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Autumn Longing: Alan Watts

Alan Watts, sometime in the 1970s

Yesterday, I came across a passage in a book by Alan Watts that reignited an old passion for what I have referred to in the past as “the autumn longing.” In a kind of “deep cut” vein for this blog, longtime readers — by which I mean really longtime readers, those who have been with me for the entire thirteen-year span of The Teeming Brain’s existence — may recall the series of posts I wrote on this topic beginning in 2006, just a few months after the blog’s founding. In the first of these posts, I explained the term “autumn longing” this way:

The autumn season has always carried a special emotional potency for me. When the weather turns crisp and the colors of nature change first to vibrant reds, oranges, and golds, and then progress onward toward deep russet browns, tending toward the death-sleep of winter, I’m struck with feelings of poignancy and melancholy that burn more brightly, or perhaps more darkly, than at any other time of the year. I’m also more exquisitely sensitive to the aesthetic influence of art, whether literary, musical, visual, or otherwise.

It was many years ago that I first realized and articulated to myself that this autumnal mood is inextricably bound up with a certain, strange longing. When the mood of autumn comes over me, it is always characterized by a kind of nostalgia for something I have never really known, as if I possess some vestigial memory of a lost knowledge or emotion that flits maddeningly and elusively on the edge of my ability to recall directly. It’s truly a numinous experience, that is, an experience that makes me feel as I’ve come into brief contact with some sort of transcendent spiritual truth. It tends to generate the impression of an absolute, unmediated experience of supernal beauty hovering just beyond the edge of my inner grasp. All the flickering hints of this beauty that I sometimes encounter in literature, film, music, and scenic natural vistas and skyscapes seem to reach their apotheosis in this ungraspable ultimacy, as if they are merely finite carriers that filter and refract partial glimpses of an infinite reality, like the Platonic Form of the Beautiful itself.

The remainder of that post was devoted to laying out the exquisite articulations of this experience that populate the works, both fiction and nonfiction, of C. S. Lewis, who made this longing the centerpiece of his literary aesthetic and his Christian apologetical writings. He employed the German term sehnsucht to refer to it, and he was in fact largely responsible for bringing this word and its rich set of uses and connotations to the attention of a popular English-reading audience.

Other posts in the series focused on the appearance and invocation of this longing in the writings of Lovecraft, Poe, and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. I revisited the idea a few years later with posts about Huston Smith (as compared to Lovecraft) and, again, Lovecraft and Lewis. Beyond the boundaries of The Teeming Brain, I incorporated the Lovecraftian aspects of the autumn longing into my paper “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets,” in which I explored the parallels and departures between the respective literary and philosophical visions of Lovecraft and Ligotti. I also published a two-part essay titled “Lovecraft’s Longing” in the late North Shore arts magazine Art Throb, and I wrote a blog post titled “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing” for SF Signal. In the latter, I discussed the subject in relation not only to Lewis and Lovecraft but to Stephen King and Colin Wilson.

So this is all to say that the matter was, and still is, of great importance to me, both philosophically and emotionally. This autumn longing, this sehnsucht, this tantalizing, maddening glimpse of some ultimate beauty and fulfillment and joy that lies perpetually beyond the horizon, this distinct scent or flavor of some infinite bliss that seems to reside half in memory and half in imagination, remaining always distinctly real and yet always just beyond my ability fully to grasp or realize — this is, apparently, a permanent part of my, and our, constitution as human beings, a kind of existential haunting that we as homo sapiens are blessed and doomed to know.

Although another span of years has now elapsed since I last wrote about it, the matter is never a non-issue in my life. I felt it more keenly when I was younger, but it’s still a living reality, not just as a matter of personal experience but in my life as a reader of books and literature. I’m still thrilled whenever I stumble across a new, or at least new to me, expression or description of this longing in someone else’s writings, especially since such descriptions often serve to evoke the longing itself.

