Autumn longing: H.P. Lovecraft

If you haven’t yet read my first post in this series of posts about a special mood of ethereal longing that occasionally overcomes me, then please read that one before this one, since it lays the groundwork to explain what I’m getting at here.

H.P. Lovecraft was an early 20th century American horror author who has long been associated in mainstream memory with Weird Tales and the other 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines that were devoted to fantasy, science fiction, and horror. What has been less well known outside of his relatively small but passionately devoted circle of admirers is that he was also a fantastically prolific epistolarian, an accomplished literary critic, a student of architecture, a devoted antiquarian, an amateur chemist and astronomer, and a philosopher and political theorist of enormous insight and acumen. It is only now, these seven decades after his untimely death in 1937 at the age of 46, that he is beginning to receive mainstream recognition as a classic American author on the level of Poe. (Not incidentally, the many parallels between Poe and Lovecraft are fascinating. Both were preoccupied by moods and themes of beauty, horror, dread, and the gothic sublime. Both were neurotic and emotionally hypersensitive. Both were denied canonical literary status until long after their deaths. Both were first championed by the French literati before achieving widespread critical recognition back in their home country.)

Lovecraft’s most famous literary creation has hitherto been the inaptly named “Cthulhu mythos,” which, as stated in the Wikipedia article by that title, “is the term coined by the writer August Derleth [one of Lovecraft’s literary executors] to describe the shared elements, characters, settings, and themes in the works of H. P. Lovecraft and associated writers.” The mythos is built around the idea of monstrous extracosmic entities who are waging a war against each other, with earth as one of their central battlegrounds. Although Lovecraft did occasionally write about such things, or at least about something resembling them, Derleth and later writers codified and modified his so-called “mythos” in ways that were explicitly un-Lovecraftian, giving it, for example, a pseudo-Christian slant by recasting it in the form of a Manichaean war between “good” entities and “bad” ones. The resulting literary mishmash contributed enormously to the public’s misremembering of Lovecraft as nothing more than a pulp hack who produced a body of b-grade horror stories about tentacular monsters.

Fortunately, a vigorous scholarly movement arose in the 1970s, spearheaded by the precocious young scholar S.T. Joshi, that reclaimed Lovecraft’s memory from the morass of inaccuracies that had come to obscure it. Today, thanks primarily to Joshi and the other scholars involved in the movement, Lovecraft is increasingly being remembered and recognized as the significant literary figure that he truly was and is.

Among the aspects of his character that were obscured by the false image of him that reigned during most of the 20th century, none was more central to his overall personality than his burning sense of sehnsucht (regarding which, see my first post in this series for an explanation). His deep longing for, and exquisite responsiveness to, scenes of natural and architectural beauty which would evoke a piercing sense of “adventurous expectancy,” as he often called it, mingled with a tantalizing sense of deja vu or lost memory, led him to produce many poems and a veritable ocean of letters in which he described and tracked this delicate mood. As with C.S. Lewis’s writings about his own piercing experience of sehnsucht, I find that Lovecraft’s descriptions of the emotion awaken a startling sense of identification within me. I know exactly, precisely, poignantly, what he is talking about when he describes the ethereal sense of longing that arises in connection with certain scenes and seasons to intoxicate him with a sense of imminent revelation and transcendence.

I wrote about this aspect of his personality in my paper “The Masters’ Eyes Shining with Secrets: H.P. Lovecraft and His Influence on Thomas Ligotti,” so for this post about HPL’s experience of sehnsucht, I’ve decided to go ahead and quote a passage from that paper, since it includes several significant excerpts from his writings.

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Lovecraft, as both a human being and an artist, was powerfully shaped by a lifelong experience of sehnsucht. . . . [His] poignant yearning after an experience of absolute beauty can be seen in many of his stories, such as “The Silver Key,” where young Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s fictional alter ego, yearns for a return to the reimagined supernal peace and beauty of his childhood world; and also in his letters and essays, where he speaks repeatedly of finding himself overcome by aesthetic rapture and a sense of longing and “adventurous expectancy” at the sight of sunsets, cloudscapes, winding streets, rooftops angled in certain suggestive arrangements, and the like. The following passage from a 1927 letter to Donald Wandrei is typical:

Sometimes I stumble accidentally on rare combinations of slope, curved street-line, roofs & gables & chimneys, & accessory details of verdure & background, which in the magic of late afternoon assume a mystic majesty and exotic significance beyond the power of words to describe. Absolutely nothing else in life now has the power to move me so much; for in these momentary vistas there seem to open before me bewildering avenues to all the wonders & lovelinesses I have ever sought, & to all those gardens of eld whose memory trembles just beyond the rim of conscious recollection, yet close enough to lend to life all the significance it possesses (Selected Letters II.125-6).

