Once upon a time, when the bodies of the residents of former villages were still warm, so many had lived in homes, among families. After the wars, there was more and more talk of melancholy retrospection, this chronic looking back, this impulse to exhume the buried once upon a time that had so abruptly gone.
The word nostalgia had been coined centuries earlier, to describe the pathological homesickness afflicting soldiers separated from family and village. One doctor wrote extensively to insist that the condition be treated seriously as “a pathological state” rather than “an imaginary malady.” He saw death of a broken heart in the land of exile as something more lethal than enemy fire.
Reading these words, I begin to wonder if I know anyone who isn’t separated from family, who has ever known a village. Surely, there must be someone, but what is the word to name this longing for a place you’ve never known?
The doctor mentioned above is Raoul Chenu in “De la Nostalgie” whose insights appear regularly in connection with this topic. I was intending to write about the work of French photographer Willy Ronis (1910-2009), who was born on this day, but his work in post-war France naturally led me here. The word I was wondering about is hireath, of Welsch origin and not entirely translatable, which a student presented to me once as “longing for a place that never was.”