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C. S. Lewis, Narnia, and mythic truth: “Stories are mirrors that show us our soul”


From a splendid essay by young adult novelist Zu Vincent and creative writing teacher Kiara Koenig, published in Through the Wardrobe: Your Favorite Authors on C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (2010), about the exquisite philosophical-spiritual value of finding solace, solitude, and authentic meaning in fictional stories amid our contemporary culture of scientistic disenchantment and digital distraction:

We don’t live in a reader-friendly world. There are few quiet corners in which to curl up and open a good book. Even fewer moments when we can just be alone and think. It’s often easier to not think too deeply, to instead watch a movie, play a video game, or surf the net. And it’s hard to hear the voices of stories, which are softer than the rustle of pages, over the ring tones of incoming text messages.

Or maybe you have someone nagging you to “get your nose out of that book” and do something. As if reading were something we needed to outgrow along with naps, stuffed animals, and imaginary friends.

But a story, unlike cell phone minutes, is never ending. Because they are more than the sum of their plot, stories don’t lose their ability to make us laugh once we know the punch line or to spark our curiosity even after we know “whodunit.” Like the best dessert in the world, the more you have, the more you want. But unlike the Witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight, stories nourish us as we read.

They’re gateways, and the further up and further in we go, the richer the tale, the realer the world, the more intense the experience. Stories ask us to come inside and do half the work of making them come alive if we want to feel their full magic. A magic that takes us deep into the core of what makes us human.

. . . To see clearly, story takes us back to a time when the whole world spoke to us. When the constellations were our palm readers and even the stones could warn us of the coming of our fate. Today’s science describes the stars as novas, supernovas, and galaxies, and locates them by their relative distance from our solar system. But this practical information brings us only so close to true understanding.

“In our world . . . a star is a huge ball of flaming gas,” Eustace tells the “retired star” Ramandu in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Ramandu replies, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

Stories do not just describe the world, they teach us what it really is. And, like Lucy and Susan, what we’re really made of.

. . . In the end, the world is more than an objective description of its continents, weather patterns, and animal populations, just as each of us is more than our height, weight, and hair color. If we get distracted by the surface, we can forget this truth.

. . . So the next time someone tells you to put down that book, remind him that, as Lewis points out, it’s our own humanity we rediscover, our tendency toward “good and evil, our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys.” Stories are mirrors that show us our soul.

FULL ESSAY: “Mind the Gap(Available until August 14, 2013)

C. S. Lewis and H. P. Lovecraft on loathing and longing for alien worlds


Several years ago — almost seven, in fact (he said with a sense of temporal vertigo) — I published a series of posts here about what I then termed the “autumn longing,” that exquisite, fleeting, piercing experience of being tantalized by a vision of ultimate beauty and fulfillment that trembles just beyond the edge of our ability to attain or even fully imagine. The first post in the series was about C. S. Lewis, who gave what remains in my opinion the most complete and focused description of this experience in the English language. The second was about H. P. Lovecraft, who is far more well-known for writing about (and also for writing from) a vision of cosmic horror than a vision of beautiful longing, but whose life was centrally defined by an ongoing experience of this exquisite sehnsucht no less than Lewis’s was.

I went on to elaborate on these matters in a number of additional writings that have been published elsewhere, including “The Master’s Eyes Shining with Secrets: The Influence of H. P. Lovecraft on Thomas Ligotti,” published both at Thomas Ligotti Online and in Lovecraft Annual; my two-part essay “Lovecraft’s Longing” for the North Shore arts magazine Art Throb; and a column titled “Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing” for SF Signal.

Over the years I haven’t seen anybody else writing about this psychological kinship between Lewis and Lovecraft via the experience of sehnsucht, so it was a real joy to stumble upon the following a couple of days ago:

Much has been said about Lewis and Sehnsucht, the German word for “longing” or “yearning.” Lewis thought that this species of longing was itself a precious possession, more precious than anything to be found in this world, because it directs us to another world, a “far off country” whence all the good things in our world derive their goodness. We feel it in those fleeting moments when we sense beautiful things beyond our grasp. It is, as Lewis famously said in his afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress,

that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a 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.

