C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

C. S. Lewis, his worlds, and his faith.

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C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Sep 06, 2016 3:00 pm

C.S. Lewis, in The Last Battle, wrote:It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried:

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia so much is because it sometimes looked a little like this."


Sehnsucht is a German word that means "yearning" or "intensely missing", and it is a concept that figures prominently in C.S. Lewis's work. Wikipedia attempts to define it thus:

  • 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.

We see this appear in many different ways in The Chronicles of Narnia. To name a few: Caspian's longing for the Old Days, Shasta's yearning for the North, Emeth's unsconscious quest for Aslan, Puddleglum's plainspoken defense against the Lady of the Green Kirtle's enchantment, and—perhaps most powerfully of all—Reepicheep's fierce, fearless yearning to seek the end of the world and Aslan's Country.

In the afterword of the third addition of The Pilgrim's Regress, Lewis described things that evoked the feeling of sehnsucht in him:

C.S. Lewis wrote: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


I imagine that experiences of sehnsucht are somewhat unique to individuals. I've often experienced a fierce, inexplicable longing when I look at a beautiful sky and shining clouds—I lose myself, the world falls away. I've felt it when listening to certain strains of music or when reading a line in a book that makes me feel as though the author knew some secret of my soul that I had forgotten. There have even been rare times when I felt like I had stumbled upon a portal to another dimension, until the spell was broken. (You can imagine how someone like Lewis, who experienced sehnsucht so strongly, might come to write stories about slipping in and out of different worlds.)

This thread was inspired by a post by Reepicheep775 in Talk About Narnia, who shared this in his remarks:

Reepicheep775 wrote:It kind of surprises me how little sehnsucht is talked or written about (there isn't even an English equivalent!). Obviously, I only have my own experiences to go by, but like Lewis, it feels like the most important thing I've ever experienced.


It does indeed feel like that... I find myself wanting to search everywhere to recapture it, longing to go back to the places where it happened before, but as the Professor says that the end of LWW: it is the sort of thing that happens when you're not looking for it.
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby narnia fan 7 » Sep 06, 2016 7:54 pm

I believe sehnsucht is what Lewis called "Joy.
C.S. Lewis wrote:It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?...Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse... withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased... In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else... The quality common to the three experiences... is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again...

This idea of joy is, I think one of the reason why the Chronicles have stuck with me, and are so important to me on a personal level. It wasn't until about five or six years ago when I overheard someone talking about Lewis' autobiography Surprised by Joy and His idea of Joy that I realised that the fleeting sense of longing that certain things awake in you wasn't exclusive to me. I remember first reading that part I quoted above, and thinking it was kind of uncanny it was like he was describing my own experiences.

I know that I experienced this before I read the any of Lewis' work but then I just thought of it as being happy, once I was introduced to Narnia I started referring to it in my head is something being "Narnien" I think because I first really noticed this sensation in winter after a snow storm I remember just looking out the window and being overcome with longing and the first thing I thought of was Narnia.
“I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.”
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby Reepicheep775 » Sep 07, 2016 9:40 am

Great idea for a thread!

Since posting in the other thread, I've thought more about why on earth this topic isn't discussed more in conversation and writing and I've came up with a few possibilities.

1) It isn't universal. Somehow I doubt this, but it certainly is possible that not everyone experiences sehnsucht or maybe even very few experience it. As I said in the other thread, the few times I've talked about this with other people, they've all expressed similar feelings. So I have a very small sample size, but it's been 100% positive so far.

2) People truly believe they are the only ones. Those feelings are just an inexplicable idiosyncrasy with no real relevance to life. Honestly, if I hadn't read Lewis, I wonder if I would think this way. With so few people talking about this, there's no reason to think it isn't peculiar to you. Like narnia fan 7, I found Lewis's writings uncanny when I read them, like he had peeked into my soul and wrote about what he saw.

3) People simply don't want to talk about them. These feelings are very personal. To me, at least, they are the most personal - my deepest level - and I wouldn't share them with just anyone. I can see why there would be a hesitation to want to talk about that because it lays you bare. It's the ultimate secret and revealing it leaves you feeling vulnerable. In SC, when Jill and Eustace are talking about Narnia, Jill "felt curiously shy" and Eustace "felt terribly awkward" and "got red in the face". Later, when Jill suspects Eustace is teasing her, she becomes so fierce that "for the moment she looked like a tigress". I think there could also be a hesitation for fear of what people will think. There could be a similar embarrassment that some people have when they admit they love poetry. Or worse, people might think you're mentally unwell. After all, isn't being mentally healthy often described as being "well-adjusted", and if that's the case isn't feeling like you belong in another place, another world, the ultimate maladjustment? There's a fear that people will look at you like you're crazy and the funny thing is, is that you're more likely to get a "What, you too?!" than a funny look. At least that has been my experience.

