‘Sehnsucht’ and life’s insatiable longing

How desire for the unattainable is both the inspiration for great art and the catalyst for great sorrow

'Monk by the Sea' by Caspar David Friedrich

Plato presented it as the origin of our desire for partnership and love. The romantics put it at the forefront of an individualistic and idealistic worldview. Christians derived from it the existence of heaven and god. And for Buddhists it forms part of the solution to universal suffering. The German word ‘sehnsucht’ describes an emotion that is difficult to explain and even more challenging to understand.

The dictionary will tell you that ‘sehnsucht’ is an “intense, mostly bittersweet longing for something remote or unattainable that would make life more complete”. But this description is not worthy of the emotion that moved Goethe and Schiller and C. S. Lewis, Schubert and Wagner and Strauss.

‘Sehnsucht’ is yearning and craving, inconsolable longing, infinite dreaming, gazing at the stars. It is sensitive, creative, sad and optimistic, confusing. It is vastness and loneliness, dawn and dusk, an invitation of consolation. It is untranslatable.

Aristophanes, discussing the nature of Eros in Plato’s ‘Symposium’, offers a striking interpretation of love revolving around ‘sehnsucht’. He recounts the old days, when humans still had two heads, four arms and four legs. Zeus, full of fury, cut them into two parts, subjecting them to an endless longing for their other half. Thus, the human desire for a life-long companion was created. But this desire was merely a superficial reaction to a new, dim sense of something beyond our reach. A restless search for completeness had begun. ‘Sehnsucht’ was born.

Eichendorff’s homo viator went on and made ‘sehnsucht’ the centrepiece of a whole artistic, cultural, and intellectual epoch – Romanticism in Germany. With political earthquakes at the horizon, machines invading the workplace, and science infringing on the sanctity of nature, Romantics found refuge in melancholic fantasising. ‘Sehnsucht’ was the emotion for those dreaming more elegantly.

It gave rise to the most beautiful delusions, which lie at the core of what makes us human. It is impossible to stare at Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Monk by the Sea’ without being struck by an endless vastness, both stabbed with despair and lit up by hope. It is impossible to read Brentano’s ‘Abendständchen’ without being overwhelmed by the confusing intermingling of desire, excitement, and futility. Lost in the world searching for everlasting home, ‘sehnsucht’ captured the space between tragedy and promise.

It may well be the case that ‘sehnsucht’ is excellent material for melancholic poetry and ancient fables. But, inevitably, dreaming for the impossible leads to disappointment and sorrow.

Either, we forever linger in nostalgic despair with our actual life or, if, against all likelihood, we do obtain the object of our ‘sehnsucht’, a disappointing realisation comes upon us. The thing we believed to be the missing part of ourselves, once achieved, turns out to be nothing but an empty idol which cannot match the colourful paradise painted by our desires.

Something will always be missing for our happiness to be complete, for our life to seem full. But learning to accept such imperfection and longing is the very first and most important step in our struggle for a happy life.

Only after accepting that life is just as valuable without the perfect relationship, today’s mood will no longer depend on yesterday’s Tinder date. Only once we stop longing for intellectual supremacy, will we realise that 58 is no longer a shameful defeat, but an invitation to approach the next essay differently.

Like most emotional states, ‘sehnsucht’ is not inherently positive or negative. It deserves to be faced as a lifelong companion inviting us to reflect on our lives and grow in character. And once we stop fighting and start listening to ‘sehnsucht’, it holds useful lessons for us.

To the utilitarian, it points out the richness of the human soul. Our emotions, fortunately, are much more multi-faceted than the hedonistic calculus suggests. To the scientist, it teaches the value of uncertainty and ambiguity. About the best poetry, there speaks an atmosphere of infinite suggestion.

To the materialist, it creates an uncomfortable suspicion that the period preceding possession carries an excitement and anticipation no fullness can compare with. To the realist, it emphasises the power of imagination.

To all of us, ‘sehnsucht’ conveys meaning in a way that no other thing can. It is a comforting reminder that the stars are always out there. They may be out of reach and at times even out of sight. But at every moment they hold the promise of a different world, full of colour, sparkle, and depth.