Or again, from a 1930 letter to Clark Ashton Smith:

My most vivid experiences are efforts to recapture fleeting & tantalising mnemonic fragments expressed in unknown or half-known architectural or landscape vistas, especially in connexion with a sunset. Some instantaneous fragment of a picture will well up suddenly through some chain of subconscious association—the immediate excitant being usually half-irrelevant on the surface—& fill me with a sense of wistful memory & bafflement; with the impression that the scene in question represents something I have seen & visited before under circumstances of superhuman liberation & adventurous expectancy, yet which I have almost completely forgotten, & which is so bewilderingly uncorrelated & unoriented as to be forever inaccessible in the future (Selected Letters III.197).

Additional examples could be multiplied at length, and all would show, like the above passages, that Lovecraft was gripped by an ingrained and, we might say, “classical” sense of sehnsucht, the “infinite longing that is the essence of romanticism,” as E.T.A. Hoffmann famously formulated it. It was precisely this faculty that led him to respond with such intense delight to the mystically charged writings of Lord Dunsany, which exerted an enormous influence on his own subsequent work. Lovecraft’s Dunsanian stories can and should be read not only as outflowings of his love for Dunsany’s aesthetic vision, but as expressions of his own personal sense of infinite longing.

Lovecraft even went so far as to assert that this feeling of longing, this heightened responsiveness to beauty that seems to hint at a transcendent world of absolute aesthetic fulfillment, is

the impulse which justifies authorship . . . . The time to begin writing is when the events of the world seem to suggest things larger than the world—strangenesses and patterns and rhythms and uniquities of combination which no one ever saw or heard before, but which are so vast and marvellous and beautiful that they absolutely demand proclamation with a fanfare of silver trumpets. Space and time become vitalised with literary significance when they begin to make us subtly homesick for something ‘out of space, out of time.’ . . . To find those other lives, other worlds, and other dreamlands, is the true author’s task. That is what literature is; and if any piece of writing is motivated by anything apart from this mystic and never-finished quest, it is base and unjustified imitation (Selected Letters II.142-3). . . .

In [“Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction“], he explain[ed] why he wrote the particular kind of story that his readers have come to associate him with. . . . :

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 113; emphasis added).

The import of this statement for Lovecraft’s status as a horror writer is obvious: he was saying, circa 1933, that he only wrote horror because it was efficacious for achieving another effect that is not intrinsically horrific. In other words, for him, horror was a means and not an end. It was his poignant, wistful longing after transcendent beauty and cosmic freedom that animated his authorial life—and not only that, but his life in general: in the same letter where he described his “vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory,” he claimed that this intense emotional experience was chief amongst the reasons why he did not commit suicide—“the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthernsome quality” (Selected Letters III.243).

* * * * *

I’ll note tangentially that if the above excerpt interests you, you should be aware that the entire essay will be published in the next issue of Studies in Weird Fiction, the long-running journal edited by Joshi. The essay was also available for a time at Thomas Ligotti Online, but right now I’m getting an error message when I try to access it there.

At the risk of redundancy, I’ve decided to go ahead and post a handful of those “additional passages” mentioned above: those excerpts from Lovecraft’s letters, poems, and essays that further embody his extraordinarily intense experience of infinite longing. I hope the repetitiveness may serve not to bore, but to underscore and even clarify the emotion in question via Lovecraft’s many variations of expression, all centered around a common nexus of tropes and themes. Note especially his frequent return to certain key elements — the mystical emotional effect of sunsets and skyscapes, the evocative nature of certain architectural scenes, the sense of lost memory, the craving for a vision of absolute beauty, the maddening and tantalizing nature of the elusive longing — that help to flesh out exactly what he is talking about, if indeed such a mystical-seeming emotion can be adequately and definitively pinpointed.

