Studying nostalgia will not reveal everything we need to know about the internal and external conditions of immigrants, refugees, and forcefully displaced persons. Nevertheless, it is an important arena that requires further psychoanalytic inquiry. Diagnosing the state of the nostalgia of such persons may give clues as to how an individual is adjusting or will adjust to a new country. The observation of poison-free nostalgia that functions as a linking phenomenon, or of a linking object or phenomenon saturated with poison-free nostalgia can give us hope about a newcomers mental health and future. Lastly, as mental health professionals, we may be able to devise therapeutic ways to help individuals detoxify their nostalgia and develop creative linking objects or phenomena.
_The paper was first published as Volkan, Vamik D. (1999). Nostalgia as a linking phenomenon. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 1: 169-179
We republish is here with the kind permission of the Editor-on-chief,
Prof S.W. Twemlow ****_
Immigrants and refugees who leave behind their countries, loved ones and cultural environment experience loss and are obliged to go through a mourning process which may become complicated due to a variety of factors. Many such individuals create linking objects or linking phenomena that help them to continue to have contact with the past, while adjusting to their new environment. Nostalgia is the affect that accompanies linking objects and linking phenomena and at times functions itself as a linking phenomenon. The lack of nostalgia, poisoned nostalgia, and nostalgia in the service of adaptation are discussed with clinical examples.
People cannot accept change without mourning what is lost to the past. Whether the loss is of a homeland, as it is for immigrants or refugees, or of a person or thing, the process of adapting to life after loss is necessary and sometimes complex. There are many variables involved in the immigrant or refugee experience. Newcomers differ with respect to their ages, psychological makeup, and the support system that is available to them. The circumstances surrounding individual or group movements from one location to another also affect their adaptation to a new place. Specifically, forced migration and the trauma associated with it cause complications that may not be present when relocation is voluntary. Nevertheless, at the foundation of the psychology of any kind of immigrant or refugee experience we see aspects of mourning or difficulties in mourning (Volkan, 1989, 1993, 1997, 1998). My aim is to illustrate how nostalgia is connected with the psychodynamics of mourning. The papers by Maurice Apprey and Ira Brenner in this issue focus on the poisoning of nostalgia. I offer a wider exploration of this affect and show when it can be utilized in the service of adaptation for immigrants and refugees. I will also show what happens when nostalgia is absent and when it is poisoned.
A symbol of shared nostalgia
My first example describes how shared nostalgia is utilized by a group of people in their efforts to recapture the idealized version of what has been lost to them. I am referring to the shared nostalgia of Palestinians living in Tunis in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the spring of 1990, I spent 10 days in Tunis interviewing children at a Palestinian orphanage called Biet Atfal Al-Sommoud (the Home of Children of Steadfastness) (Masri and Volkan, 1990; Volkan 1990). Administered by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the orphanage was not far from PLO headquarters in Tunis and was part of a significant population of Palestinians, including Chairman Yasser Arafat, who lived in Tunisia at that time. As a group, the Palestinians seemed to be in a state of perpetual alert and were afraid of unexpected secret attacks by Israeli commandos. Indeed, prior to my visit, one of Mr. Arafats closest associates had been assassinated at his home during an Israeli raid. I had the impression that most of them never had a good nights sleep. They would call or visit each other at all hours of the night just to check that nothing was amiss. Chairman Arafat, I was told, would never stay long at one location but would move around constantly for security reasons. The PLO used souped up civilian cars that sped through the streets as if in perpetual motion. The groups anxiety was palpable. These Palestinians in Tunis felt as if they had been forcefully exiled and yearned to return to a peaceful homeland. Even though the Tunisian government had given the PLO a certain autonomy, almost all Palestinians in Tunis considered themselves refugees of a sort.
The orphanage housed fifty-two children under the age of 18 who had lost one or both parents in the Middle East conflicts. The PLO had given permission to me and to two American colleagues with Palestinian backgrounds, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, to spend time with these children and study the psychology of war orphans. Despite this prior approval, after arriving in Tunis we were made to wait for three days before being allowed to visit the orphanage, presumably for further background checks. Many of the children in the orphanage were given the name Arafat because the identity of their fathers was not known. Chairman Arafat, we were told, would often spend time in the orphanage and would send the children presents. This was the time of the intifada and the children would spontaneously sing songs of victimhood and identify with the children of the intifada whom they saw on television. They would express their hope for a free Palestine and their desire to return there. There was a general feeling among the Tunis Palestinians that the orphanage represented their suffering as well as their hope for the future.
