Have you ever had the experience of suddenly recognizing that a familiar, conventional way of solving a problem or performing a task is now obsolete, displaced by something astoundingly new and revolutionary? That mixture of loss and potential gain that you thought and felt was an encounter with sehnsucht.
Sehnsucht, a noun from the German language, dwells within a complex ecosystem of meaning that has evolved over time and space and continues to evolve today. For Friedrich von Schiller, the poet, physician, and philosopher who lived and worked from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, sehnsucht captured a human experience that was central to German Romanticism and the lives of people in the Western world of his era. For Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, sehnsucht helped explain the particular traumas and neuroses of modern life in the first decades of the twentieth century, as people experienced new technoscientific machines such as railway trains. For C. S. Lewis, one of the rare writers to bring the notion into English, sehnsucht conveyed the joyful longing of life as a Christian, looking ever forward to the splendors of Heaven that would follow life on Earth. Novelist Warren Ellis recently joined Lewis in importing sehnsucht to English through his weird and wonderful novel, Normal (2016), about a foresight strategist who gets so overwhelmed by the futures he sees approaching that he is sent to recover in a wilderness retreat with other burned-out futurists. This brief list highlights touchstone moments in the history of sehnsucht that we might consider as we shape the loanword’s meaning in this time of increasing ecological awareness of mass extinction, toxic pollution, water scarcity, and the Anthropocene epoch writ large, as things we have already lost and the myriad things we will lose once the climatic changes we’ve set in motion are realized, all alongside the technoscientific breakthroughs and advances that contain the potential to ameliorate these losses.
From those glimpses at the Anglo-Saxon intellectual history of sehnsucht, let’s turn to what the word means today. Although sehnsucht is a word on the move through time and space—morphing and adapting as people utter it within shifting conditions of life on Earth and across diverse cultural settings—its two root components remain sehn (“to long” or “to pine”) and sucht (a lingering illness). A consistent if somewhat reductive definition combines two elements. One is pining, as in a longing for something lost, a something that may have once existed and is now gone, or a something that may have been an opportunity passed over or a potential never realized. The other is anticipation, as in a deep, perhaps utopian desire for a better state of affairs to come, though this future may reside anywhere on the scale that runs from the realistically realizable to a state of perfection that can only be approached asymptotically. Such a combination of sadness and joy, of intellect and feeling, seems to describe a paradox: to encounter sehnsucht is to oscillate between despair and hope, loss and gain, dystopia and utopia.
In other words, sehnsucht captures a complicated, one might say dialectical, response to living in a world that feels like it’s on the precipice of disintegrating and/or nearing the horizon of a radical breakthrough into a new and humane future—a synchronization of unflinching acceptance and utopian hopefulness. It’s like the transient vision human beings get at dusk when the photoreceptors of their retinas toggle uncertainly. We may feel as if we can’t see what we expect to see clearly, yet new colors and contours come into view. This paradoxical experience of being is not an easy space to inhabit for any length of time, really, so sehnsucht is necessarily a fleeting and precious thinking-feeling.
By conscientiously integrating sehnsucht into thought, art, science, and general discussions of past, present, and future ecological crises, people stand to improve their capacity to overcome the debilitating despair that often flows from awareness of these crises. To face mass extinctions, the deteriorating conditions of water, air, and soil on Earth, and the massive-scale hyperobjects of global warming and the Anthropocene with sehnsucht is to acknowledge devastation without turning in desperation to nostalgic pining for some sort of idealized past world of ecological harmony and balance that never in fact existed. Nor can we turn to fantasy projections of humane capitalism that can keep things running essentially as they are now, but with smart phones made with bamboo cases. No. Sehnsucht helps us to look unflinchingly at the horrors of life on Earth, now and to come, and maintain hope for and enjoyment in the radically alternate futures that cannot yet be designed even as it feels like such futures are reaching out to us, transmitting their coordinates so we can birth them into being in a strange and retroactive time loop. Sehnsucht is a pleasure in the ruins of today that might help propel us toward the unknown pleasures on the far side of ecological horrors; sehnsucht might sustain the will to work through grim times toward the prospect of brighter futures.
In order to bring sehnsucht into current ecological conversations, it is useful to examine the aesthetic powers it wielded in the past to articulate human perceptions of being but a part in a massive and complex world. One of the most powerful uses of this loanword in German is the 1801 poem “Sehnsucht” by Friedrich Schiller. Published at a time when sehnsucht possessed significant cultural capital in the German cultural milieu, Schiller’s text circulated widely. The poem was so popular that it inspired renowned musical creations by Franz Schubert and Siegfried Wagner. Just as the term sehnsucht is a complex intersection of multiple intellectual and emotional valences, so too was Schiller a brilliant polymath—poet, physician, philosopher, historian. It’s hard not to wax nostalgic for a social context in which forceful expressions about human coexistence with the nonhuman elements of the planet emanated from both scientists and aestheticists. To esteem the arts, humanities, and sciences as equal, perhaps mutually imbricated, modes of epistemology—if still in dynamic tension with each other—is an integrated approach to problem solving that is sorely needed today as we confront Anthropocenic crises. Yet the idea of Nature that emerged during the Romantic era and solidified Nature into a stable thing that became a commodity and/or externality haunts the present. In short, Nature facilitates human enlightenment, and enlightened consciousness is what gives Nature the meaning that it would otherwise not possess.
