June 20, 2005
Anatomy of a word
John Skandalakis is the Chris Carlos Distinguished professor of surgical anatomy and technique and director of the centers for surgical anatomy and technique
When I was chair of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia in the early 1980s, an assistant professor visited me complaining that the system would not help him. He had been an assistant professor for years, despite a good teaching record and a small but respectable list of publications.
After he finished I told him, “Professor, I want you to go home, shave and change out of your shorts. Come back to see me when you are clean-shaven and properly dressed.” He probably did not like what he was told, since he did not return.
However, my curiosity was piqued. I read his dissertation and publications, and I liked them.
I had my secretary call him a few weeks later. He came to see me, shaved and wearing long pants. We had a long and pleasant discussion. I told him about my nostalgia for the past, when students and faculty were well-dressed and presented themselves in the right way. In passing, he asked me about the etymology of the word nostalgia. And, proud Greek and anatomist that I am, I explained its “anatomy.”
Nostalgia is composed of two Greek words, nostos and algos. For all practical purposes, nostos means “returns home.” I would add my personal opinion that “returns happily home” more correctly completes the metaphorical meaning. Who can forget the nostos of Ulysses, coming back home from Troy? As to the algos: It is pain—pain of body or of the mind.
However, the overall definition of the word nostalgia, at least for me, means sweet recollections that are welcome today. Maybe I am bewitched by the idiom of my youth and connotations that resonate beyond dictionary definitions. But when I’m nostalgos, replete with the glad past, I remember the nostima, episodes I willingly relive again and again. For me, nostalgia is a fabric of contentment woven from the threads of bright
But the algos, the pain, is the pragmatic side of nostalgia. Memory is an ever-filling counterbalance of good and less-than-good—of glories and nightmares.
The world has recently suffered the loss of two spiritual giants, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Iakovos, the late primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in North and South America. In 1959, upon his ascension, Iakovos became the first Greek Orthodox Archbishop in 350 years to meet with a pope (John XXIII). Iakovos worked for interdenominational and interfaith dialogue, serving as president of the World Council of Churches for nine years. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., in 1965; the photograph of the bearded Greek prelate in full ecclesiastic regalia beside the Baptist minister is an iconic image of the early civil rights era.
I treasure my friendship with the man who, on his visits to Atlanta, loved the dogwoods and azaleas, and a good swim in a warm pool. We discussed world events and the life of faith, and Iakovos and I maintained a correspondence over the years.
We followed the Greek tradition of celebrating each other’s name days. There were letters I signed “Your spiritual child” that were answered “With paternal blessings,” but my deepest nostalgos is for those notes I closed simply with “Your friend.”
Even when faced with crises in affairs of church and state, Iakovos was a true spiritual leader who reached out to comfort me: “Now you can take some time for yourselves in good conscience,” he wrote. “May God bless you. Give some more time to your family. Rejoice and reflect.”
When Iakovos visited the then-recently constructed Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in the early 1960s, entire families flocked to hear their spiritual leader. During the homily, he gently commented on the growing tumult of the many small, restless congregants.
While he was at our house later that day for dinner, one of my young children approached him: “You said that Jesus loved all the children. So, why did you tell them to keep quiet?” Iakovos took the time to answer this knotty question with respectful affection.
Iakovos stated in his monograph “Nostalgia”: “I try to find all the sweetness and bitterness of my nostalgic thoughts until all my being whispers to me, ‘and thus all of us will become the community of God.’”
An ecumenical thinker and citizen of the world, his heart still found its harbor at Imbros, a speck of land in the Aegean Sea near the entrance to the Dardanelles. I remember trips with Iakovos to small churches and monasteries up in the mountains of mainland Greece.
What a joy! How many tears of happiness we shed at the plainsong and even the chanting of lamentations. We could truly say that the monks were granting their listeners a spiritual pleasure. What a happy memory, what a true nostalgia.
A world-traveled son of a small Aegean island, the archbishop painted a vivid picture of Ulyssean nostalgia in his monograph: “[F]or a moment, I saw in my mind the white kerchiefs and heard the shouts of ‘welcome’ just as I saw and heard them in the good old days when a mother and sister, my family, waited to greet me on the pier. This time I knew they wouldn’t be waiting for me. I felt the sharp pain of their loss pierce my heart and soul. Tears streamed from my eyes.
“It was then that I would reminisce about the ladies who used to stand in the doorways of their homes with flowers in their hands, to greet someone coming home. … Now, all is vanished and gone. Now, all the doors and shutters are tightly shut and locked.”
I too recall my childhood in the small Spartan village of Molai where I was born. And I remember the happy family, the happy neighborhood, and the happy years of my life in the village.
But, yet again, nostalgia must include algos. The pain.
I do not want to remember the occupation of Greece by the Germans and Italians during World War II. And of course, I don’t want to remember the years of Greek civil conflict, during which Greek Communists cut off both hands and both legs of my older brother Mitch, and threw him into an earthen hole to die alone in the hills where he had loved to run his horse and dogs.
I find an eerie echo of this algos in Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural evocation of our own internecine strife: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” The old ballad plays for my two homelands.
The promise of youth, even those for whom the contemplation of nostalgia is as alien as a dissection lab, is our greatest hope for a better era.
And what of the young assistant professor who learned the “anatomy” of nostalgia? I sent him to see the chancellor, who called to tell me that he was an excellent faculty member. I forgot about him, until the chancellor called again and told me that he had been promoted.
Archbishop Iakovos reached a farther shore on April 10, replete with 93 years of service to the world. My brother Mitch was cut down in his fourth decade, his last journey one of terror and pain. I am full of nostalgia for Iakovos, for Mitch, for the myriad receding silhouettes who have returned home. My hope is that they all returned happily home.