During our waiting period, we visited many Palestinian homes and the offices of high-ranking officials. At times I felt that I was being indirectly questioned by the PLO to ensure that I would present my findings in a neutral way. It was not a secret that I planned to publish my findings and to speak about these orphans at an upcoming meeting in Israel on Children of War (See Children in War: A special issue of Mind and Human Interaction, Vol. 2, No. 2, October, 1990). When asked why I was not planning to interview Palestinian orphans older than age 18, I replied that the idea had not occurred to me, since from the outset the project had focused on younger children. I let them know, however, that I would be willing to interview an adult candidate if one were interested.
This is how at a luncheon with senior PLO officials I met an extraordinary young woman in her twenties who asked to be interviewed. For four evenings she came to our hotel and we talked late into the night for a total of over sixteen hours. The young woman introduced herself to me in perfect English as the daughter of an airplane hijacker. When she was an oedipal child her father had hijacked a commercial airplane and forced it to land in Israel, demanding the release of certain Palestinians from Israeli jails. According to her account, her father was tricked by Israeli anti-terrorist forces and shot to death during the hijacking episode.
Although I was given permission to use this young womans name, I will refrain from doing so. Her story was a poignant one that revolved around being raised with a hero ghost, the mental representation of her father. After the death of her father, many of his friends who had high positions in the PLO treated her as a special being. She was idealized as a martyrs daughter and a symbol of Palestine. These influential men helped with her schooling; she gradually spent more and more time at PLO headquarters and also functioned as a secretary to Chairman Arafat. She was present at many official and social gatherings of PLO authorities and also accompanied them on various travels. When I attended a long luncheon given by Chairman Arafat, for example, she functioned as a kind of silent hostess. My focus here is not to present her personal story per se, but rather to show how she played a significant psychological role for the PLO authorities and by extension for the exiled Palestinians in Tunis.
Every Palestinian in Tunis knew who she was. This young woman was aware that she represented an idealized Palestine to which the exiled Palestinians wanted to return. When she came to her interviews with me, she wore a white dress. Despite her physical beauty and gracefulness and despite being regularly pursued by men, she had remained pure. She wanted me to know that she was still a virgin. I report this to emphasize that she physically stood for the concept virgin white. Even though the Arab-Israeli conflict had been a bloody one and both sides had used violence, this young woman needed to remain like a flower in the battlefield. I learned that many men at PLO headquarters found her very attractive, but she remained in a sense unreachable, representing the Palestinians longing for their own state which at that time was also unreachable.
As our hours of interviews were coming to an end, I asked her why she had volunteered to come tell her story late into the night, to reveal her personal wishes and fears, in short why she would open so completely to a stranger. She responded that while she was aware of her role as a flag for the Palestinian people in Tunis, she also knew that she was made of flesh and blood, and had dreams of finding a mate, marrying, having sex, and being a regular person. The fact was that she wanted to be both an idealized symbol and a regular woman. She was aware that in order to be one type of person, she would have to give up the other. Having no solution for her internal struggle, she had developed a daydream where she would lose both identities to escape the tension. In her daydream, she imagined being in an airplane with Chairman Arafat, her living hero/father figure. Their plane would explode in mid air, killing both of them. Psychoanalysts may infer other meanings to her daydream, such as a wish for reunion with her dead father image, but here I simply want to stick with her inner struggle to be a symbol or a regular woman. Her fantasy had bothered her. She was well read and knew something about psychoanalysis. Thus, when I, a psychoanalyst, appeared in Tunis, she wanted to share with me her internal dilemma, thinking that such sharing might help. Interestingly, she knew that I would not give her any advice.
To this day, I do not know if my empathic understanding of her internal struggle was helpful to her. I never met her again. Of course, dramatic events relating to the PLOs political situation have taken place since then. Perhaps the return of Palestinians from Tunis to their ancestral land removed the external pressure on this young woman to serve as a physical representation of nostalgia for an idealized Palestine.
