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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 rustling 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.

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“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.”

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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.