And finally, this is a passage from C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces that also describes sehnsucht quite well:

C. S. Lewis wrote:"What is it?" said I, looking down at her lap where our four hands were joined.

"This," she said, "I have always - at least, ever since I can remember - had a kind of longing for death."

"Ah, Psyche," I said, "have I made you so little happy as that?"

"No, no, no," she said. "You don't understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine . . . where you couldn't see Glome or the palace.

Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn't (not yet) come and I didn't know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home."
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Sep 07, 2016 9:20 pm

Thank you very much for posting that quote about Joy, narnia fan 7! I had meant to include it in my opening post and I forgot. (Joy is so much easier to say than sehnsucht, too. ;)))

narnia fan 7 wrote:I know that I experienced this before I read the any of Lewis' work but then I just thought of it as being happy, once I was introduced to Narnia I started referring to it in my head is something being "Narnien" I think because I first really noticed this sensation in winter after a snow storm I remember just looking out the window and being overcome with longing and the first thing I thought of was Narnia.


That's such a neat story, and so interesting that you used the word "Narnian" to describe your own experiences of sehnsucht! It makes perfect sense, given that The Chronicles of Narnia are some of the very few stories that are popular in the English-speaking world that are also influenced so heavily by that phenomenon.

That actually makes me think of the scene at the beginning of VDT where Edmund and Lucy are looking at the painting and remarking that it's a very Narnian-looking ship... in some ways it seems like that's almost an active experience of sehnsucht.

Reepicheep775 wrote:1) It isn't universal. Somehow I doubt this, but it certainly is possible that not everyone experiences sehnsucht or maybe even very few experience it.


I rather suspect that it is universal, but that some people are much more conscious of it than others. This is why that when you do discuss it with people, they usually understand what you mean, but it's as if you were putting words to something they had never been able to explain or had examined at length.

I think some people are much more prone to introspection, whereas others are not as likely to analyze their internal experience very much, focusing more on the external world. Lewis was a font of incredible insights into human nature and the nature of God, but I've read that he never learned to drive a car on account of thinking that he was clumsy. People who are more focused on sensory information may not be as focused on the effect that the outer world is having on them, their self, but it still has an effect all the same, and they recognize it when someone else like Lewis puts it into words.

And then, there is the uniqueness of everyone's experiences with sehnsucht—they are of the same kind but often not of the same type. If someone says, "I don't know why this song is making me cry like this, when it makes me feel so happy" and another says, "I looked at a cover of a book and it gave me the strangest feeling", they may not recognize that they are experiencing the same emotional phenomenon. (I'm reminded of how all of the Pevensies had a different reaction to hearing Aslan's name.) And then there is, of course, the issue of whether or not they have the courage to unburden themselves of those feelings at all.

Reepicheep775 wrote:2) People truly believe they are the only ones. Those feelings are just an inexplicable idiosyncrasy with no real relevance to life.


I think that also, in this age of materialism, there is a tendency for people to say when encountering such an emotion, "Wow, I felt so happy and sad and nostalgic for a second there. That was weird. The chemicals in my body must be out of whack." And so they shrug it off and don't pay much mind to it, especially since it's a phenomenon that most people don't talk about.

(And if they did pay attention to it, what good would it do them, without ultimately approaching it from a spiritual lens? If you believe, consciously or unconsciously, that this material world is all that there is and yet you are longing for something beyond what it is able to offer, you are at an impasse. It may be that such an emotion presents a mountain that many are not very interested in climbing.)

Reepicheep775 wrote:3) People simply don't want to talk about them. These feelings are very personal. To me, at least, they are the most personal - my deepest level - and I wouldn't share them with just anyone. I can see why there would be a hesitation to want to talk about that because it lays you bare. It's the ultimate secret and revealing it leaves you feeling vulnerable. In SC, when Jill and Eustace are talking about Narnia, Jill "felt curiously shy" and Eustace "felt terribly awkward" and "got red in the face". Later, when Jill suspects Eustace is teasing her, she becomes so fierce that "for the moment she looked like a tigress".


That conversation behind the gym at Experiment House came into my mind as I was thinking about this topic as well. Can you imagine if Eustace had shared his secret with the wrong person? Talking about sehnsucht is a little like saying, "There, that is where my heart is hidden." In speaking about it, you are entrusting someone else with the surest way to wound you. And then there is the understandable concern that people might think you're a bit mad, too.

