Wednesday, 9 April 2014


Sehnsucht by Oskar Zwintscher (1870-1916)

German has some awesome words that we just don't have an equivalent for in English. Like schadenfruede ("the pleasure you get from another's pain or misfortune") and gemütlichkeit ("the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you are cozy, a little drunk, and surrounded by friends,") and weltschmerz ("the misery you feel after too much surfing the Net or watching the news, when you become convinced that the whole world has gone irredeemably to ratshit").

Here's one I found out about recently, and I just love it. Because it describes a feeling I've known since childhood, and never had a way of expressing. In fact because its an unlabelled feeling in English, I didn't actually know anybody else ever experienced it. I thought it was just me.

It's sehnsucht:"a deep yearning for something unknown" or, perhaps, "an ecstatic sense of homesickness for a place never actually visited or known to exist." It's not an actual physical place or object that you pine for so intensely. In fact, it can be hard to know what it is you are craving - just that it is out of reach.

The "Blaue Blume" is used as a literary symbol of transcendent longing.
It's a joyous feeling despite the lack of fulfilment. Often it's expressed in terms of a need to "come home" - particularly where that is equated with death. Like this song:

Or this one:

In fact, Tolkien might be the sehnsucht author. His elves are consumed by a bone-deep aching to go West over the sea, to the Undying Lands where they belong.

Tolkien's friend CS Lewis wrote about sehnsucht very consciously. He thought it the strongest and most important drive in his psyche - and eventually equated it with the soul's yearning for God. He described it like this:
"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."
For me personally, the sensation (which was ferocious enough during adolescence that it has to have had a hormonal component) is most strongly associated with landscape. When I first visited the wet Atlantic seaboard woodlands of the Lake District I went into emotional meltdown. But I also remember a dell in my primary school playground - just some trees and daffodils and grass - that had the same resonance. Quality of light is also effective: a clear blue evening, especially when the pink cherry blossom has fallen on the spring grass, makes me dizzy. Autumn as a whole does it for me. Paths that lead into woodland do it - in fact there's one a mile from my house that gets me every bloody time.

It's not this path. But it's a bit like it. And that is sehnsucht in a nutshell...
Some poetry does it too - individual lines from T.S Eliot in particular, though god knows I'm not bright enough to find his actual poems anything but opaque.

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces,

What started me blogging this? Well, my WiP novella series The Wheel of the Year is inspired in part by my experience of reading Lewis, and I'm going to be exploring emotional themes like sehnsucht, I think. My heroine is going back to a place she knew and loved in childhood, so all the feelings associated with the place and with her growing self are welling up again. Only this time, she has an adult perspective ...
I'm interested to see where this'll go.


Jeremy Edwards said...

Two things that sehnsucht feels related to, for me:

1. Feeling wistful about a situation while it's happening. An example, for me, might be enjoying a delightful outdoor party on a beautiful summer evening, with drinks and laughter and a sense of magic, and feeling simultaneously giddy with joy over the atmosphere and a little prematurely nostalgically melancholy over the party's ephemerality.

2. The part of erotic desire that's never really satisfied, no matter how perfect and fulfilling a sexual experience is going to be: the part that knows, going into a sexual experience, that there's a level on which desire hungers for something transcendently and permanently erotic in a way that's beyond the grasp of human sexuality (or at least my human sexuality).

Jo said...

Oh, this is very familiar.

Lexie Bay said...

Oh. ... This just makes sense.... I get this! I didn't know it was a thing :) I feel less sort of weird now!!! I know exactly what you mean, sometimes a place or a moment just makes you feel everything x

Janine Ashbless said...

We are none of us alone, it seems :-)

horsethorn said...

Good to know it's not just me. Is RP/LARP an attempt to find the place that doesn't exist?

Janine Ashbless said...

Jeremy -
1) you are a natural Buddhist
2) That's what erotic fiction is for!

Janine Ashbless said...

I'm sure almost all fantasy is, Horsethorn.

I clearly remember the first time I went on a LARP overland (at 19ish) and my thoughts were "That's it! There *is* a magic door through the back of the Wardrobe! I made it through!"

Nym Nix said...

Wow. You've just described something that I'm intimately familiar with. Especially the way landscape triggers it. I strongly associate it with my writing muse.
Thanks for this post. It was fascinating.(And I have a great new word now.)

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes Nym, strong associations with writing inspiration for me too! :-)

I'm fascinated by the idea that we don't really know what we feel until we have a word for it ... language creates reality.

Anonymous said...

I've had this feeling for the last twenty years but could never put a word to it. I was talking with someone about it last week and joked that there must be at least one language on earth that has a word for it, maybe the Germans? By total chance I stumbled onto this word yesterday. And I'll be damned, it turned out to be German!

So now I'm reading about others experiences and expressions of this feeling now and it's simply amazing. Having a word for it and knowing that others experience it is... a variety of things. Overwhelming. And awesome.

Thanks for writing this blog entry. :) (found it by Googling sehnsucht Zwitnscher)