What Nostalgia Was: Thomas W. Dodman and David Rieff

If nostalgia today is seen as essentially benign, a wistful longing for the past,  Thomas W. Dodman brilliantly argues in Nostalgie. Histoire d’une émotion mortelle, that this wasn’t always the case. Drawing on the history of medicine and psychiatry, as well as on the testimonies of Napoleonic conscripts or “African Nostalgia” studies by French colonists in Algeria, Dodman offers historical depth to nostalgia. He shows how it literally referred to “homesickness” and mainly affected soldiers, colonists, slaves or migrant workers – all expatriated from imperial wars and colonial expansion in the modern world, and sometimes led to more deaths than those caused by actual combat.

In his book In Praise of Forgetting David Rieff reflects “on our collective memories: how we remember our national histories and argue about our shared past. Rieff contends that these collective remembrances are self-serving, often fraudulent and frequently dangerous.”* He warns that all too often, collective memory “has led to war rather than peace . . . and to the determination to exact revenge rather than commit to the hard work of forgiveness.”* Wouldn’t we be –at times– better off forgetting and getting on with our lives? wonder this acclaimed author and journalist who has covered many conflicts and humanitarian crises.

On April 24, Thomas W. Dodman and David Rieff will discuss the evolution of nostalgia (why is it no longer considered a disease? how did this pathology of space become a search for lost time?) and whether one should systematically come together as a nation to honor the memory of past crimes?

In English. Free with RSVP. Click here for tickets.

Nostalgie. Histoire d’une émotion mortelle, by Thomas W. Dodman, traduit de l’anglais par Johanna Blayac, éd du Seuil.
(What Nostalgia Was. War, Empire and the Time of a Deadly Emotion, Chicago, 2018)

Eloge de l’oubli – La mémoire collective et ses pièges (in Praise of Forgetting) by David Rieff, trans. by Frédéric Joly, Premier Parralèle.


Thomas W. Dodman is a historian of modern France and its empire, and Director of the History and Literature Program at Columbia University. He is a member of the editorial board of the French journal Sensibilités: histoire, critique & sciences sociales. His first book is What Was Nostalgia: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion (Chicago, 2018). He has also co-edited two volumes: Une Histoire de la Guerre, du XIXe siècle à nos jours, (Editions du Seuil, 2018) and Controverses sur l’émotion, (Anamosa, 2018).

David Rieff is an American nonfiction writer and policy analyst. His books have focused on issues of immigration, international conflict, and humanitarianism. He has published numerous articles in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais, The New Republic, World Affairs, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, The Nation, and other publications.