Another possibilty occurs to me... it may be that this is not discussed by some because the very experience of sehnsucht is an unpleasant one. Think of Edmund and his sensation of mysterious horror when hearing the name of Aslan for the first time, for instance. For Lewis and those of us posting in this thread, the feeling of sehnsucht is one of both fierce joy and sadness, well worth the pain. And yet since it seems to me to be a way of drawing nearer to God, it also follows that for some people this feeling would be one wholly of pain or even terror, and therefore with all the more reason to brush it off and be quiet about it. What would have happened if someone without Reepicheep's heart had attempted his journey to the end of the world? I think the sweet waves would have felt like fire.

And in the same line as that beautiful quote from Till We Have Faces, I've often wondered why the moments in my life when I was happiest were also accompanied by a hunger for something more... I now wonder if it's because those times are when we are closest to the threshold of the Divine, but it stays just out of reach. How could that be anything but joyful heartbreak? It makes me think of Lucy and Edmund, standing just on the edge of Aslan's Country.

All of this is so very interesting to think about. :ymdaydream: I'd apologize for the length of this post, except I'm not sorry. ;))
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby Reepicheep775 » Sep 10, 2016 5:58 pm

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:I think some people are much more prone to introspection, whereas others are not as likely to analyze their internal experience very much, focusing more on the external world. Lewis was a font of incredible insights into human nature and the nature of God, but I've read that he never learned to drive a car on account of thinking that he was clumsy. People who are more focused on sensory information may not be as focused on the effect that the outer world is having on them, their self, but it still has an effect all the same, and they recognize it when someone else like Lewis puts it into words.

That's a good point. The people I've talked to about this experience have all been introverted and I am as well. Come to think of it, it would generally be more intimidating to talk about it with a more extroverted person.

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:And then, there is the uniqueness of everyone's experiences with sehnsucht—they are of the same kind but often not of the same type. If someone says, "I don't know why this song is making me cry like this, when it makes me feel so happy" and another says, "I looked at a cover of a book and it gave me the strangest feeling", they may not recognize that they are experiencing the same emotional phenomenon. (I'm reminded of how all of the Pevensies had a different reaction to hearing Aslan's name.) And then there is, of course, the issue of whether or not they have the courage to unburden themselves of those feelings at all.


It makes me wonder how varied the triggers for these experiences and the experiences themselves are. I notice a few trends in the type of things that usually trigger sehnsucht - nature, fantastical literature, beautiful moments in a song - but, on the surface at least, it seems like there are plenty of people who don't really go for that kind of thing. The practical type. I always wonder about them. Do they not experience sehnsucht or do they experience it in ways that would be difficult for us to understand or relate to? Or do they just hide it better than anyone?

The Rose-Tree Dryad" wrote:(And if they did pay attention to it, what good would it do them, without ultimately approaching it from a spiritual lens? If you believe, consciously or unconsciously, that this material world is all that there is and yet you are longing for something beyond what it is able to offer, you are at an impasse. It may be that such an emotion presents a mountain that many are not very interested in climbing.)

True. If you don't believe in God or at least some other reality beyond our world, there isn't much choice other than to dismiss the longings as ultimately meaningless. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't stumbled across Lewis's writings...

Reepicheep775 wrote:Another possibilty occurs to me... it may be that this is not discussed by some because the very experience of sehnsucht is an unpleasant one. Think of Edmund and his sensation of mysterious horror when hearing the name of Aslan for the first time, for instance. For Lewis and those of us posting in this thread, the feeling of sehnsucht is one of both fierce joy and sadness, well worth the pain. And yet since it seems to me to be a way of drawing nearer to God, it also follows that for some people this feeling would be one wholly of pain or even terror, and therefore with all the more reason to brush it off and be quiet about it. What would have happened if someone without Reepicheep's heart had attempted his journey to the end of the world? I think the sweet waves would have felt like fire.

Oh, wow. I had never considered that before. Meditate on this, I will.

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:All of this is so very interesting to think about. :ymdaydream: I'd apologize for the length of this post, except I'm not sorry. ;))

Haha, yeah no need to apologize. It's nice to have other people as interested in this topic as I am. :ymhug:
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Sep 13, 2016 5:11 pm

Okay, I've been turning this back and forth in my mind for a couple of days and have started approaching it from more of a psychological angle, and I think I may have stumbled across some new insights...