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From The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927)

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvellous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades, and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles. It was a fever of the gods; a fanfare of supernal trumpets and a clash of immortal cymbals. Mystery hung about it as clouds about a fabulous unvisited mountain; and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things, and the maddening need to place again what once had an awesome and momentous place.

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From a letter to James F. Morton, March 12, 1930 (cf. Selected Letters III.123-4; emphases in original)

It is never any definite experience which gives me pleasure, but always the quality of mystic adventurous expectancy itself—the indefiniteness which permits me to foster the momentary illusion that almost any vista of wonder and beauty might open up, or almost any law of time or space or matter or energy be marvellously defeated or reversed or modified or transcended….that sense of expansion, freedom, adventure, power, expectancy, symmetry, drama, beauty-absorption, surprise, and cosmic wonder (i.e. the illusory promise of a majestic revelation which shall gratify man’s ever-flaming, ever-tormenting curiosity about the outer voids and ultimate gulfs of entity)….the illusion of being poised on the edge of the infinite amidst a vast cosmic unfolding which might reveal almost anything reveal . . . . a sense of soaring outward from all temporal, spatial, and material limitations along broad vistas of slanting yellow radiance from unimagined gulfs beyond the chrysoberyl gates of sunset……soaring outward toward the discovery of stupendous, cosmic, inconceivable things, and toward the envisagement and comprehension of awesome rhythms and patterns and symmetries too Titanic, too unparticled, too trans-galactic, and too overpowering for the relatively flat, tame, and local name of “beauty”. When a city or landscape or experience can give me this sense of untrammelled and starward soaring, I account it worth my while to go after it.

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From a letter to August Derleth, December 25, 1930 (cf. Selected Letters III.197)

I am perfectly confident that I could never adequately convey to any other human being the precise reasons why I continue to refrain from suicide—the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthernsome quality. These reasons are strongly linked with architecture, scenery, and lighting and atmospheric effects, and take the form of vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory—impressions that certain vistas, particularly those associated with sunsets, are avenues of approach to spheres or conditions of wholly undefined delights and freedoms which I have known in the past and have a slender possibility of knowing again in the future. Just what those delights and freedoms are, or even what they may approximately resemble, I could not concretely imagine to save my life; save that they seem to concern some ethereal quality of indefinite expansion and mobility, and of a heightened perception which shall make all forms and combinations of beauty simultaneously visible to me, and realisable by me.

* * * * *

From a letter to August Derleth, September 2, 1931 (Selected Letters III.405)

Certain collocations of scenic or architectural details have the most powerful imaginable effect on my emotions—evoking curious combinations of poignant images derived from reading, pictures, and experience. Old farmhouses and orchards move me about as profoundly as any one kind of thing I know—though general rural landscapes are also supremely potent. They give me a vague, elusive sense of half-remembering something of great and favourable significance—just as city spires and domes against a sunset, or the twinkling lights of a violet city twilight seen from neighboring heights, always inspires a vaguely stimulating sense of adventurous expectancy.

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From a letter to Robert E. Howard, May 7, 1932 (Selected Letters IV.39)

What you say of your dreams of cold, grey skies—and of the actual skies and sunsets in your part of the world—interests me vastly. I am myself extremely susceptible to sky effects, particularly gorgeous and apocalyptic sunsets. Sunsets arouse in me vague feelings of pseudo-memory, mystical revelation, and adventurous expectancy, which nothing else can even begin to conjure up. They always seem to me to be about to unveil supernal vistas of other (yet half-familiar) worlds and other dimensions. I am also ineffably fascinated by the golden light of late afternoon which somewhat precedes the sunset. Any sort of scene bathed in this unearthly splendour—with tinges of crimson and long, fantastic shadows—seems to my fancy part of a strange, ethereal realm of wonder and beauty but faintly allied to anything in the domain of prosaic reality.

* * * * *

As before, I hope you enjoy these contributions to your experience of the autumn season. Reading such words and thoughts, which express with aching clarity an emotion and sensation that I have labored for years to articulate for myself, never fails to intensity my own experience of the season’s bittersweet poignancy.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on October 30, 2006, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Matt,

    Your ‘Autumn Longing’ series has made me *extremely* excited. I stumbled upon it earlier today after typing the phrase ‘adventurous expectancy’ (the source of which, as you know, is Lovecraft) into Google. I run that sort of search every now and then, hoping to stumble upon others who understand what that ecstatically nostalgic (though not in the sense in which most people use the word ‘nostalgic’) feeling IS. This is the first time the search has paid off.

