Nostalgia(s) for the Orient(s) – International conference (Grenoble)

Nostalgia(s) for the Orient(s) – International conference (Grenoble)
Nostalgia(s) for the Orient(s) – International conference (Grenoble)

Nostalgia(s) for the Orient(s)

International conference – Grenoble Alpes University

December 5 and 6, 2024

Conference organized by Monica Balda-Tillier and Lisa El Ghaoui du Luhcie (University Laboratory History Cultures Italy Europe), as part of the “ORFE” (Of the Orient and Women) research program led by Lisa El Ghaoui.

In his book: Nostalgia, History of a Deadly Emotion, Thomas Dodman explains, with a certain irony, that “it has not been so long since we indulged in nostalgic daydreams without having to fear for our lives”. There was a time, in fact, when we did not simply feel nostalgic, but “we had nostalgia in the same way that we could have tuberculosis, cholera or a simple cold”, in short, we “caught nostalgia[1]”.

If the suffering linked to estrangement, to uprooting, to exile, to loss, has always been a central theme of poetry, of literature in general, but also of sacred texts, of troubadour ballads or epics, the clinical description proposed by Johannes Hofer (1669-1752), a young Alsatian medical student, in his thesis[2], shifted this suffering towards another dimension: that of pathology. By studying the pain caused by being torn away from the usual place of existence on the one hand, and on the other hand, by the painful obsession of returning to this place, he coined the scholarly neologism “nostalgia” from the terms nostos (return home) and algos (pain, languor), thus transforming an emotional phenomenon (homesickness, heimweh in German) into a morbid state linked to a real “disorder of the imagination[3]» which can lead to suicide.

It was only in the 19th century that we witnessed a “demedicalization” of the term linked in particular to the evolution of the perception of emotions as well as the birth of Romanticism. Nostalgia will gradually be defined as a feeling associated with sadness, regret, boredom, and becomes a literary theme par excellence linked to the “mal du siècle” and “spleen” (Lamartine, de Musset, Baudelaire).

Disease of the soul or body, existential metaphor, memory of the heart, very essence of human thought (Camus[4]), fundamental anthropological virtuality (Starobinsky[5]), poison or antidote? Each civilization has its variants that are often untranslatable from one language to another: African-American blues, Portuguese saudade, Romanian dor, German sehnsucht… Nostalgias come in a wide range of sensations and emotions where worry, melancholy, sadness, the feeling of emptiness, of lack, of vagueness in the soul mix with hope, with sweetness, with the thirst for life, with the reverie of an elsewhere, of an imprecise golden age, of unworldly happiness… where the wandering soul is never truly aware of what it covets.

Homesickness linked to the loss of a familiar physical space, most often left by constraint (exile, war, emigration) and to the pain caused by the violent desire to return there[6], a temporal dimension is added: the romantic experience of the flight of time and the search, both hopeful and desperate, for an era forever gone. If physical return to the place of origin is possible, there nonetheless remains a feeling of irreversible ‘temporal dislocation’, which accentuates the feeling of loss, the pain of return can sometimes prove even stronger than that of lack.

In Arabic literature, although it was never considered a real pathology, nostalgia has always represented one of the major themes. Inseparable from the expression of the feeling of love in the pre-Islamic era, it tells of a separation, whether temporal or spatial, a lack and therefore reflects the fragility of the human condition. Its expression, however, is not limited to love poetry, but extends to other poetic and prose genres, such as the funeral eulogy, Bacchic poetry, travelogue, historical chronicle and many others literary forms[7]. It seems in particular that the expression of nostalgia is inseparable from the myth of Andalusia perceived as a lost paradise and this still well after the Reconquista and the departure of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. This nostalgia, mixed with sadness, persists over time, to the point of being able to be defined as “a perpetual obsession”, present even in contemporary artistic and cultural manifestations in the Arab world.[8].