Reepicheep775 wrote:It makes me wonder how varied the triggers for these experiences and the experiences themselves are. I notice a few trends in the type of things that usually trigger sehnsucht - nature, fantastical literature, beautiful moments in a song - but, on the surface at least, it seems like there are plenty of people who don't really go for that kind of thing. The practical type. I always wonder about them. Do they not experience sehnsucht or do they experience it in ways that would be difficult for us to understand or relate to? Or do they just hide it better than anyone?


Some members of my family members are introverted like me, but they're also the more practical type. Well, in general. They have their impractical idiosyncrasies, but unlike me, they are much less likely to walk into a telephone pole because they are so distracted by their thoughts. (Ow.) That's not to say that they are not also moved by beautiful nature scenes or lovely music, but they are more focused on pragmatic things and tend to live more in the moment as compared to me.

So—rather amused at the color rising in my cheeks, just like Eustace—I tried to interview them about this phenomenon, taking care to use broader terms to broach the topic rather than frame it in my own experience. (Mine is so similar to C.S. Lewis's and I didn't want to throw them off track by referencing it in a way that didn't apply to them.) While I feel like I've barely begun to unpack this idea with them, I did get some interesting feedback from my mother. Curiously, it reminded me of a passage from The Last Battle about Jill, who I have always categorized as having the same personality type as my mom:

C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle wrote:[Jewel] talked of whole centuries in which all Narnia was so happy that notable dances and feasts, or at most tournaments, were the only things that could be remembered, and every day and week had been better than the last. And as he went on, the picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill's mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill onto a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and cornfields, which spread away and away till it got thin and misty from distance. And she said:

"Oh, I do hope we can soon settle the Ape and get back to those good, ordinary times. And then I hope they'll go on forever and ever and ever. Our world is going to have an end some day. Perhaps this one won't. Oh Jewel—wouldn't it be lovely if Narnia just went on and on—like what you said it has been?"

"Nay, sister," answered Jewel, "all worlds draw to an end, except Aslan's own country."

"Well, at least," said Jill, "I hope the end of this one is millions of millions of millions of years away—hallo! what are we stopping for?"


When my mother talks about when she has been happiest, I have noticed that those feelings for her were usually accompanied by a thought of oh, let this go on forever. There's always that thread of sadness running through it over the impermanence of the present, profound joy. I rather think that my mother and Jill are experiencing sehnsucht in these moments—that there is an awareness that they are in the presence of divine things, things that should rightfully be eternal.

Notice what is different from C.S. Lewis and you and me and narnia fan 7, though: there is a longing, but it is not the longing for another world. It is a longing grounded in the present. Jewel even says to Jill that the only world which will last forever is Aslan's Country, but she is instead focused on the preservation of Narnia. If Reepicheep had heard Jewel say that same thing, his existing Narnian home would have faded into the background amidst his piercing desire to see Aslan's Country.

And I think this leads us to the psychological underpinnings of what is happening: some personality types tend to be more focused on the effect that the external world is having on them at present, whereas others are more focused on the underlying causes of what is happening around them, the meaning of it, at the expense of being fully present in the moment. Think of Jill and her feelings about the picture of all those happy years—she is focusing on the effect that Jewel's stories are having on her and her desire to capture and preserve it. But Reepicheep, when listening to the dryad's verse as a young mouse, is enchanted by it and spends the rest of his life trying to discover what the verse and his enchantment means, and that's where the "made for another world" thinking comes from.

(It made me smile when I read that part of VDT the other day—I think Lewis would be quite amused to know that "Reepicheep" and "a dryad" were discussing sehnsucht in 2016. ;)))

I feel like this is only scratching the psychological surface of the sehnsucht experience, though. In Jungian/Meyers-Briggs terms, Jill's and Reepicheep's encounters with sehnsucht would seem to reflect types that use the dominant functions of Introverted Sensing and Introverted Intution. (You and I both share the latter dominant function, which could explain why our impressions of sehnsucht are so similar.) There are six other dominant functions that I can't account for at this time.

For instance, what about a character like Trumpkin? If he had ever experienced sehnsucht before he met Aslan, I get the strong sense that he was completely oblivious to it. And this isn't the case of an evil soul encountering the Divine and shying away from it, either. So that's another personality that is yet to be unraveled... and like you, I find the task of trying to talk to some personalities about it to be a little daunting. It's the sort of thing that's easier to talk about alone behind a gym, and many people would rather be active doing something concrete than talk about abstract ideas. Curiosity may eventually win out against that timidity, though. :-?

Reepicheep775 wrote:If you don't believe in God or at least some other reality beyond our world, there isn't much choice other than to dismiss the longings as ultimately meaningless. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't stumbled across Lewis's writings...