    As I began to read your essay, I almost instantly realized that you were indeed writing of the very same phenomenon I have experienced, and which until that very moment I had never seen described that clearly and that distinctly by anyone except H.P. Lovecraft. (The C.S. Lewis quotes from your other piece were a revelation to me). When I realized what it is you were writing of, a great rush went through my body. You are literally only the second person I have ever read who both attempted the description, and succeeded in describing precisely the phenomenon which I experience, not merely something similar to it.

    As you probably understand, the experience is overwhelming when it comes, and you know quite well when you’ve had it, despite its elusive quality. Its presence or absence is as clear, in its own way, as that of an orgasm. Many times I’ve come across descriptions, both in text and conversation, of phenomena that seemed similar to that which I so ardently wished to share with someone, but which I could tell quite clearly were not IT. But you ARE describing precisely what I experience.

    I have, unfortunately, never met anyone in the flesh who understood what it was I was getting at. Whenever I become close to someone, I sooner or later end up trying to describe to them this phenomenon which you call “autumn longing” or “sehnsucht”, and which I have been usually calling, to its detriment, “nostalgia” (the problem with calling it “nostalgia” has been that people seem to mean something entirely different by that word than what I mean, and that they use it to refer to an experience which both they and I consider banal – a sort of kitschy pining for a particular place or point in time, not the overwhelming ethereal and cosmic, somehow *philosophical* rush of pure, otherworldly, sublime beauty that I try to describe to them).

    As I have said, I’ve tried to describe the phenomenon to everyone I’ve ever been close to, but I could always tell instantly, because they would all either try to change the subject or would misunderstand everything, that whoever it was I was speaking to did not share my great interest in the matter. And, since the phenomenon is by its very nature captivating, their lack of interest just as much as proved to me that they had either not experienced the phenomenon, or had not experienced it in a very long time.

    This sublime longing comes to me, in its pure and most evident form, one or none or two or three times a month. I have been experiencing the longing since at least about the age of puberty (I am 23 years old now). I do not know if it was there before puberty. Sometimes I think that it filled the air so densely when I was a boy that I had no concept of it as a separate phenomenon – but at other times I think that I simply did not experience it back then. My memories of my boyhood are loose, fragmented, and somehow bound up *in* the very phenomenon, however, and there are gates in these memories past which I am so far incapable of going.

    At several times in my life when mundane concerns seemed to overwhelm me, I feared that the phenomenon might discontinue, but it never has so far. I should say now that it is a bit of a relief to know that someone rather older than me, as you are, still experiences the sensation. Nor has the fact that I have a full-time job and a rather busy social life pushed either my interest in the experience or the experience itself into the background.

    The phenomenon seems to shy away from company, and almost always strikes me when I am alone. I have almost no control over it, or none at all. I can sometimes – very, very rarely – induce it by deliberately putting myself in a certain milieu. But even when that works out, the experience seems to come with an accidental air, as if it was toying with me.

    I am almost afraid that it will dissolve because I am writing about it now… but I suppose it did not dissolve for Lovecraft, nor did it ever dissolve for me when I tried to write about it in the past. Well, it could not dissolve now, because it is not here now as I am typing. Yet, it is almost always there quietly in the background, no matter how busy things get. It sits there like this gate to another world of pure peace and beauty. I believe that this other world of pure peace and beauty is THIS world in its true aspect. It is what THIS world looks like when all turmoil and violence, both inner and outer, have ceased.

    Lovecraft approached the phenomenon from a materialist standpoint and Lewis from a Christian one, and I can throw “Eastern” spirituality into the mix, myself. Some passages from the notebooks and speeches of J. Krishnamurti seem to refer to the phenomenon, and I get more than a hint of it in certain of his descriptions of nature scenes, and certainly I get it strongly when he talks about the strange Otherness that comes into your world uninvited sometimes and just sits there for a while, a great full Silence both present and empty, that is there when the mind has stopped, or to put it another way, contact with that which is truly Not Known, actualy being-to-being contact with real mystery that one immediately, directly apprehends AS mystery.

