Sunday, February 27, 2011


Tonight the internet blew my mind.

My facebook newsfeed showed me that a reader and friend had "liked" a wikipedia article that one of his friends had posted. It was an article on "Sehnsucht" and I was intrigued by the initial description as "almost impossible to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state."

I always love those "impossible to translate" concepts, and if another language had a word for an emotional state that English didn't, that is especially interesting, as I'd wonder, then, if I had ever felt it. I'm less inclined towards the Sapir-Wolf hypothesis than many; I do think language and cultural construction affect thought and emotion in profound ways, but at the same time I think there is a universal human nature regardless of such relativity. And I know I've had emotional experiences accompanied by a bit of frustration given that they were hard to verbalize for the very lack of a word.

All that, and, I'll admit, I was drawn in by wikipedia's cool little "emotions" graphic; it's so colorful, lol:


Well, when I got to the article, I was amazed. It describes the concept of the experience of Sehnsucht as coined, or at least brought into English, by C.S. Lewis.

As I read the description, it in some sense validated all my most profound emotional, spiritual really, experiences in life, and my deepest underlying longing, which I had always thought of as moments of "peak experience," but which I found so hard to convey to others or to verbalize.

I wish I had known this concept existed earlier in my life, as I've always had this exact emotion but never really been able to put it into words except to call it, vaguely, "mood painting," "change of seasons," "golden hour," "nostalgia," "dreamlike," "poignancy," "romanticism," "time distilled," or other such things. I'll try to explain some of those, of my names for it, later in the post, but for now I'd like to just share some quotes from the article to get the sense of it across.

I know exactly what is being discussed here, and I think Lewis describes it aptly. This deeply resonates with me. I wish I had this in my vocabulary earlier and that more people had it in theirs, though, as he says, "I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency." I almost fear that finally being able to verbalize it or discuss it with others like this will ruin the sacred mystery of it.

Sehnsucht took on a particular significance in the work of author C. S. Lewis. Lewis described Sehnsucht as the "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what." In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress he provided examples of what sparked this desire in him particularly:

"That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of 'Kubla Khan,' the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves."
It's interesting, for me, the titles of many famous books are very evocative for me (more evocative than the whole of the literature contained within, perhaps.) The title "East of Eden" I think does this for me, as does "In Search of Lost Time" (that one perhaps especially relevant to this Sehnsucht thing). And I definitely know what he means about the smell of a bonfire and wild ducks (or geese) flying overhead (especially on a cloudy day.)
It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call "home". In this sense it is a type of nostalgia, in the original sense of that word.
I think the point Lewis is getting at is that this is our natural longing for Heaven, which I've certainly always thought and would agree with. But right now, I'm more interested in the particular nuances of this particular emotion, which has so many little ingredients to it.

The feeling of nostalgia or homesickness associated with it is definitely strong, even when I am at home, and yet the "far off country" idea is definitely there too, as it is something I also have felt a lot when traveling in beautiful places, or at least when fantasizing about the idea of travel...
At other times it may seem as a longing for a someone or even a something. But the majority of people who experience it are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be.
Indeed, in my experience it has often been accompanied by the notion of longing for a lover with whom to share this Sehnsucht (inasmuch as it is communicable at all) or for romance to serve as a stimulus for arousing it. For one cannot just choose to feel it, it "appears" at certain moments, albeit there may be a pattern to when it does, often related I think to the sensory environment. I think this notion of wanting "someone" there can definitely be part of its bittersweet tapestry, especially inasmuch as I think a deep existential loneliness is also a part of it often.
Indeed, the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for. Yet though one may not be able to identify just what it is, the experience is one of such significance that ordinary reality may pale in comparison.
Indeed, I think there is a sense while feeling this particular state that this longing itself is what gives meaning to life, is indescribably beautiful (if sadly so) in itself, and that it's elusive fulfillment would constitute the ultimate fulfillment.
The key ingredient of the experience, as Lewis treats it, is that this longing—never fulfilled—is itself sweeter than the fulfillment of any other human desire. Another feature is that it is so deeply personal that it does not occur to the one feeling it that others would have similar experiences and so is rarely communicated verbally. For most people it is something which cannot be put into words. Indeed the present description of Sehnsucht is itself inadequate and is only suggestive of it. Yet, though difficult to define, Lewis maintained that this is a universal experience.
And yet, how glad I am that he at least attempted to, because I know exactly what he's talking about and it has been an incredibly important part of my life, the core of my being really, the organizing principle in the inner sanctum of my emotional life, and yet it is so personal and made of such a precise combination of various threads and elements that I did not think other people had the same thing, nor could I communicate it verbally.
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence
I have called it these names too. The connection adolescence is perhaps especially resonant for me, as it is something I first started feeling (and grappled with intensely) at adolescence, and there is a sense, even as I have now gotten older, that it, whatever it is, was hinted at in literature and film most especially related to the themes of youth and coming of age and loss of innocence.
We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.
This is one reason I have thought of it like a beautiful dream remembered. Because I realized exactly what C.S. Lewis did. Sometimes I've expressed this feeling as a sense that, "Someday I'll wake up, and it will be a Saturday morning in the summer of 1998 again, and I'll be happy." But the experience sought did not really exist in the past, even if my memories of childhood or certain periods of my life, represented by specific images, evoke it. If I went back and lived those moments again, I would not find it there. The longing is specifically in the memory of it, in the distance between now and then, between whom I've become and whom I used to be.