Same here. And since sehnsucht can rise up out of nowhere, sometimes from the most ordinary things relating to the simplest of memories, you don't always immediately associate it with God or religion. If it hadn't been for Lewis and Narnia, it would have likely taken me much longer to begin to understand this.
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby Lady Arwen » Sep 13, 2016 6:39 pm

Rosie wrote:Jewel even says to Jill that the only world which will last forever is Aslan's Country, but she is instead focused on the preservation of Narnia. If Reepicheep had heard Jewel say that same thing, his existing Narnian home would have faded into the background amidst his piercing desire to see Aslan's Country.


Taking off on your psychological direction, there is too the thought that age or personal experience might play a role in how one interprets such longing, or even in what creates sehnsucht in an individual. Jill is still very much a child, while Reepicheep was much older (although his longing seems to have originated in childhood). For Reepicheep, his longing had evolved from a song, something he had in no doubt reflected on for a long time, but had never experienced, whereas Jill was reflecting back on something she had already experienced as being better than her own world (because, I too would have quite a longing for Narnia if I were stuck at a stuffy boarding school). I suppose what I am trying to say is it seems Reepicheep's sehnsucht had grown and evolved, while Jill's was relatively new: she was only aware of it once she experienced it. If she had continued to grow up in our world, or had even stayed in the world of Narnia, perhaps hers would have evolved, too.
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby King_Erlian » Sep 14, 2016 3:17 am

Reepicheep775 wrote:
If you don't believe in God or at least some other reality beyond our world, there isn't much choice other than to dismiss the longings as ultimately meaningless. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't stumbled across Lewis's writings...

Some atheists have recognised this. On a sci-fi form recently, there's been some discussion about Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and the "Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything" being revealed to be 42: Adams, as an atheist, was basically saying that metaphysics is meaningless and any attempt to find meaning or purpose in life is a waste of time (in this case, 17.5 million years).
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Sep 14, 2016 12:13 pm

Hey Wren and Erlian! Welcome to the discussion. :D

Lady Arwen wrote:I suppose what I am trying to say is it seems Reepicheep's sehnsucht had grown and evolved, while Jill's was relatively new: she was only aware of it once she experienced it. If she had continued to grow up in our world, or had even stayed in the world of Narnia, perhaps hers would have evolved, too.


That's a very good point and I definitely agree with you to some degree. (I'm really using the Narnian characters more for metaphorical convenience than as textbook examples of particular psychological phenomena.) It's not at all that some personalities never ponder on the causality of these feelings, but rather that they don't have the tendency, from an early age, to approach it from that angle. There is a very good chance that someone like Jill will develop more of that perspective as they age... just as I hope that I'll eventually develop a greater ability to live in the moment and stop walking into things. ;))

I think this explains why a lot of people identify with C.S. Lewis's ideas about being "made for another world", even if they did not personally experience those feelings themselves exactly as C.S. Lewis himself did, and at the early age that he did. (If that were common, I feel like we would have an English word for sehnsucht by now.) I get the sense that for many people, it's one of those things where they feel like they had always known it deep down on some level, but had never really thought about it or put it into words before, whereas Lewis was one of the few prominent English-speaking writers who had actually done so.

Regardless of age and development, though, I think people still have a preferred, primary mode of perception, if you will. My mom still generally experiences (what I am theorizing to be) sehnsucht very similarly to Jill in that quote, whereas I was experiencing sehnsucht much more like Reepicheep ("the spell of it has been on me all my life") from an age quite a bit younger than Jill's sixteen years in The Last Battle.

King Erlian wrote:On a sci-fi form recently, there's been some discussion about Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and the "Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything" being revealed to be 42: Adams, as an atheist, was basically saying that metaphysics is meaningless and any attempt to find meaning or purpose in life is a waste of time (in this case, 17.5 million years).


... I find I have a rather hard time not taking that kind of worldview a little personally. :P So much of my natural focus is geared towards seeking out the meaning of things, very often in the metaphysical realm; it feels like my default setting. It would be difficult to not feel like my brain was wired improperly if I looked at reality that way, and it would be hard to know what to make of life if the things that felt the most meaningful and important to me were illegitimatized. When Lewis approached reality as meaningless during his atheist years, he had a rather grim, despairing view of life.

All that said, I have read that bit from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy before, and I will say that it's hilarious. ;))
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby King_Erlian » Sep 15, 2016 3:52 am

I agree, Rose. I think I'm also rather a Reepicheep kind of character in this regard. Even at the age of 5, I thought it was illogical that a universe as huge, as complex and as wonderful as this could just have appeared randomly for no reason. Last night I saw an item on the news about the Gaia space telescope that will allow us to see something like one billion stars, as well as new space phenomena that we've never even thought of before. And to think that God's even bigger than that...!
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby Lady Arwen » Sep 15, 2016 9:25 pm

Rosie wrote:(If that were common, I feel like we would have an English word for sehnsucht by now.)