By following this double spatio-temporal connotation, this conference aims to investigate the different aspects of nostalgia relating to the representation of the Orient, or rather of these multiple Orient(s) which can be both familiar or fantasized: on the one hand, these concrete geographical spaces that are both intimate and historical (described in autobiographies, memoirs, travel diaries) and on the other hand, these mythical spaces, transfigured or idealized by imagination, art and literature, embodying an “elsewhere” quite distinct from the “here”, which can hardly be fixed on a map.

Communications may address the representation of nostalgia from an external point of view (the Orient seen by the West) and/or internal (the Orient seen by or from the Orient).

The theme of nostalgia could be considered:

1) under an intimate and individual aspect, through, for example, retrospective writing from within. Due to the subjective aspect of the filter to which it is subjected (memory), this type of writing “weaves a subjective look close to confession [9] ”, but at the same time has a historical and universal significance. It can be presented in multiple ways: memorial writings, diaries, childhood memories, travel stories, autobiographies, historical stories with the significance of ego-documents, etc.

2) under an ideological aspect, for example when the myth of the Orient becomes a counter-model (positive or negative) of Western society (orientalist and orientalizing stories).

3) in a collective aspect, when nostalgia is the expression of a feeling of belonging to a group, an ethnic group or a people damaged or weakened by History, whose identity is threatened ( exiles, slaves). This type of nostalgia manifests itself particularly in oral forms of expression (songs, legends, etc.).

The conference will therefore be multidisciplinary and open to all periods and all subjects of study (literature, history, cinema, theater, fine arts, music, etc.).

Communications focused on female writing, artists or female protagonists will be particularly appreciated.

Scientific managers:

Monica Balda-Tillier (Luhcie)

Lisa El Ghaoui (Luhcie)

Proposals should be sent to the following addresses:

[email protected]

[email protected]

Deadline for receipt of proposals: 06/30/2024

Notification of acceptance of proposals will be sent no later than 07/30/2024

Format of proposals:

A summary of one page maximum, with the title of the communication, the corpus and period studied, the type of approach chosen, the main themes addressed and specifying your name, institutional affiliation and contact details.

Languages ​​accepted: French, English, Italian.

The publication of the articles resulting from the conference is planned, after proofreading and validation of the contributions by peers.

[1] Thomas Dodman, Nostalgia, story of a mortal emotion, Paris, Seuil, 2022, p. 9-10.
[2] In 1688, a year before submitting his main doctoral thesis “Dissertatio medica inauguralis de hydrope ovarii muliebris”, J. Hofer submitted a secondary thesis to Professor J. Jacob Harder, where he described the “homesickness” that struck the Swiss mercenaries who left the mountain pastures to serve in France or Italy. The term nostalgia then takes on a strictly medical aspect and is analyzed as a real trauma. The thesis was published in Basel in 1745 under the title “Dissertatio curiosa-medica, de nostalgia, vulgo: Heimwehe oder Heimsehnsucht”.
[3] “Nostalgia is born from a disorder of the imagination, while the nervous juice always takes one and the same direction in the brain and therefore awakens only one and the same idea, the desire to return to the homeland ; this idea is linked to demonstrations that are sometimes more violent, sometimes more moderate. […] Nostalgic people are only touched by few external objects, and nothing makes a more vivid impression on them than the idea of ​​returning to their homeland”, J. Starobinsky, On nostalgia, tormented memory, Éditions Érès, “Cliniques Mediterranean”, 2003/1, no. 67, p. 198.
[4] A. Camus, The myth of Sisyphus: “a man’s thought is above all his nostalgia”.
[5] J. Starobinsky, On nostalgia, tormented memory, op. cit., p. 191.
[6] When it entered the dictionary of the French Academy in 1835, the term was defined as follows: “Illness caused by a violent desire to return to one’s homeland. We commonly say, “The country’s illness, homesickness.”
[7] Brigitte Foulon (dir.), The writing of nostalgia in Arabic literature, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2013, p. 7.
[8] Ibid, p. 15-16.
[9] Clélia Zernik, “Retrospective Writing or How one becomes an art critic”, Critique d’art [En ligne], 40 | 2012, posted online on November 1, 2013, consulted on March 8, 2024. URL:; DOI:



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