    I do not believe that the phenomenon consists of a longing for something that is not in this world or reality. Rather, it seems to me that the phenomenon manifests a search for the uninterpreted, peaceful world – for an unagitated, unmediated state of being. That is, I believe that the “autumn longing” is the longing for what is called *enlightenment*, and by which I in particular mean liberation from false and mediated perceptions. Or to quote from the Matrix (I apologize if a movie quote is offensive to your sensibility, but it is probably not), “It’s there… you’ve felt it… like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

    Which is exactly my experience of the phenomenon. Yet of course, as Lewis directly said, the madness, the hunger, the longing itself, is intensely pleasurable. One could not imagine being more satisfied by satisfying this desire than one is satisfied by pining for it.

    As I’ve said, the phenomenon shuns company — to navigate social reality one must all-too often deftly, semi-automatically handle and find one’s way through an entire fabric of emotionally charged delusions. Whereas the *phenomenon* cannot coexist with a state of delusion. When it appears… as far as I am concerned… one comes into the intimacy which we are all capable of, and the sense of standing before Being, instead of before one’s interpretation of Being. Two Martins – Buber and Heidegger – once upon a time sent tendrils in the direction of this idea.

    I have pursued this line of inquiry mainly, I think, because of certain experiences which I have had in strange half-asleep states of consciousness – states I most often fall into when drowsing off in a moving vehicle such as a bus or a car. I often experience then that same amazing Freshness of the phenomenon, that Adventurous Expectancy which otherwise comes to me in much briefer flashes… but my half-awake journeys last longer.

    Because the phenomenon so frequently appears *at times when I am sensually conscious of my surroundings but am not experiencing a single thought*, I am prone to believe that the phenomenon is a manifestation of our longing for *unmediated* consciousness, which IS beauty and which is also a kind of truth.

    But I want to exit before I begin to feel like I am overloading the subject. I myself only want to send some few small tendrils out there towards you, and to see what happens… The *experience* is still, I think, best captured not by psychoanalytic or philosophic essays, but by the small selection of perfectly chosen Lovecraft quotes you have put here. They are the same ones, actually, that I would have chosen from his work and correspondence. Many of them are very familiar to me because once upon a time I used to pore over Lovecraft material for hours trying to find quotes such as those.

    Of course, quotes from writers other than Lovecraft on the same subject are *enormously valuable* to me or anyone like me. I have been searching for stuff like this for years. And despite having disclaimed essays in the previous paragraph, I must state that I would simply LOVE to have a copy of the essay which you wrote on Lovecraft, and which you referred to a few times above.

    Thank you very much for your effort. I am tremendously satisfied to know that someone out there understands this stuff.

    Peace out. Perhaps I will write more later.

    And thanks again!

  2. Thanks so much for your enthusiastic response, Anton. You can’t know how interested I am to meet somebody who shares this same experience. Or actually, judging from the tone of your comments, you *can* know. You express yourself amazingly well, and I think you’ve actually done a better job than I have of clarifying some of the subtle nuances and intense passions of this strange longing. Whereas I’ve leaned mostly on the words of others, you’ve labored to express the matter in your own words. The result is that you’ve written exactly the sort of thing I’ve spent the past few years seeking out. So I really appreciate your entering your voice into the matter.

    I’ll continue posting in this series sporadically over the next several months. Or actually for the foreseeable future, since I have a wealth of material (although the bulk of it comes in the form of short snippets instead of the mega-passages I’ve used so far), and since I also want to keep the blog lively with other types of posts. So please check back from time to time.

    As for my Lovecraft-Ligotti paper, I can email it to you if you want to contact me at

    Again, it’s wonderful to meet you. And I know exactly what you mean about feeling as if you’ve lived in relative isolation with this experience of mystical longing, since the only place you’ve been able to find other people who share and understand it is in books.

  3. What is sehnsucht?

    It is like falling head over heels in love, then falling out of love again, all within the space of a few moments. It is a few seconds in which the lifetimes of whole universes seem to go by. It is a pleasant, mystic vertigo.

    I suddenly realize now how suggestive is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Picard’s mind is captured by a space probe and forced to live out an entire lifetime as the inhabitant of a long-dead planet, then returned back to his body only a few seconds after it had been taken.

