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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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