. . . Lovecraft was not an alien to this longing. He felt it, too, but without the satisfaction hope gives it. . . . Is this what becomes of Sehnsucht when it is disappointed? Does it become the phantasmagoria of Lovecraft? Must those who either cannot or will not believe in the promise implicit in our longing turn upon the reminders of another world and defile them? The prospect fills me with pity.

These paragraphs come from a highly absorbing essay by Presbyterian pastor, successful young adult fantasy author (under the pen name “Mortimus Clay“), and former philosophy professor C. R. Wiley about the deep philosophical disjunction between Lewis’s and Lovecraft’s respective explorations and presentations of the theme of alien worlds and alien life. The fact that Wiley clearly “sides” with Lewis — something that’s not surprising, given the fact of their shared orthodox Christian worldview — doesn’t make his insight into Lovecraft any less valid or penetrating, and in fact helps to deepen it.

Here’s are key excerpts that illustrate the point:

Both Lewis and Lovecraft were interested in other worlds, that is, in alien worlds. And using the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, they explored the implications of alien worlds for human beings. But their respective visions are as alien to each other as the worlds they wrote about are alien to our own.

. . . Lewis believed that God is good — but his goodness is unleashed from human management. As he famously said: Aslan is not a tame lion. Nevertheless, even though Aslan disturbs characters in the Narnia stories, he does not disturb the reader. Lewis is too avuncular for that. He wrote the Narnia stories with children in mind, and his hands are warm and reassuring as he holds the hands of his readers. Even the Space Trilogy reassures us.

That is not what Lovecraft was after. He wanted to disturb us. At his best, we can detect in him a longing for the power that underlies all things. But for Lovecraft, it is an amoral power. Like people as wildly different as Mary Baker Eddy and Arthur Schopenhauer, Lovecraft believed morality to be a human attempt to tame and sublimate this power and to make it socially acceptable and useful.

Lewis did not think morality was a human artifice imposed on a primal life-force. Like the Apostle John, he proclaimed that life and light have the same source and occupy the same space. For Lewis, life is found in morality, and, like life, it is a gift we do not give ourselves.

It is this alien source of morality that modern people find disturbing. Reducing morality to human origins is a human attempt to tame it. For Lewis, that effort is the source of all our ills; the refusal to submit to our given limits is what alienates us from God. And that is where monsters really come from. Whoever they may be now — the White Witch or Weston — the monsters were once people. That is the frightening news Lewis has to share about human nature. It turns out that Lewis can scare people after all.

Lovecraft also believed that there is something monstrous at the bottom of human nature. Nearly all his stories have the feel of a confessional about them. They often narrate a process of discovery, creating within the reader a sense of dawning horror. Not infrequently, there is — at the zenith of the story — some dark revelation concerning the protagonist’s origins. . . . These stories end in suicide, madness, or, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a disturbing acquiescence. Given the Darwinian undertones, what else could one do but acquiesce? You are what you are, and that’s the end of it.

But for Lewis, there is reason for hope. Reality comes with an “upper story,” and while we are embodied souls, we are souls above all. It is to our souls that Lewis makes his appeal. He wants us to look in horror upon our inner monster, but unlike Lovecraft, he does not want us to die. He wants us to turn to Aslan and live.

More: “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis, & and the Problem of Alien Worlds

Recommended Reading 11

This week’s reading covers: social, political, economic, and cultural craziness and breakdown in America and Europe; a dystopian view of smartphones; an official CDC denial of a zombie holocaust in the wake of horrific incidents flooding the American media; the possible action of quantum effects in the macro-world; a cogent criticism of scientistic materialism in light of psychedelic experience and the mystery of consciousness; stories about and interviews with several leading figures in the new philosophy-spirituality-consciousness movement; a deep look at the economic imperialism of Amazon and the future of reading; thoughts from C.S. Lewis on why it’s always important to read old books along with new ones; and thoughts on the death of Ray Bradbury.

