Sehnsucht

2 Dec

Well, it has finally happened.  One of my faithful readers has protested and asked me to please, for the love of God! stop writing about her.  She has declared a moratorium (her word) on my detailing her life and times.  So I will respect her wishes and not mention her again until I run out of other people to talk about.
 

So you know what they say: The small-minded talk about people; the ordinary talk about events, but the brilliant people discuss ideas.  So let’s all be brilliant this evening. 

The great word of the day is “Sehnsucht.”  It is German and it has no equivalent in English.  There is no translation.  It refers to an inconsolable longing, a yearning.  The more C.S. Lewis I read (and I thought I had read a lot, but I didn’t realize how prolific the gentleman was.  that’s what happens when you are unmarried like he was and I am and you don’t have anyone to talk to at night so you just write and write.  Because I just have some things to say and I work out my thinking by writing.  thank you for your kind indulgence of me.)  
 
Back to Sehnsucht.  C.S. describes the phenomenon in several of his (many) works.
 
From The Pilgrim’s Regress:
it’s “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a 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.”
 
(For others who, like me, don’t know the opening lines to Kubla Khan by heart:
In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately Pleasure-Dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.)
 
And from The Weight of Glory

“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find ourselves in 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 revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at it ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.  We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience…

We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light.  What we feel then has been well described by Keats as “the journey homeward to habitual self.”  You know what I mean.  For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world.  Now we wake to find that it is no such thing.  We have been mere spectators.  beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us.  We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.  We may go when we please, we may stay if we can.”

I think that I have always suffered from a case of Sehnsucht.  I feel it in the fall and in Far West Texas.  It’s the ache while dropping my son off at camp for two weeks or my baby at preschool.  Having a daughter who is, at eight, almost as tall as I am.  I suppose mothers suffer it at every milestone.

I always feel it sharply in Springtime (This is how I interpret T.S. Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead ground, mixing memory and desire”), certain melodies evoke it – especially the wistful violin in a song like “Night Swimming.”  It’s everything that is heartbreakingly beautiful on its surface, but tainted with the already-fading and you just can’t hold onto it.  It’s already gone.  There are strains of melancholy, although it isn’t necessarily sad.  It’s bittersweet, but like Big Head Todd sings, “more sweet than bitter.”  It’s coming home and it’s leaving home.

I wonder if I am the only one who thinks about things like this.  Do you all know this phenomonenon?  Is it something non-sentimentalists acknowledge?  Because the minute I heard Lewis describe it, I recognized it.  I would know it anywhere.

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2 Responses to “Sehnsucht”

  1. Kim December 2, 2010 at 3:42 am #

    Not only do I recognize it, I am living it, I think!

  2. MCM December 2, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Claire,
    I’m glad there’s a word for it, in whatever language. And I feel it at old house sites, when a brick or a fence shard turns up, echoing what was there and won’t be again. Just a wistfulness and hint that somehow the train went by and you never saw it. Sehnsucht…..that works. Thank you.

    When you’ve maxed out on Lewis, try some G.K.Chesterton (what is it with the Brits and initials? Are they ashamed of their names?)…..Mental provocation with more whimsy.

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