This is also where I got my notion of it as being like "time distilled," for when I look back on periods of my life like "childhood" or "high school" or "college," I can sometimes feel this Sehnsucht from my overview of "the period as a whole." And yet "childhood" was 4000 individual days, some of which were happy, some of which were sad or stressful, many of which were boring I'm sure. And yet, in distilling down 4000 days to that one drop of their "essence" in my memory, I have found this Sehnsucht there sometimes. It is not always the same in its specifics. "High school" has a different "feel" in my head than "college," and yet both, as they slip into the past, have this evocative quality from the very distillation of memory, this very concentration of their collective emotions into one when I "zoom out" and take an "over all" cumulative view of them.
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
I think this is why certain films and music are so beautiful to me, yet also make me so incredibly sad. Sometimes I've even tended to avoid drama in film just because of how intensely it can make me experience this nostalgia, this Sehnsucht.
Another feature of Sehnsucht, as we see in the preceding quote, is that one may have the impression that in childhood we were much closer to a grasp of the object of the Sehnsucht-longing whereas now we have only the remembrance of it, or even merely the shadow of a remembrance. There is regret in that we no longer know what we long for, if we ever did.
Though I think it can come from looking at any period of life, or at least youth (all I've experienced so far), there is definitely as sense, as I've said, that there is a special connection to the simple happiness and wonder and awe of childhood specifically in the experience. This is one of the things that convinced me that this article is talking about a real experience and that I'm not just projecting my own feelings onto vague descriptions.
All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.
Only hints and glimpses indeed. Though, I would think, the state of union, especially in ecstasy, that true mystics achieve perhaps provides some hope for a foretaste of fulfillment even on earth, as would true love, however fleeting. Sometimes, when I feel like I am getting too "at peace," too content with just a plateau of stability in my life, I think I seek out this subtle spice to remind me that there is something more, something that I need to find still.
To the reader who grasps Lewis' meaning and identifies Sehnsucht in his own experience it may come as a surprise to find so little explicit discussion of the Sehnsucht experience in other writers (that is, other than those who are discussing Lewis), whether labeled as "Sehnsucht" or not. (an exception is Sigmund Freud, and, arguably, many religious mystics.) On the rare occasions we do find it, the writers, especially poets, will more often convey the experience as personally significant but are seemingly unaware that it is a universal human experience; they describe their experience as if it were unique to them, with no hint that they expect their hearers to recognize similar feelings.
Indeed, I wish it were written of more!

Though as the article says, it is probably impossible to convey the experience deliberately for others, I'd like to just close by musing on some experiences which I know have caused it for me. I sometimes think of it as the "time passing" or "change of seasons" emotions because I feel it specifically when the weather is changing. Especially going "towards" winter rather than away from it. Late summer when fireflies are out and late autumn especially. Around Christmas in a big city. At the golden hour near dawn and dusk, when it's still light enough outside, but people indoors have started turning their lights on. When there is silence in the beauty of nature. When the moon is full. When I'm a dark church with light streaming through stained-glass in the richest dark blues and red accenting. At the Easter Vigil.

As those examples show, I think for me that levels of light and shadow have a lot to do with it. But not only that, though it's obviously the thread my mind is focusing on now. But it is deeper and more expansive than just that, is subtle and nuanced with all sorts of little elements, and evoked by many experiences too; things that bring me to medieval Ireland, the "idea of" the old Route 66; Highway 1 up the Pacific coast and the "essence of" California; the opening of The Wonder Years; pop music from the late 1990's that I heard on the schoolbus radio;
when bluesy songs are played on the harmonica; and when chastely holding (or, at least, sighing over the rare memory) a beloved.

I wish I had this in my vocabulary earlier and that more people had it in theirs. Gloria in excelsis Deo!


Mark of the Vineyard said...

Apparently it is akin to the Portuguese word "saudade". I think the article on saudade is a bunch of bull, trying to make more out of the term than it really is. I don't know a single Portuguese who understands it like this:

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.

Who Am I said...


You're right, though about the longing for Portugal's glorious past that beats in the heart of EVERY Tuga, perhaps THAT part is true :D

Joshua G. said...

From the pen of Leo Tolstoy:

During that whole year, when I was asking myself almost every moment whether I should not end matters with a noose or a bullet - all that time, together with the course of thought and observation about which I have spoken, my heart was oppressed with a painful feeling, which I can only as a search for God.
I say that that search for God was not reasoning, but a feeling, because that search proceeded not from the course of my thoughts - it was even directly contrary to them - but proceeded from the heart. It was a feeling of fear, orphanage, isolation in a strange land, and a hope of help from someone.
. . .
Or, granting that I be [a fledgeling fallen from its nest], lying on my back crying in the high grass, even then I cry because I know that a mother has borne me within her, has hatched me, warmed me, fed me, loved me. Where is she - that mother? If I have been deserted, who has deserted me?