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Questions about the impact of extraterrestrials on religious belief are not new

A new (Oct. 2) article at reports that theologians speaking at the DARPA-sponsored 100-Year-Starship Symposium have raised questions about the possible impacts on religion, and especially on Christianity, if the existence of extraterrestrial life is ever confirmed. The symposium itself was a public event held this past weekend (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) in Orlando, Florida, for a purpose that’s worth quoting:

 The 100 Year Starship™ Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible. The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight. senior writer Clara Moskowitz attended the event and issued detailed descriptions of its proceedings, including the above-mentioned article, which reports on a presentation given by philosophy professor Christian Weidemann of Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum about the meaning of ETs for religion in general and Christianity in particular:

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Is abstract thought just piggybacking on the physical body?

Brain MindAccording to some new psychological research into the nature of metaphors, “much of what we think of as abstract reasoning is in fact a sometimes awkward piggybacking onto the mental tools we have developed to govern our body’s interactions with its physical environment. Put another way, metaphors reveal the extent to which we think with our bodies.”

This is according to journalist Drake Bennett in “Thinking literally,” The Boston Globe, September 27, 2009.

I find the whole idea fascinating, and can’t help wondering about its ramifications for religion and spirituality, since metaphors play an enormous part in religious thought and language, and even in religious experience.

C.S. Lewis, for instance, returned to the subject of metaphors time and again in his voluminous Christian writings, and was profoundly influenced by his friend Owen Barfield’s exploration of what metaphorical language might reveal about the way the human mind reasons, feels, and relates to and makes sense of the external world. Both men thought the truth about metaphors had not only linguistic but metaphysical implications (an aspect of Lewis’s work that has been the subject of at least one graduate thesis). Lewis put a great deal of thought and effort into arguing that the frequently metaphorical and symbolic character of scriptural and other religious language cannot and should not simply be discounted on the grounds that it is mythological, since metaphysical truths would necessarily take just such a form when translated into human language — which, as Lewis took pains to point out, is riddled with metaphor even in its everyday form. We simply cannot speak or think at all, he said, without resorting to metaphor.

Obviously, the last part corresponds closely to the conclusions of the new psychological research described in the Globe article, where Drake shows that he has done his homework by mentioning the recurrence of speculations about metaphor in the age-old philosophical debate over the mind-body problem.

If it’s true that — as the article summarizes the conclusions of two scholars whose work has been foundational for the current cognitive research — “Rather than so much clutter standing in the way of true understanding . . . metaphors are markers of the roots of thought itself,” and that “abstract thought would be meaningless without bodily experience,” then this effectively drops a boulder in the religious-spiritual-philosophical pond, sending tsunami-sized shockwaves rippling in all directions. What are the implications for any branch of spiritual or religious thought in the vein of classic second-century Gnosticism — of which there are a few — with its ontological positing of the supremacy and moral superiority of immaterial spirit over gross matter? To take one of the more mundane examples, this is a meme that plays directly into much traditional and contemporary folk Protestant thought (the “I’ll Fly Away” mentality). So what does it mean for such people and traditions if abstract thoughts, including words and ideas about “the soul,” are meaningless without bodily experience?

Being who I am, I also can’t help flashing on Lovecraft with his endless iterating of the classic 19th century scientistic premise that mind and consciousness are merely ephemeral epiphenomena of matter. The newly minted view of the role of metaphors doesn’t exactly offer direct support for claims of this variety, but it does present promising fodder to serve as supplementary evidence, and also just grist for the conversational mill.

In short, it’s a story with a host of wide-ranging philosophical implications stretching across more than one segment of the culture, and this means it’s exactly the type of story that I most love to stumble across. Now, you’ll have to excuse me, but I can’t continue writing this blog post since I’m finding it necessary to climb back to my feet and dust myself off — having just stumbled, you see. (Get it? Get it?)