We do. Sehnsucht. :P or saudade. Because, you know, "English follows other languages into dark alleys, knocks them out, then goes through their pockets for loose grammar." Kidding aside, with the exception of words like "smad" (which in my opinion is a stupid word), English often borrows its words from other languages instead of trying to invent its own. But then again, that makes your point even stronger--usually, we borrow several different words from different languages to express the same feeling--so why haven't we done so here?

I fairly sure I could wax eloquent on whatever socio-linguistic phenomenon this represents, but I'm not sure that would be helpful.

Ok, fine, I can't resist.

I wonder if perhaps such a word didn't develop because, historically, the English tend to explore and subjugate. Perhaps their response to such feels was to go off and explore--basically, they interpreted the longing for Elsewhere as "Anywhere But Here". Perhaps that is why so many of the explorers pre-Lewis' era returned and became grumpy old men (if they survived, that is). Perhaps the Germans took a more philosophical bent--instead of going out and trying to find the place where they did not feel a longing, they instead started to look at why they felt that way. Lewis would, I think, identify more with the latter than the former.

Plus, too, I think Lewis had a knack of writing very complex things in fairly easy to understand and contemplate ways. Obviously, Narnia was created for children, so long rarely-used words would be less than helpful, but in his other writings, he does seem to be as clear and concise as he can (unlike other philosophy minded people who seem to relish making their ideas inaccessible to the average reader). Thus, even if he was aware of such a word, he would most likely avoid borrowing it from the other language (Foucault is one I can think of who would borrow words) and attempted to explain them, instead.
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby coracle » Sep 16, 2016 4:28 am

The Welsh word "hiraeth" seems very close to the meaning - but is usually linked to longing for home. Our word "homesickness" just doesn't do the same job, does it!
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby Reepicheep775 » Sep 16, 2016 8:59 am

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:And I think this leads us to the psychological underpinnings of what is happening: some personality types tend to be more focused on the effect that the external world is having on them at present, whereas others are more focused on the underlying causes of what is happening around them, the meaning of it, at the expense of being fully present in the moment. Think of Jill and her feelings about the picture of all those happy years—she is focusing on the effect that Jewel's stories are having on her and her desire to capture and preserve it. But Reepicheep, when listening to the dryad's verse as a young mouse, is enchanted by it and spends the rest of his life trying to discover what the verse and his enchantment means, and that's where the "made for another world" thinking comes from.

That actually makes a lot of sense. I can see remember hearing similar sentiments from the more practical people that I know, now that I think of it. And thinking of it from that angle, I can imagine a lot more people experiencing sehnsucht than if I narrowly stuck to the type of experience that Lewis and the people in this thread have described.

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:(It made me smile when I read that part of VDT the other day—I think Lewis would be quite amused to know that "Reepicheep" and "a dryad" were discussing sehnsucht in 2016. ;)))

Haha indeed. ;)

Lady Arwen wrote:Taking off on your psychological direction, there is too the thought that age or personal experience might play a role in how one interprets such longing, or even in what creates sehnsucht in an individual. Jill is still very much a child, while Reepicheep was much older (although his longing seems to have originated in childhood). For Reepicheep, his longing had evolved from a song, something he had in no doubt reflected on for a long time, but had never experienced, whereas Jill was reflecting back on something she had already experienced as being better than her own world (because, I too would have quite a longing for Narnia if I were stuck at a stuffy boarding school). I suppose what I am trying to say is it seems Reepicheep's sehnsucht had grown and evolved, while Jill's was relatively new: she was only aware of it once she experienced it. If she had continued to grow up in our world, or had even stayed in the world of Narnia, perhaps hers would have evolved, too.

I hadn't thought about sehnsucht being something that can develop, but I don't see why that couldn't be the case. My experiences of sehnsucht seem linked to childhood - either from a longing for simpler and happier times that I sometimes think is mere nostalgia or from a sense of wonder that I've retained from childhood. That said, I don't know if I actually experienced sehnsucht as a young child. I mean I've always been attracted to myth and fantasy, but at a young age that attraction didn't necessarily translate into sehnsucht per se. It was just part of the wonders of the world - along with knights, dinosaurs, fish, insects etc. My first clear memory of it was when I was 12 (around the time I started reading Narnia actually :p ).