Historians who focus on the history of the PLO will probably never mention the role that this young lady played at PLO headquarters in Tunis in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Few will understand how a group of people in the midst of political maneuvering, terrorism, death and anxiety made this person a living linking object. As a mental representation of their idealized state and what it meant to them, she helped these Palestinians tolerate the emotions associated with being deprived of it. She served as a link between their idealized Palestine and the reality of its non-existence (a loss). Some analysts, such as Anzieu (1971, 1984), Chasseguet-Smirgel (1984) and Kernberg (1989), describe the mental representation of a state as a nurturing mother figure. The PLO and Palestinians in Tunis had created a literal illustration of this concept. The young woman was both the mother as well as an unreachable virgin, which reflected the reality of their situation. She was a catalyst for their belief in a hopeful future, one that was defensively exaggerated and pure. I perceived that they used her image to give them strength to move on and seek their statehood.
This phenomenon is similar to the hopefulness that I observed on Cyprus in the late sixties (Volkan, 1976) when Cypriot Turks were confined in enclaves surrounded by their enemies and lived under horrible conditions between 1963 and 1968. During this period, the Cypriot Turks created a symbol, a parakeet in a cagein fact thousands of themthat represented their imprisoned selves. As long as the birds were fertile and sang happily, Cypriot Turks maintained hope that they would one day regain their freedom.
Linking objects and linking phenomena
In 1972 I coined the terms linking object and linking phenomenon and later elaborated on these concepts in two books (Volkan, 1981; Volkan and Zintl, 1993). They are concepts evidenced in some mourning processes, tools used by the mourner to adapt to change or loss. I will describe them briefly here.
Generally, the task of the mourner, especially after the acute stage of bereavement, is to work on his or her internal relationship with the images of the lost person or thing (Freud, 1917). This work may produce a variety of outcomes, which are sometimes interrelated due to personal and environmental reasons which I will not describe here. The crucial issue is what the mourner does with the mental representation (the cohesive collective images) of the lost person or thing.
One outcome of mourning is a healthy and selective identification with the mental representation of what was lost. This leads to an enrichment of the mourners self-representation, since the tasks that once were performed for the mourner by the lost person or thing can now be mastered and performed by the mourner himself.
A very different outcome occurs when the mourner identifies in toto (Ritvo and Solnit, 1958) with the representation of what was lost. This non-selective identification causes problems because the mourner identifies with both the loved and hated aspects or functions of the lost person or thing. What used to be ambivalence and struggle with the representation of what was lost now becomes an ambivalence towards the mourners own self and initiates an internal struggle. The mourner feels depressed.
A third outcome occurs when the mourner internalizes the mental representation of what was lost and turns it into an introject. Although the introject is an active object representation of the lost person or thing, the mourner does not identify with it and thus becomes a perennial mourner (Volkan and Zintl, 1993). As far as the mourners internal world is concerned, the introject is a very influential object representation that requires continuous attention. Therefore the perennial mourner is doomed to be preoccupied with the introject (sometimes felt by the mourner as a foreign body lodged inside him or her). The introject and the corresponding self-image of the mourner are in a constant and endless relationship. Since a full identification (either selective or in toto) does not take place, the mourner does not achieve a healthy (i.e. resolved) mourning, but is also protected from developing an internalized battle which would bring on depression. The perennial mourner is thus in a chronic pathological state between the possibilities of resolving mourning and becoming depressed.
A linking object is the externalized version of an introject. The mourner chooses an external item such as the watch of his dead father, and, psychologically speaking, makes it magical. This linking object unconsciously connects the lost persons image or mental representation with the mourners corresponding self-image or representation. It becomes a psychological meeting ground for both. When the introject is externalized, the incomplete mourning process is to a great extent externalized too. Work on mourning toward a healthy identification is replaced by a continuous preoccupation and relationship with the linking object. The mourner may feel a sense of relief in exerting control over this physical item. For example, he may lock his dead fathers watch in a drawer and thus distance himself from an internal struggle with the image of the dead.