Letter to a student: Philosophy for fun and self-deprogramming

Yesterday I received an email from one of my former high school students. He asked me a few questions that indicated he has really entered into a reflective state of mind: Am I familiar with C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity? What do people mean when they refer to other people, situations, or anything else as “perfect”? Is there a one-size-fits-all definition of perfection? Why do most people never question the near universal assumption that life is a good and valuable thing?

I began typing my response and, as sometimes happens, saw it blossom into more than the brief note I had intended. After clicking “send,” I thought I might as well go ahead and share the letter with my Teeming Brain readers since I know they’re a reflective and philosophical lot themselves.

Note that names — or actually, just one name — have been omitted to protect the innocent.

* * * * *

Hi C—,

Good to hear from you. Sounds like you’re in a really thoughtful state of mind lately.

Yes, I’ve read Mere Christianity three times in its entirety and then gone back to reread selected passages many more times. For a few years Lewis was one of my favorite writers. I still have great affection for him even though I’ve don’t hold his actual ideas in as high a regard as I once did. As he aged his writings grew more and more entrenched in a kind of puritanical Protestant morality. That’s why I like his early work better than his later work, since the early stuff is more filled with a general sense of exhilaration about ideas, philosophy, spirituality, and religion in general. Mere Christianity stands at about the halfway point in this evolution of his work. The three sections of it were originally published as three separate pamphlets before being stitched together to form of a single book. I personally find the final section, “Beyond Personality,” to be far and away the most brilliant, valuable, and exciting one. It also happens to be the most purely philosophical. Lewis’s superstar status among contemporary American Protestant Christians seems to be based largely on a love of the first half of that book, since it’s material from that part of Mere Christianity that you almost always hear quoted in churches or on the radio when somebody brings up the man’s name.

As for questions about the nature and meaning of perfection, the value or nonvalue of life, etc., it sounds like you’ve awakened to the basic philosophical cast of mind. As you may know, the word “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” The subject itself, which nowadays the majority of people study only for a single semester in college so they can earn a required credit to graduate, is the king or crown of all the intellectual disciplines. It’s not “about” anything in the way that history, science, mathematics, literature, economics, and other classes are “about” something. All of those other fields deal with specific subjects and content, e.g., what happened in the past and how it affects us today (history), the way the physical world works (science), and so on. But philosophy is about all of them. It asks, “What does all of this mean?” Philosophy raises the question “Why?” and applies it to everything. It tries to figure out, or at least it calls into question, most of the things that almost everybody takes for granted every day, in just the same way that you’re now asking some pretty radical questions that you felt it necessary to soften with a p.s. assuring me that you’re not contemplating suicide.

So this is all to say that I encourage you to continue your questioning. You’ll find over time that you’re experiencing a shift in your perception of absolutely everything. It begins to feel a lot like waking up from the Matrix. You start having a “Holy crap!” reaction as you realize that all of the ideas and points of view that you’ve always taken for granted are entirely up for grabs. Your whole outlook, the mental and emotional basis for the way you’ve lived your entire life and made important choices and wanted some things while rejecting others, is revealed as arbitrary. You come to recognize that you’ve believed things and held values not because you know they’re true but because you were programmed to do so by the environment in which you grew up.

This awakening is a very good thing.

You asked for advice about books. I suggest that you find a good introductory book on philosophy. One that comes to mind because it’s very accessible, and also amusing, is Does the Center Hold?: An Introduction to Philosophy. You can buy a fairly cheap used copy through Amazon. I’ve never read the whole thing myself but I’ve browsed it in college bookstores and found it highly engaging and informative.

I can’t think of any books at the moment to suggest for your specific questions about the meaning of “perfection” and the question of life’s value, but I can suggest some books that were valuable to me vry early on in my own awakening to a general philosophical cast of mind:

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy

Irrational Man by William Barrett

The Watts book is particularly accessible and readable. The Percy book may be a bit more difficult, especially in the middle section about the philosophy of language, but early sections are especially valuable as Percy paints all sorts of hypothetical life circumstances and situations and then considers different points of view from which they can be interpreted and understood.

