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On nostalgia and longing (Sehnsucht) as a path to our Being
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
In recent months and weeks, many thoughts have been arising and coming clear on the connection between melancholic longing or Sehnsucht and the way this feeling is both a kind of optical illusion and a distinct revelation of or pointer toward our real being and identity.
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Sehnsucht is essentially nostalgia for the infinite, nostalgia for paradise. C. S. Lewis wrote extensively and movingly about this, referring to Sehnsucht in his autobiography Surprised by Joy as an “inconsolable longing” for something we can’t precisely identify, but that haunts us with the promise of beauty. Elsewhere, in his classic essay “The Weight of Glory,” he richly described this core of longing as
the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.1
Musicologist Maynard Solomon, in his book Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, helpfully clarifies some things:
If there is an overriding metaphor in Romanticism, it probably is to be sought at the intersection of these interests [Das Unendliche (the infinite), Sehnsucht (yearning), Heimweh (nostalgia), and Innerlichkeit (inwardness)], in the representation of infinite longing for an ideal state of being; that is, the image in all its potential manifestations of the gulf between desire and fulfillment.2
Lately what’s coming clear is that, as I said, Sehnsucht is really a kind of optical illusion based on the constriction, attenuation, or throttling of identity that is our current state as ego selves. The object Sehnsucht points toward is simply the real, honest-to-God memory of our own infinite being, as intuited within the dreamworld of projected ego identity and the perception of duality, of a self/world, self/other, subjective/objective divide that accompanies—or rather, that is—it.
Richard Rose was semi-unique among modern teachers of nondual spiritual self-realization for his inclusion of nostalgia as an important element in this endeavor.3 His student Bob Fergeson has called nostalgia an “inner GPS” for “discerning a true direction”:
The pre-childhood consciousness held our potential: it could lead us to, and help us through, what our task or place in life could be. It was replaced by the fear, ambitions, and herd mentality—the fall into sleep and error.
Nostalgia is the positive way to link back up with this child-consciousness. We can remember what this feeling of pure innocence and spontaneity felt like through the nostalgic mood. Think back from now along your life to when you were a baby, with no sense of self . . . pure, innocent. Nostalgia is a longing for this directly-connected state.
We have wandered increasingly away from our source of inner wisdom—the direct mind—and come to rely on others and society to tell us how to live. Nostalgia can be a form of emotional discernment to help point us back within to our own source, the inner self.
Do you have memories of this, of having a pure consciousness? Can you feel it still? Can you remember being led away from it? Do you long for it now?4
The object Sehnsucht points toward is simply the memory of our own infinite being, as intuited within the dreamworld of projected ego identity and the perception of duality.
As I have described elsewhere,5 my own awakening to Sehnsucht came spontaneously as an early adolescent. Afterwards, in the wake of that initial raw dose of it, the recurring experience came to be shaped by books and music. For some reason, because of quirks of my personal psychology, weird and supernatural horror literature played a central role. When I first read Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories, for instance, and when I read his letters and saw him straining to express the wondrous beauty and “sense of adventurous expectancy” that he felt at the sight of sunsets, New England architecture, etc., I felt a deep kinship. This longing even arises in some of the darkest corners of weird/supernatural horror, as in Ligotti’s “The Tsalal,” where the protagonist is unaccountably drawn to scenes of ruin, which fill him with a deep, inchoate yearning (different from traditional Romantic Gothic awe).6
In a different vein, this impossible object of longing is what fairly maddens Peter Schaeffer’s Salieri in Amadeus when he reads Mozart’s handwritten scores and sees an “absolute, inimitable beauty” staring out at him from “the cage of those meticulous ink strokes.”
The thing is, in all these things, the sense of ungraspability in the object of longing is an optical illusion. Or rather, it’s real, but the conventional conception that accompanies it is misguided.
Rupert Spira is one contemporary nondual teacher who has been particularly incisive on this point. He notes that your longing always points outward toward something, some object to grasp, when in fact you who are the source of the longing are actually its real object. You, in your ultimate, absolute identity as the Self, are the very thing you long for. The sense of transcendent yearning is simply a result, an accompaniment, a manifestation, of the emanation or reduction of absolute God-identity to ego consciousness.
Put differently, the shining thing that lies on the other side of the horizon, from which tantalizing position it inspires a sense of longing so intense you cannot stand it, because you can never actually catch that inherently elusive vision of beauty, is simply you. You start from the infinite beauty and fulfillment that you seek, and then you project your gaze outward and find the beauty absent because by nature it can never be an object that you can perceive, know, or grasp. It is you.
Because of this, focusing on the sense of Sehnsucht, the nostalgia for paradise, can be a valuable exercise for clarifying the reality of things and, perhaps, courting awakening, understood as becoming more spiritually “accident prone,” i.e. open to grace, as the famous Zen saying has it.
This includes giving attention to those things that arouse the longing most strongly within you. To take myself as an example, this means that for me, reading Lovecraft, Ligotti, Machen, Blackwood, Klein, etc., can serve as a spiritual practice.
The upshot of the whole thing may be phrased as a question, not to be taken rhetorically, but to be explored existentially by observing the workings of our own minds and selves: How dramatically different would life be if, instead of living in search of fulfillment of our desires, we consciously started from fulfillment and lived outward from there, with actions flowing from a preexisting paradise?
Maynard Solomon, Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 45–46.
See, for example, “Nostalgia and Dreams,” the transcript of a talk and accompanying Q&A session that Rose gave at Case Western University in in 1978.
Bob Cergol, “Discerning a True Direction: Nostalgia as Our Inner GPS,” TAT Forum, April 2017.