Sehnsucht ~a word for when words have failed me
English is a fabulous language but sometimes we simply do not have a single word for a complex concept. That’s when we need other languages to express some of these ideas succinctly.
I’m going through a lot of very abstract thoughts right now and I’ve been able to fall back on German for one of these thought-streams. The other word is an old Celtic word and in my ponderings the two are linked (but we’ll get to that later in another post) Big thanks to Wiki for the definition.
The first word is Sehnsucht. Sehnsucht is a Germannoun translated as “longing”, “yearning”, or “craving”,or in a wider sense a type of “intensely missing”. However,Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state.
Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as “life’s longings”; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. Such feelings are usually profound, and tend to be accompanied by both positive and negative feelings. This produces what has often been described as an ambiguous emotional occurrence.
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, and 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. 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.
My own personal experience of Sehnsucht can perhaps be expressed using a passage I wrote on a beach some years back, when I was battling with the need to write the third book in the series begun with The Bet. Apart from the fact that at the time I had no idea of publishing myself, it seemed a huge waste of time writing a second sequel, so I couldn’t bring myself to even start to write a book that no one might ever read. I was at a low ebb.
“I look for you in every stranger’s face I see. Sometimes I think I see your eyes, your hair, your mouth. I wait to hear your voice when the phone rings, or see you across a crowded café. Hopeless. You’re not real. You don’t exist. I created you, your world.
“And yet. And yet I feel you out there, alive and real as the stones, the shingle that crunches beneath my feet, or the waves that roar and sigh as they hit the shore. I made you up, and yet you haunt me. Yours is not a tale told by an idiot. It’s real. Somewhere, somehow, both you and your world are real. I’m looking for the door so I can step in and join you. So far the only door is my computer screen.
“What are these insane longings for things that can never be?”
So, currently I am being bothered by the intensest of Senhsucht, and I’m fighting hard to fathom just what I am longing for. I’m haunted by some images, some nebulous, will-o’-the-wisp ideas that vanish the moment I try to look more closely. I see a book, a magical, mysterious old book, bound in leather, hand made and chunky, the contents of which I cannot quite see or guess. Is it a book I must find? Is it a book I must read?
Or more worryingly, is it a book I must write?