Sehnsucht

Sehnsucht

Sehnsucht is a German noun translated as ‘longing,’ ‘yearning’ and ‘craving,’ or in a wider sense a type of ‘intensely missing.’ The word is almost impossible to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state. Its meaning is somewhat similar to the Portuguese word, ‘saudade.’ The stage director and author Georg Tabori called Sehnsucht one of those quasi-mystical terms in German for which there is no satisfactory corresponding term in another language.

The term is a compound word, originating from an ardent longing or yearning (‘das Sehnen’) and addiction (‘die Sucht’). However, these words do not adequately encapsulate the full meaning of their resulting compound, even when considered together.

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 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.

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, 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, as in Walt Whitman’s closing lines to ‘Song of the Universal’:

Is it a dream?

Nay but the lack of it the dream,

And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream

And all the world a dream.

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