nosthedony: The pleasure to be gained from examining old objects

Stone arrowheadMany of the [museum’s] objects touched me with nosthedony—the pleasure of returning to the past. For in many of the items I saw reflected a time when human life was different, perhaps less secure, certainly less austere.

Brian Aldiss “Appearance of Life” (1976)

Like anti-agathic, this word was coined by a science-fiction writer—the quotation above marks its first ever appearance. But unlike anti-agathic, it’s not a science-fiction word—it seems like a word we almost all need, at one time or another, and I think it deserves wider currency.

Aldiss is a great word-coiner. His Helliconia trilogy, which I recently reviewed, contained many words created especially to designate concepts and objects unique to his imagined world. Some were made up out of whole cloth, like harneys, which Aldiss used for the combination of mind and brain; some were old words pressed into new usage, like eddre, for the heart and emotions; and some were deliberately constructed from familiar etymological components. In this last category there’s his description of the minds of his alien “phagors” as being eotemporal—the phagors have little understanding of time (or at least respond to it differently from humans) and eotemporal seems to be a hybrid word meaning “dawning time”. Others of his inventions were more opaque—some of his human characters worship “God the Azoiaxic“, a word that made me fret for quite a while before, late in the final novel, Aldiss has one of his characters state that this deity is itself unliving, but central to the existence of all living creatures. So it seems to be a bit of a portmanteau of the real word azoic, “unliving”, and an Aldiss invention, zoiaxic, “central to life”. (Perhaps just a little too abstruse, that one.)

So it’s likely that, having just reread the Helliconia novels, I was primed to remember Aldiss’s nosthedony when I most recently looked at the arrowhead in the photograph at the head of this post. It has sat on a shelf just behind me for twenty-odd years, and I pick it up and turn it over and smile from time to time. It’s a piece of stone technology which was given to me as a gift by a nice lady who staffed the front desk in the Thunder Bay Museum, back in 1980. She had been given it, as a child, by someone who had found it locally. It seems to be an Adena projectile point, fashioned from chert—at least a thousand years old, and made in a style that originated with the Mound Builders in the Ohio River valley. So it was at the edge of Adena distribution, up there in Northwestern Ontario—perhaps at the end of a chain of trading. Someone made it, perhaps several people used it, someone lost it or discarded it. A millennium or so later, someone found it, and passed it on to a young Canadian girl of Scottish descent. Who in later life passed it on to a Scottish medical student who had expressed an interest in local history. And at some time before it got to me, someone tried to drill a hole in the stem, perhaps to make it into a pendant. So to me it’s the type specimen of Aldiss’s nosthedony—an artefact freighted with pleasing connections to people who lived before me.

I think we’re supposed to understand nosthedony as a sort of counterpart to nostalgia. Nostalgia comes from Greek nostos, “a return home”, and algos, “pain”. As its etymology suggest, it was originally used to designate a severe kind of home-sickness, and then mutated into its current meaning, associated with a regretful longing for past times. By contrast, Aldiss’s nosthedony combines nostos with hedone, “pleasure”—so it’s a pleasure derived from things in the past.

Nostos hasn’t given us many other English words, apart from those derived from nostalgia. Nostomania is nostalgia in an obsessive form. And nostos is occasionally used in English to designate a story about a homecoming, but particularly the homecoming of Odysseus and the other heroes of the Trojan War.

We’re likewise short on words derived from hedone. Anhedonia is the miserable state of being unable to take pleasure from one’s life. Hedonism started out as a philosophical term, in which pleasure was regarded as the chief source of good, and has evolved to mean pleasure-seeking behaviour, as practised by a hedonist. Things that relate to pleasure are hedonic, and an instrument that measures pleasure is a hedonometer. (This last one turns up as an impossible object, used to poke fun at philosophical hedonism.)

That’s a pretty poor haul of words related to nosthedony—but I hope you can take pleasure from the word itself.

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