  4. Hello, Martin,
    Concerning HPL’s “I am myself extremely susceptible to sky effects, particularly gorgeous and apocalyptic sunsets”: you might wish to consult The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975) by Paul Fussell, beginning on page 51, the section titled “Sunrise and Sunset”; and maybe “Sunset terrace imagery in Lovecraft” and Other Essays by Peter Cannon (Necronomicon Press, 1990), which I haven’t read.

  5. I am particular fan of Lovecraft, more of his Dunsany pieces than his Poe pieces, if I may use that expression, and I am glad to see you explore that strange, wild, ethereal longing that characterizes his work.

    “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” was the first book I ever purchased with my own money, and I find it so haunting that now, when I re-read it, it conjures up the very longings for a half-remembered childhood of which it speaks.

    It surprises me that he is dismissed in some circles — I do not see in what way Lovecraft is inferior to Poe or Tennyson or other poets.

  6. Alan MacRobert

    Thank you for nailing Lovecraft’s essence so precisely.

  7. I want to thank you so much for this series of articles on autumnal longing. It’s incredible how these writers manage to put into words and experience which is so elusive by its very nature. It seems like a minor miracle in itself how Lovecraft articulates the unarticulable. As was reading this, I was flooded with wave after wave of memory of my own such experiences and I realized that these experiences have driven much of my own path through life. I have always felt like my childhood was a kind of golden age, but I had not realized that perhaps it is more the halo of numinosity that surrounds the memory of childhood that entrances me rather than the thing itself. Yet, I do feel that as a boy, I had a kind of near perpetual access to that “adventurous expectancy” Lovecraft describes. I remember vividly when I was around 8 years old sitting in the back seat of the car on a car trip through the rain and watching the rain drops peel down the window with an effortless wonder, or on another drive along a scenic highway, watching the snaky movements of the powerline rushing by overhead on the side of the road, and half-seeing a little man running fantastically fast along that improbably tight rope. But all this was less a self-aware yearning than simply a naive way of being in a world.

    It was only later that I began to feel the sehnsucht that Lovecraft and Lewis point to. I can recount my first clear experience of it. It was occasioned by the combination of a strange and beautiful landscape in with the poignancy of lost friendship. When I was ten years old my best friend Will and I were inseparable and one memorable day we played hide and seek amidst a weird landscape of sandstone hoodoos in the Alberta badlands. It was an exhilarating and fun day, but nothing transcendent occurred. Two years later, after Will and I had grown apart, my parents brought me back to visit that same patch of hoodoos. As I wandered amidst the silent stone monoliths and I was pierced suddenly by an overwhelming sense of poignant longing. I collapsed into sobbing tears and felt that my whole body was surrounded by a halo of weightlessness. My parent’s consoled me and together we interpreted the experience in a mundane way, as my sadness about losing my old friend. However, in retrospect I’ve come to see that the scope of the emotion that day was much bigger than that. It was much more as Lewis describes, a kind of infinite longing for the ideal Friend, the sort of perfectly intimate, delightful, and devoted companion my soul craved and indeed felt it had always known. Moreover, I am sure that the bizarre alien forms of those sandstone formations were also part of the reason that this feeling broke over me. I should also say that although I was in tears that day and filled with grief, my memory of the event is that it broke me open to something incredibly precious, that even in the moment I was not suffering, but rather experiencing a kind of sublime rapture. Many times since then I experienced similar sublime feelings in response to great sadness or loss, especially when coupled with some special aesthetic or environmental trigger.

    Saddness is the not the only flavour that my experience of sehnsucht has taken. I resonated greatly with Lovecraft’s descriptions of how architecture can trigger the experience. When I moved to Montreal for university, I loved nothing more than to play the flaneur, walking the city’s charming streets with no sense of direction or purpose. At certain times I would come upon a certain combination of Victorian architecture, brightly coloured painted walls, unexpected street life, and/or bulbous mounds of snow and feel suddenly struck by that sense of adventure, magic, mystery, wonder and infinite yet inexplicable meaningfulness. I would at times get a similar sense while reading books of philosophy, especially the more obtuse and dense texts which required my to bash my intellect against them over and over again before revealing their secrets.