Since you asked me specifically about Lewis, I can recommend another of his books for you: The Abolition of Man. You might find it difficult reading. But then again, maybe not. It’s a bit different (that’s an understatement) from Mere Christianity. In it, Lewis sets out to disprove the modern idea that human ideas of morality, value, etc., are just that: human ideas. He tries to prove that there really are objective moral truths. Following him in his exploration of the issues is a very educational and mind-expanding experience, regardless of whether you agree with his arguments and conclusions. You can find used copies of the book online and in bookstores at bargain-basement prices.

Finally, I strongly urge you to read a little bit about Socrates, the ancient Athenian Greek who, for us members of Western civilization, pretty much started the whole philosophy thing. There are some good, brief online biographies. The one at History for Kids makes for extremely easy reading. Some others are more lengthy and dense.

Oh — and really finally, since I mentioned The Matrix I may as well direct you to the Sparknotes page about some of the movie’s philosophical influences. It may give you some ideas for further reading.

Good luck! I hope I haven’t blown your mind (or bored you to tears) with my reply-on-steroids to your short questions.

All best,


Autumn longing: C.S. Lewis

The autumn season has always carried a special emotional potency for me. When the weather turns crisp and the colors of nature change first to vibrant reds, oranges, and golds, and then progress onward toward deep russet browns, tending toward the death-sleep of winter, I’m struck with feelings of poignancy and melancholy that burn more brightly, or perhaps more darkly, than at any other time of the year. I’m also more exquisitely sensitive to the aesthetic influence of art, whether literary, musical, visual, or otherwise.

It was many years ago that I first realized and articulated to myself that this autumnal mood is inextricably bound up with a certain, strange longing. When the mood of autumn comes over me, it is always characterized by a kind of nostalgia for something I have never really known, as if I possess some vestigial memory of a lost knowledge or emotion that flits maddeningly and elusively on the edge of my ability to recall directly. It’s truly a numinous experience, that is, an experience that makes me feel as I’ve come into brief contact with some sort of transcendent spiritual truth. It tends to generate the impression of an absolute, unmediated experience of supernal beauty hovering just beyond the edge of my inner grasp. All the flickering hints of this beauty that I sometimes encounter in literature, film, music, and scenic natural vistas and skyscapes seem to reach their apotheosis in this ungraspable ultimacy, as if they are merely finite carriers that filter and refract partial glimpses of an infinite reality, like the Platonic Form of the Beautiful itself.

Naturally, with this experience forming an important part of my psychological makeup, I am exceedingly fascinated by the accounts of others who have also felt it. Some years ago I began collecting quotes and passages from the works of various writers who have described their own encounters with this strange longing. Given that it is presently the height of October as I write these words, with the world outside my window standing fully in the grip of that special autumnal alchemy of bittersweet exuberance commingled with twilit dreariness, I thought there could be no better time for me to share some of these writers and their words.

The emotion in question has no essential connection to autumn, by the way. My own first memory of it actually hails from early summertime, from a lost day in my early adolescence — I think I was around twelve years old — when I walked out of my house and into the front yard, and was overcome suddenly by a kind of mental melding together of the soft greens of the trees and grasses, aided by the caress of a delicate warm breeze, that brought the emotion vividly to life. I spent several minutes standing there silently in the sway of an overpowering impression that I had forgotten something, some crucial event from years past, or perhaps a bit of intellectual or emotional knowledge, that would explain this explosion of pleasurable nostalgia. I never did grasp the elusive (or perhaps illusive) memory, but the memory of that first self-aware experience of the mysterious longing marked me permanently.

