Sehnsucht ~ a word for when words have failed me

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?

16 thoughts on “Sehnsucht ~ a word for when words have failed me

  1. Artists, writers, never rest in certainty, they create.
    The ideal we project our yearning (Sehnsucht) onto is only a means to move towards the source, which is wrapped in a multitude of marvels.
    Speaking of my own process … yes, if a book appears in your imagination, even if its contents is hidden, yes, I guess you’ll have to allow it to emerge through your writing ☼


  2. Great piece Viv – certainly something I can identify with. When I am at my lowest I do feel as if something is missing, whilst knowing at the same time my life is, essentially, a blessed one. I know I long for something – but what? If I do find this missing piece, will I simply experience a longing for something else? Am I simply terminally dissatisfied? Guilt ensues. Just work it though I think – your writing is philosophical in a way mine has never been and I am confident that your love of all languages will support you in your search. x


  3. Sehnsucht is one of my favourite German words, so thank you for writing about it. I understand your frustration and I hope you find that book or write the book, if you have to, but it was lovely to read about the word that is hard to pin down but can mean us yearning or longing for a person or a place, whether they be real or not. Thank you!


  4. Insightful piece as well as resonant comments… I’ve been listening to John O’Donohue’s “Longing and Belonging” audio collection series which also follows the theme of that-which-is-missing…a spiritual returning to the wild which is absent yet beneath our feet and within every breath. Thank you for sharing. Blessings!


  5. Excellent post, Vivienne.

    I hadn’t heard of Sensucht, and I’m glad that English lets us bring words like that into the fold. Thanks for introducing me to it.

    This idea of words either from other languages–or made up–to express intangibles can have extraordinary power. Like a little vial of liquid wisdom.

    My first real contact with this sort of word was from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a blog on tumblr. The word is sonder. ((n) the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own […])

    I just now discovered the video for sonder created by the guy who writes that blog. it’s amazing. i won’t link to it, but the youtube address is



  6. Thank you for giving me a word for something I felt intensely and very painfully during the first half of my life. I’m studying Jung’s Red Book with friends and yesterday we read this section in which he is calling out to his soul, which he realizes he has lost in his frantic scramble for external acclaim. It resonated powerfully with me.

    Talking about himself he says, “He whose desire turns away from outer things, reaches the place of the soul. If he does not find the soul, the horror of emptiness will overcome him, and fear will drive him with a whip lashing time and again in a desperate endeavor and a blind desire for the hollow things of the world….He will run after all things, and will seize hold of them, but he will not find his soul, since he would find her only in himself.” (p. 129 of the Reader’s Edition.)

    On p. 133 he says, “Scholarliness belongs to the spirit of this time, but this spirit in no way grasps the dream, since the soul is everywhere that scholarly knowledge is not.” I found this last comment to be extremely profound and personally relevant.



      • I wish you could too. It’s extremely helpful. Are there any people interested in Jungian theory where you live? Maybe you could start your own group!


      • I strongly suspect there may be very few. In the city, maybe, but not out in the countryside where I live and as I don’t drive, a problem getting to them!


  7. I came upon this word 30 years ago, probably doing a college paper, and I remember one author describing sehnsucht as “sweet suffering”. And I haven’t seen or heard the word since.

    Some of the searches I just did bring up the word “bittersweet” and “longing”—and I see that C.S. Lewis used it, so that may be where I got it.

    Cool word.


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