    I have also experienced a similar feeling through classical music, in particular, the fugues of Bach. The experience of sehnsucht occasioned by listening to or playing this music is quite different from the ordinary beauty of the music and it is rarely brought about by anything other than complex counterpoint. I do not listen to or play Bach to relax or enjoy myself in the usual sense. Rather, what I seek from it is very much like what Lovecraft sought from his sunsets and rooftops. It is a moment that arises unbidden when my ear catches a certain odd combination of notes in which multiple lines of melody are weaving together is so unexpected and so complex a way while yet being beautiful as to seem utterly impossible. It is as if the complexity and beauty I perceive in that moment comes from another world entirely. Insofar as my mind is somehow able to follow it, and grasp hold of it, I can ride the notes beyond themselvs into some higher inexhaustible order of complexity that is Beyond everything mundane.

    I could elaborate at length about other triggers for the experience, and the various flavours of it, but this post is already getting pretty long. The common threads through all of them are 1) a poignant bittersweet euphoria full of romance 2) a sense of breaking free from the bonds of the mundane world an entering into or touching upon an invisible world full of strange, magical, exciting possibilities, and 3) understanding a deeper meaning or wisdom that has no immediately utterable content. More briefly, you could say the experiences are characterized by Romance, Otherworldliness, and Wisdom.

    Until my late 20s I never experienced fear in association with these sehnsucht moments. Sometimes powerful sadness, regret, or even despair would accompany or follow them. But more often they were joyous and life-giving, becoming sort of beacons and sign posts for how I should direct my life. Then about 7 years ago, on my first silent meditation retreat, I crossed a threshold of some kind which plunged me deep into the terror of the unknown. For years after I struggled with these intensely fearful experiences of self and world being ripped apart, struggling to hold my sanity together in the midst of it. Yet, even during this time, interspersed with these awful confrontations with the horror of the cosmic void, I had ever more intensely rich and beautiful moments of that same romantic sense of emergent meaning, complexity and new unimagined possibilities. Eventually, after much struggle and inner learning, I gained enough skill to steer my consciousness away from the terror experiences while still being able to access the positive side of the experience.

    This brings me to my own theory about the dual nature of the sehnsucht experience which you raise in the post that compares Lewis’ divine experience of such longing with Lovecraft’s more ambivalent sometimes wondrous, sometimes horrifying experience. I came up with this through the painful process of trying to make sense of my own double edged mystical experiences following the fateful meditation retreat I mentioned above. One of my guiding clues comes from knowing that the Biblical Hebrew word Yir’ah, which is often translated the “fear of God” also has strong connotations of awe, wonder, and reverence. This single word for fear/wonder suggests a close connection between the two of them. Psychologists studying awe and wonder find that it is a response connected with an experience that engages our pattern recognition systems but which yet goes beyond our existing cognitive structures in such a way that we cannot entirely schematize it. As these experiences often promote new learning, it makes sense that they are rewarded by pleasurable emotions. Yet, here’s the catch, if we go too far down the path of exceeding our existing meaning structures we can end up triggering a more primal survival response, as the sense of order starts to break down beyond what feels safe to us, we start to instinctively panic this gives rise to the experience of cosmic horror. That original wondrous sense of adventure and possibility revealed through the sehnsucht experience become instead a crazy-making anti-meaning this is hell-bent on obliterating everything we hold dear.

    My own path through this double-sided dynamic was to learn how to play the edge of chaos without falling over the brink. To bring myself into states of wonder and ecstasy, of magical possibility, revelation and adventure, but to stay just on the side of awe/wonder while pulling back before falling too far into terror and meaning-loss. Actually cultivating Yir’ah in the biblical sense was a big part of how I learned to do this. Honouring and respecting early warning signs as wonder starts converting into fear and then crying out – “Oh Lord, this knowledge is too wondrous for me, please shelter me in the shadow of your wings and wrap me in the prayer shawl of Your peace.” I had to learn when to stop grasping after more wonder, and to let myself return towards the mundane, to embrace that which is ordinary and comforting as an essential element of a sane life. Taking time to rest in the cozy and familiar while working to integrate each new grand revelation and build up more adequate meaning structures. Admittedly this isn’t easy to do. It’s like surfing a wave, it requires constantly adjusting and balancing to an unpredictably changing landscape. It also requires great restraint since the sheer amazingness of the Beyond calls with such force that the temptation to go further into it is always hard to resist. It was only through the most repeated and agonizing suffering as I went past my tolerance that I eventually learned not to fly like a moth into the consuming flame.

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