A linking phenomenon refers to a song, a smell, a gesture, an action, or an affect that functions as a linking object. For example, it was raining on the day a young woman attended her fathers funeral. The song Raindrops keep falling on my head came to her mind. Later, she utilized this song as a linking phenomenon whenever she felt internal pressure to complete her mourning.
The Palestinian woman whom I interviewed in Tunis functioned as a kind of living linking object for a whole group of people, the Palestinian community in Tunis. She represented an external meeting ground between the lost but idealized Palestine and the reality of being exiles. By keeping their idealized Palestinian state alive in the symbol they created in this young woman, they were inspired not to give up their quest for an independent Palestine. From the point of view of affects, this young woman stood for the Palestinians nostalgia. Their yearning for her represented nostalgia for a Palestinian state.
Nostalgia: pathological or creative
When I first wrote about linking objects and linking phenomena, I referred to clinical cases where they appeared. Thus I focussed on their pathological use and described how numerous bizarre objects, from a broken camera to a stone, functioned as linking objects. Later (Volkan and Zintl, 1993) I began noting their relation to creativity and their use as stepping-stones to adaptive solutions in the mourning process. Linking objects or phenomena can be adaptive if their meaning and function are re-internalized to some degree as time passes. This creates an internal continuity between what has been lost (the past) and the future without the lost person or thing.
Some perennial mourners gain useful time through their utilization of linking objects and phenomena. Keeping a sense of belonging to the past as well as a foot in the future (where the lost person or thing will no longer be present) can be a helpful transition for these individuals. In contrast to perennial mourners who remain in a pathological state the rest of their lives, those who are able to use this gained time to re-internalize the meaning of the linking object or phenomenon may eventually function as more healthy mourners. They become able to recognize both the distinction and the continuity between the past, present, and future.
The story of a man who, as a child, lost his father during World War II is an illustration of the adaptive use of a linking object (Hadler, Mix and Christman, 1998). During the war his father used to send home cartoon drawings from the battlefront. The son used these drawings as linking objects in his childhood and teen years. As an adult, he re-internalized the meaning of the linking objects, in other words, he was able to identify with his fathers image. Like his father, he used his pen creatively and became a graphic designer.
The relationship between mourning and creativity has been well studied in psychoanalysis (Pollock, 1989; Volkan, 1981; Volkan and Zintl, 1993). Efforts to regain and repair what has been lost give direction to the mourners creative urges, and sometimes symbolic restorations become a work of art. Likewise, attempts to create a linking object or phenomenon and maintain it can also give direction to a mourners creative urges. When this happens, the mourner may create works of art such as sculpture, poetry, or a novel that serve as linking phenomena.
Many immigrants, refugees or displaced persons create linking objects or phenomena. Some are pathologically preoccupied with them to the degree that they do not have much energy left to spend on finding new ways of living. When an immigrant, refugee or displaced person uses a linking object or phenomenon in a creative way, he or she connects the lost persons, things, locations, or culture with efforts to give them up, bury them and move on. There is both a distinction and a continuity between past, present, and future. The creative use of a linking object or phenomenon gives such a person time to work on his or her denial of what is lost, to accept changes, and to realize what may be gained. In this process, an immigrant or refugee can achieve a third individuation, as described by Akhtar (1995, and in this issue).
The notion of the continuity of time among mourners, from past through present to the future, has also been noted by Len and Rebecca Grinberg (1989) in their important work on migration and exile. Using Kleinian terminology, these authors note that in some newcomers who have persecutory guilt, we often find an atemporality in which past and present are confused. The principal emotions involved in persecutory guilt are resentment, pain, despair, fear, self-reproach, etc. (p. 79). On the other hand, if the immigrant or refugee has depressive guilt, time is formed in accordance with the laws of the secondary process (conscious). There is a discrimination between past, present, and there is a perspective and a future. The most important feelings of depressive guilt are concern for the object and the ego, sadness, nostalgia, and responsibility (p. 79).
Nostalgia is the affect attached to linking objects and phenomena or may itself function as a linking phenomenon. When used creatively, it provides a period of time for the immigrant or refugee to make adaptations to a new country. When such adaptations take place, the affect of nostalgia fades away, but usually does not disappear entirely.
