. Her cheery style influenced many younger jazz and cabaret singers, most notably Stacey Kent and the singer and pianist Daryl Sherman.

But just under her fey camouflage lay a needling wit. If you listened closely, you could hear the scathing contempt she brought to one of her signature songs, “I’m Hip,” the Dave Frishberg-Bob Dorough demolition of a namedropping bohemian poseur. Ms. Dearie was for years closely associated with Mr. Frishberg and Mr. Dorough. It was Mr. Frishberg who wrote another of her perennials, “Peel Me a Grape.”

Ms. Dearie didn’t suffer fools gladly and was unafraid to voice her disdain for music she didn’t like; the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber were a particular pet peeve.

The other side of her sensibility was a wistful romanticism most discernible in her interpretations of Brazilian bossa nova songs, material ideally suited to her delicate approach. Her final album, “Blossom’s Planet” (Daffodil), released in 2000, includes what may be the definitive interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” Her dreamy attenuated rendition finds her voice floating away as though to sea, or to heaven, on lapping waves of tastefully synthesized strings.

“Blossom Dearie Sings” was the first album on her own label, Daffodil Records. It blends an early-seventies sensibility with a more timeless, jazz-tinged approach. The whole album has the cool, witty yet yearning vibe captured in the NYT obituary. “Somebody New” encapsulates this very well:

“Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.” – Henri Nouwen on solitude and compassion

From Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Here we reach the point where ministry and spirituality touch each other. It is compassion. Compassion is the fruit of solitude and the basis of all ministry. The purification and transformation that take place in solitude manifest themselves in compassion.

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity grows.

In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart. In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart, and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solidarity. If you would ask the Desert Fathers why solitude gives birth to compassion, they would say, “Because it makes us die to our neighbor.”

At first this answer seems quite disturbing to a modern mind. But when we give it a closer look we can see that in order to be of service to others we have to die to them; that is, we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others. To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other