So as I said, this longing has no especial, essential connection to autumn. I simply associate it with the autumn season because that’s what seems to awaken it the most readily for me. In this, I am of course not alone, as attested by the veritable reams of autumn-themed poetry, centered around or inspired by a feeling of longing, that populate the pages of many a literary anthology

In my bookish wanderings in search of others who have shared this experience, I have been most interested to find writings that describe the longing, as distinct from literary attempts to evoke it. For the latter, any number of famous poets and poems will do: Sarah Teasdale, William Blake, Algernon Swinburne, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Dobyns, Emily Dickinson, Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth — the list could be extended indefinitely. But I’ve found that it’s all too rare, and therefore all the more special, to find a writer who attempts to provide an actual account of this special emotion of longing itself. What I want are the equivalent of phenomenological descriptions of what it feels like to be possessed by this strange and sui generis emotion, perhaps accompanied by a few ruminations on the possible meaning of it all.

To my knowledge, nobody has fulfilled this wish more completely than C.S. Lewis, who famously developed a Christian apologetic whose very foundation is rooted in the experience of nostalgic, transcendent longing. One might disagree with the conclusions he draws from his own lifelong experiences of it — “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world,” he wrote in Mere Christianity — but the power and precision of his phenomenological description itself is undeniable. In fact, I find that his words in this vein tend to reawaken my own longing, no matter how many times I reread them.

The following paragraphs come from the preface to C.S. Lewis’s allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), which was the first book he wrote after his adult conversion to Protestant Christianity. Subtitled “An Allegorical Apology for Christianity Reason and Romanticism,” the book presents an explicit allegory that depicts Lewis’s own journey from the dry, dead, inherited Christianity of his boyhood, through the problematic philosophies of the modern world, to the vibrant Christian faith of his adulthood. He intended it to serve as a Pilgrim’s Progress for the 20th century.

Lewis added the preface in 1943, ten years after the novel’s initial publication, because he wanted to clarify his use of the word “Romanticism” to describe “the experience which is central in this book.” After discussing several different ways in which the word is commonly understood, he explained his own idiosyncratic use of it to refer to “an experience of intense longing,” and in doing so, he came close to giving what is for me the quintessential description of the matter. I don’t necessarily endorse his argument in the latter paragraphs quoted below, where he explains the thought process that led him to accord this longing the status of evidence in a novel type of theological apologia. But still, I can’t deny that his very speculations in this area tend to arouse and intensify the longing within me.

* * * * *

“What I meant by ‘Romanticism’ when I wrote the Pilgrim’s Regress — and what I would still be taken to mean on the title page of this book—was . . . a particular recurrent experience which dominated my childhood and adolescence and which I hastily called ‘Romantic’ because inanimate nature and marvelous literature were among the things that evoked it. I still believe that the experience is common, commonly misunderstood, and of immense importance: but I know now that in other minds it arises under other stimuli and is entangled with other irrelevancies and that to bring it into the forefront of consciousness is not so easy as I once supposed. I will now try to describe it sufficiently to make the following pages intelligible.

“The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire, though the subject may not at once recognize the fact and thus cries out for his lost youth of soul at the very moment in which he is being rejuvenated. This sounds complicated, but it is simple when we live it. ‘Oh to feel as I did then!’ we cry; not noticing that even while we say the words the very feeling whose loss we lament is rising again in all its old bitter-sweetness. For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.

“In the second place, there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire. Inexperienced people (and inattention leaves some inexperienced all their lives) suppose, when they feel it, that they know what they are desiring. Thus if it comes to a child while he is looking at a far off hillside he at once thinks ‘if only I were there’; if it comes when he is remembering some event in the past, he thinks ‘if only I could go back to those days.’ If it comes (a little later) while he is reading a ‘romantic’ tale or poem of ‘perilous seas and faerie lands forlorn,’ he thinks he is wishing that such places really existed and that he could reach them. If it comes (later still) in a context with erotic suggestions he believes he is desiring the perfect beloved. If he falls upon literature (like Maeterlinck or the early Yeats) which treats of spirits and the like with some show of serious belief, he may think that he is hankering for real magic and occultism. When it darts out upon him from his studies in history or science, he may confuse it with the intellectual craving for knowledge.