By contrast, there are situations where nostalgia cannot even evolve. A refugee or immigrant may openly or indirectly enter a depressed state and be filled instead with affects such as self-pity, resentment, envy, and despair, as is often the case among those who have been traumatized by war and forcefully exiled. The guilt for surviving while others did not and the sense of helplessness and humiliation are internalized and overpower hope for the future.
Sometimes nostalgia becomes poisoned. When this occurs, it prohibits the gradual process of working through losses and changes, and the individual cannot adapt to his status of refugee or exile, cannot achieve an internal distinction and continuity of past, present and future. As a consequence, he or she may develop symptoms or character traits to cover up such a lack of internal distinction and continuity.
Lack of nostalgia, poisoned nostalgia, and healthy nostalgia: examples**
A seventeen-year-old whom I interviewed in the Republic of Georgia in 1998 illustrated the inability to create nostalgia. When I interviewed her, she was living with her parents and siblings in a dismal refugee hotel not far from the capital of Georgia, near a man-made lake called Tbilisi Sea. She had become an internally displaced person (IDP) in the wake of brutal conflicts in the Republic of Georgia soon after it regained its independence in 1991. Her Georgian family had lived in the Abkhazian region of this country, but when the ethnic troubles erupted between Abkhazians and Georgians there, they were forced to escape to a location still under the Georgian governments control. She had been an IDP for four years.
While many of her peers swam in the lake near the hotel during the summer, she could never bring herself to do so, even though in the past she had enjoyed swimming very much. She explained that she used to swim in the Black Sea when they lived in Abkhazia, but that she could not swim in the man-made lake because the waters of the Black Sea and the waters of the lake were not similar. While she could distinguish one body of water (and its symbolic meaning) from another, they could not be put on a continuum.
Her statement about the dissimilarity of the two bodies of water reflected her great difficulty in establishing continuity between her past and present life and in projecting her life into the future. This teenager experienced no noticeable nostalgia for her home in Abkhazia. She was depressed, full of self-reproach and humiliation. At school, she studied very hard and became an excellent student. Nevertheless, this could not cover up her shame in being a refugee while all the other students in her class were not. She could not form friendships with them.
Her mother, a woman in her forties, openly expressed nostalgia for the location and life they had left behind, but her nostalgia was poisoned. Her yearning feelings were especially centered on their house in Abkhazia. After the family fled, she had seen television reports showing the house burning. She knew that if she were allowed to return, the house would not be there, but she kept the image of it alive through nostalgic feelings. She kept describing the history of this house: when it was built, how it was built, and so on. The memory of the house was idealized and she was preoccupied with it like a perennial mourner is preoccupied with a linking object or phenomenon. Nostalgia was attached to this preoccupation.
Her current surroundings were grim and unbearable, and she had realistic reasons not to be able to adapt to them, but she had internal resistances to adapting as well. I discovered evidence that these resistances were preventing her from acting in a way that would appear to improve her physical situation. The family had very little income, yet this woman had refused for years to get a new identity card from the Georgian government in Tbilisi, even though the card would make her eligible to receive financial assistance from the government. I learned that she had left her original identity card in Abkhazia and now felt that if she got a new one certifying that she was a resident of Tbilisi, she would lose her original identity as a resident of Abkhazia. Remaining poorer was better than losing her original identity. Her case was analogous to those immigrants who do not learn the language of the country that receives them and live in a recreated version of their old country. Thus, I perceived this mothers nostalgia to be poisoned, because it connected her to her past life but did not allow her to make a better adjustment to her new life. Without this poisoning of nostalgia, she would have had both a connection with the past and a buffer of time to choose what to keep from the past while moving on to the future.
Contrary to the mother and daughter IDPs living at Tbilisi Sea, Greek-American Demetrios Julius (who was not forcefully exiled) describes a healthy adaptation to his new country. He finds distinctions between his past and present homes and also puts them on a continuum. His nostalgia for Greece is healthy and uncomplicated. In his own words, Julius explains the distinction and continuity that healthy nostalgia provides: I slowly came to an appreciation of the importance of intrapsychic cultural complementarity and, more significantly, to an acceptance of the vast cultural differences of the two countries [Greece and the U.S.]. I began to accept certain psychological paradoxes and to feel myself truly bicultural (Julius, 1992, p. 56).