King_Erlian wrote:Some atheists have recognised this. On a sci-fi form recently, there's been some discussion about Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and the "Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything" being revealed to be 42: Adams, as an atheist, was basically saying that metaphysics is meaningless and any attempt to find meaning or purpose in life is a waste of time (in this case, 17.5 million years).

I've never been an atheist, but I think I can understand the way they think better than a lot of religious people because of my personality (according to MBTI I'm an INTJ - the most likely type to be an atheist :p ). I've often wondered if I would have become one had I not discovered C. S. Lewis. I will never know, but it's interesting and somewhat sobering to think about. If I had become an atheist though, I imagine my outlook on life would be very similar to Lewis's once atheistic outlook as described in Surprised By Joy:

C. S. Lewis wrote:Such, then, was my position: to care for almost nothing but the gods and heroes, the Garden of the Hesperides, Launcelot and the Grail, and to believe in nothing but atoms and evolution and military service.
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Sep 16, 2016 6:08 pm

Ditto, Erlian! Sometimes I find that the things that some atheists feel disprove the existence of God can actually be strong arguments for the existence of God.

That's really interesting about that Welsh word, coracle! I had never heard of that before. Apparently the Galicians have morriña, the Romanians have dor, and the Ethiopians have tizita.

Lady Arwen wrote:We do. Sehnsucht. :P or saudade. Because, you know, "English follows other languages into dark alleys, knocks them out, then goes through their pockets for loose grammar." Kidding aside, with the exception of words like "smad" (which in my opinion is a stupid word), English often borrows its words from other languages instead of trying to invent its own. But then again, that makes your point even stronger--usually, we borrow several different words from different languages to express the same feeling--so why haven't we done so here?


We're linguistic pirates! :ar! I didn't know that "smad" existed until just now. I hope you're happy. :P

That's an interesting theory about why English and German experiences of sehnsucht differ. I do remember reading something about the difference between American and German experiences of sehnsucht on its Wikipedia article:

    In a cross-cultural study conducted to determine whether the German concept of Sehnsucht could be generalized to the United States, four samples of American and German participants "rated their 2 most important life longings and completed measures of subjective well-being and health." German and American participants did not differ in their ability to identify life longings or the intensity of their Sehnsucht. However, German participants associated it more with unattainable, utopian states while Americans reported the concept as not as important to everyday life.

I find it really odd that we haven't had a need to spirit away sehnsucht into our own dictionaries, but perhaps your theory is a good explanation. (I'm reminded of how even though Lewis grappled with these intense longings all his life, he seldom traveled.)

It also occurs to me that even though we have quite a few German loan words in English—doppelganger, kindergarten, angst, et cetera—I haven't been able to find any with the "cht" element in sehnsucht, aside from echt, and I'd never even heard of that before. It's possible that we just never had the vocal ability to effectively import it into our language.

While I fully understand why Lewis chose to call it Joy—it seems to deserve that word more than any other use of it—I feel like it would have been an uphill battle for it to catch on in the public imagination because there were so many established ideas about what the word meant. If I were trying to introduce the concept to an English-speaking audience, with English words.... Hmm. I think I might call it something like "mystic nostalgia" or "preternatural nostalgia" or even "ethereal nostalgia". It's really hard to capture the scope of it in succinct terms, though. =/

Reepicheep775 wrote:I hadn't thought about sehnsucht being something that can develop, but I don't see why that couldn't be the case. My experiences of sehnsucht seem linked to childhood - either from a longing for simpler and happier times that I sometimes think is mere nostalgia or from a sense of wonder that I've retained from childhood. That said, I don't know if I actually experienced sehnsucht as a young child. I mean I've always been attracted to myth and fantasy, but at a young age that attraction didn't necessarily translate into sehnsucht per se. It was just part of the wonders of the world - along with knights, dinosaurs, fish, insects etc. My first clear memory of it was when I was 12 (around the time I started reading Narnia actually :p ).


That's very interesting. :-? I've been trying to mentally catalogue my own experiences with sehnsucht since this discussion began, and the earliest one I can recall was from when I was eight to nine. It was very much a primordial, looking-in-the-glass-darkly type of thing, but it was the beginning, and it was linked with memories from when I was small. My more fully-formed, startling, impossible-to-ignore experiences with it were when I was around eleven to twelve.

... Which was also when I started reading Narnia. There's something strange about those books, I tell you! :P I don't remember initially associating the feeling with Narnia, though, although I might have if I had read all of the books at that age instead of just MN and LWW. (HarperCollins chronological order.... [-()

I imagine a psychologist would have something to say about the stage of psychological development here. Even from my own perspective, though, I can guess that it might have something to do with being old enough to know that you've lost something as you start to exit childhood, as well as old enough to begin to perceive something that's greater than and far beyond your own sphere of experience.