“But every one of these impressions is wrong. The sole merit I claim for this book is that it is written by one who has proved them all to be wrong. There is no room for vanity in the claim: I know them to be wrong not by intelligence but by experience, such experience as would not have come my way if my youth had been wiser, more virtuous, and less self-centered than it was. For I have myself been deluded by every one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each one of them earnestly enough to discover the cheat. To have embraced so many false Florimels is no matter for boasting: it is fools, they say, who learn by experience. But since they do at last learn, let a fool bring his experience into the common stock that wiser men may profit by it.

“Every one of these supposed objects for the Desire is inadequate to it. An easy experiment will show that by going to the far hillside you will get either nothing, or else a recurrence of the same desire which sent you thither. A rather more difficult, but still possible, study of your own memories, will prove that by returning to the past you could not find, as a possession, that ecstasy which some sudden reminder of the past now moves you to desire. Those remembered moments were either quite commonplace at the time (and owe all their enchantment to memory) or else were themselves moments of desiring. The same is true of the things described in the poets and marvelous romancers. The moment we endeavor to think out seriously what it would be like if they were actual, we discover this. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle claimed to have photographed a fairy, I did not, in fact, believe it: but the mere making of the claim — the approach of the fairy to within even that hailing distance of actuality — revealed to me at once that if the claim had succeeded it would have chilled rather than satisfied the desire which fairy literature had hitherto aroused. Once grant your fairy, your enchanted forest, your satyr, faun, wood-nymph and well of immortality real, and amidst all the scientific, social and practical interest which the discovery would awake, the Sweet Desire would have disappeared, would have shifted its ground, like the cuckoo’s voice or the rainbow’s end, and be now calling us from beyond a further hill. With Magic in the darker sense (as it has been and is actually practised) we should fare even worse. How if one had gone that way — had actually called for something and it had come? What would one feel? Terror, pride, guilt, tingling excitement . . . but what would all that have to do with our Sweet Desire? It is not at Black Mass or séance that the Blue Flower grows. As for the sexual answer, that I suppose to be the most obviously false Florimel of all. On whatever plane you take it, it is not what we were looking for. Lust can be gratified. Another personality can become to us ‘our America, our New-found-land.’ A happy marriage can be achieved. But what has any of the three, or any mixture of the three, to do with that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a 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?

“It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal existence. This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle — the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof. This lived dialectic, and the mere argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seemed to have converged on one goal; accordingly I tried to put them both into my allegory which thus became a defense of Romanticism (in my peculiar sense) as well as of Reason and Christianity.”

* * * * *

Not incidentally, Lewis later seized upon the German word sehnsucht to refer to this emotion. Sehnsucht refers to a wistful, nostalgic longing, and was employed by, for example, E.T.A. Hoffmann (19th cent.) in reference to Beethoven’s music, which in Hoffmann’s words “awakens just that infinite longing [sehnsucht] which is essence of romanticism.” I find it absolutely fascinating to observe the teeming cross section of outlooks and attitudes spanned by the experience of sehnsucht, which is a term that I have found to be as practically and emotionally useful as Lewis did.

For example, another author whose work I cherish, H.P. Lovecraft, was an ardent atheist and materialist, and yet he was gripped by precisely the same experience that gripped Lewis. Of course he drew different conclusions about the emotion, and accorded it a far different ontological and philosophical status. But as with Lewis, Lovecraft’s experience of sehnsucht was so central to his emotional makeup that it could not help but assume a central place in his art.

Other famous cases of sehnsucht-in-action can be seen in the writings of such disparate authors as Colin Wilson, William Wordsworth, Alan Watts, Arthur Machen, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Eugene O’Neill, Henri Amiel, Li Po, George Gissing, Anne Frank, and more. In future blog posts, I plan to offer quotes from some or all of these — most of them, I assure you, in much briefer form than the Lewis quote above. Perhaps one or more of them will prove as useful for you, in clarifying and articulating some of your own emotional tendencies, as they have been for me.