That C.S. Lewis quote... talk about your soul being torn in half! Dreadful. :(
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby Lady Arwen » Sep 17, 2016 2:54 pm

I don't think I'll swing too wide into the atheism debate, as it is a bit at-risk for taking us off topic (but discussing Lewis' atheistic years might be an interesting topic for another thread!) but being in the scientific community, I've often found that everything requires some measure of faith. I quite liked how the writers of Bones put it, where a devout muslim scientist explained that there is no conflict between God and science: God created the world, "and science struggles, and mostly fails, to explain it. But the search for truth is honorable." To me, it honestly depends on which route of logic you take to explain something--it really depends on which concepts and premises you choose to form your argument upon.

Hiraeth is quite a pretty word, Auntie. I almost want to steal it and give it to someone as a name. ;))

Rosie wrote:I didn't know that "smad" existed until just now. I hope you're happy.


Very. I like your English standards. I also hope you elect to use "peckish" instead of "hangry".

Rosie wrote:It also occurs to me that even though we have quite a few German loan words in English—doppelganger, kindergarten, angst, et cetera—I haven't been able to find any with the "cht" element in sehnsucht, aside from echt, and I'd never even heard of that before.


I've never heard of echt, either. ;)) I have heard people use saudade in an "english-ized" way (so-dahd, vs so-dah-tjay), and now that you mention it, "sehnsucht" sounds almost coarse to the English ear--the cht sound is not compelling, and might be associated more with a not-happy meaning (especially if this pronunciation is correct!). Doppelganger, kindergarten, and angst don't have that frustrating sound, or if they do have a frustrating sound, it properly reflects the meaning--angst does sound like a very angsty word!

While I fully understand why Lewis chose to call it Joy...I feel like it would have been an uphill battle for it to catch on in the public imagination.... I think I might call it something like "mystic nostalgia" or "preternatural nostalgia" or even "ethereal nostalgia".


I think one might have more success separating the concept of Joy from the concept of Happy than getting preternatural nostalgia to catch on, personally. ;))

Reepicheep775 wrote:My first clear memory of it was when I was 12 (around the time I started reading Narnia actually)


Rosie wrote:My more fully-formed, startling, impossible-to-ignore experiences with it were when I was around eleven to twelve. ...Which was also when I started reading Narnia.


I find it interesting that you both seemed to experience it around the beginning of the coming-of-age period. The thought that it has something to do with the growing awareness of one's surroundings and what might be beyond that seems like a logical explanation to me.
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Re: C.S. Lewis and the Experience of Sehnsucht

Postby Reepicheep775 » Sep 17, 2016 3:24 pm

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:That's very interesting. :-? I've been trying to mentally catalogue my own experiences with sehnsucht since this discussion began, and the earliest one I can recall was from when I was eight to nine. It was very much a primordial, looking-in-the-glass-darkly type of thing, but it was the beginning, and it was linked with memories from when I was small. My more fully-formed, startling, impossible-to-ignore experiences with it were when I was around eleven to twelve.

... Which was also when I started reading Narnia. There's something strange about those books, I tell you! :P I don't remember initially associating the feeling with Narnia, though, although I might have if I had read all of the books at that age instead of just MN and LWW. (HarperCollins chronological order.... [-()

I don't think it's a coincidence that our first clear memories of sehnsucht occurred after reading Narnia. I'm starting to remember some earlier moments as well that might be considered sehnsucht, but it isn't clear cut. I think Lewis's writings really put that experience in focus because now whenever I have the experience, I think (maybe not during it, but shortly after) something along the lines of "Oh, yes. This is like what Reepicheep felt when the dryad sung him the verse". If I hadn't read Narnia, I wouldn't have that frame of reference and might be more likely to shrug it off. Maybe that partly explains why people are so silent about this? It seems strange that something can be so profound and yet so subtle as to fly under the radar like that. :-\

Lady Arwen wrote:I find it interesting that you both seemed to experience it around the beginning of the coming-of-age period. The thought that it has something to do with the growing awareness of one's surroundings and what might be beyond that seems like a logical explanation to me.

Indeed. Also - and I know I don't speak for everyone's childhood - but my own was so full of wonder, happiness, and simplicity that maybe I simply didn't feel the need to long for something else. Just a thought. Obviously my childhood memories aren't the clearest and are no doubt seen through rose-coloured glasses.
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