Schiller’s poem gorgeously embodies the paradoxical Romantic-era sehnsucht experience of deeply embracing the nonhuman world while maintaining an image of the human being as an individual, separate and seemingly autonomous from those nonhuman elements of Earth. The first two and a half stanzas of the four-stanza poem present read-ers with a multisensory description of wandering outside. The reader is prompted to feel “chilling mists,” glimpse “hilled dominions, / Young and green eternally,” hear “Dulcet concords” and “sweet celestial calm,” smell on the breeze “sweetly fragrant balm,” and imagine encounter-ing a full-body refreshment from inhaling “the air in highlands yonder.” By activating all of the senses, Schiller invites readers into the poetic equivalent of a virtual reality immersion into this awe-inspiring location. The poem “Sehnsucht” was built to capture that fleeting but forceful experience of walking outdoors in synchronicity with the nonhuman world. But, like a technical glitch in a virtual reality rig, this immersion dissolves when the person in the poem comes across a raging river and reacts by perceiving a gap—a deep separation. Good news, though, as the poem takes a tonal turn: there is a boat, and the protagonist decides to launch it, powered by faith and daring. The poem ends with a declaration: “Only a wonder can you carry / To the lovely wonderland.” Schiller’s “Sehnsucht” offers a hopeful vision of mustering the will to cross the impasse that separates us from the wonderland of the full world. But the catch is that this shooting the gulf—to borrow a phrase that Ralph Waldo Emerson used in “Self-Reliance” (1841) to argue that power resides not in repose but in transition—maintains and further empowers the image of the human will to dominate Nature. Even if the intentions portrayed in scenes like Schiller’s poem and Emerson’s essay prompt readers not to rest in ideas that can ossify, these same intentions often seem to entail controlling and manipulating nonhuman elements of the world for our purpose and benefit.
In 1930, in the wake of the horrors of World War I, in the midst of the rapid advancement of Hitler’s rising power and the Great Depression, Sigmund Freud published one of his most lauded works, Civilization and Its Discontents. Sehnsucht appears fairly early in this book-length analysis of why people in the rapidly modernizing areas of Europe felt such deep malaise and alienation despite the astounding rise of technoscientific developments. Freud writes:
During the last few generations mankind has made an extraordinary advance in the natural sciences and in their technical application and has established his control over nature in a way never before imagined. . . . Men are proud of these achievements, and have a right to be. But they seem to have observed that this newly-won power over space and time, this subjugation of the forces of nature, which is the fulfillment of a longing [Sehnsucht] that goes back thousands of years, has not increased the amount of pleasurable satisfaction which they may expect from life and has not made them feel happier.
Sehnsucht is key to this passage, as Freud suggests that this human relationship to the nonhuman world is a desire that is very likely prehistoric. By implication, then, it seems unsurprising that the inventions of the steam engine, railroad, and cinema, for example, would fully satisfy this desire. To be human is to encounter sehnsucht; to be human is to pine for synchronicity with the nonhuman elements of Earth and feel disalienated from it, and paradoxically to achieve control over those same elements of Earth, so that we feel masters of it. In other words, Freud deployed sehnsucht to identify the cognitive dissonance he perceived as a widespread human response to the lived experience of being part of a planet’s ecosystems. But the human part of this formulation and what it means for sehnsucht as a loanword is complicated. After all, Freud was analyzing lives in largely Western urban environments placed in conversation with lives in often rural or agricultural non-Western environments. He theorized with sehnsucht in a fuzzy zone where cultural specificity commingles with human universality, which works out well for us because sehnsucht responds to a universal condition based on a shared planet, yet it comes marked by cultural specificities that do not disavow the differences in how climate futures will be experienced by human beings.
Intriguingly, Freud claims that the cognitive dissonance of sehnsucht has intensified because of the simultaneous explosion of technoscientific developments in the West and contact through global expeditions with what Freud, in the parlance of his time, refers to as “primitive peoples and races.” In a weird way, Freud’s sehnsucht resonates with the affects of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1897), a work of science fiction that combines the allegory of inverted invasion—Martians treat British people the way British people were treating Tasmanian people—with the prospects of advanced technoscience to reshape an entire planet. Indeed, science fiction written in the era of European colonial expansion expresses the time’s hubris and anxiety. It remains a genre that captures as well as reimagines the sehnsucht state of being.
Now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, people live in the gloom of looming global warming, haunted by the prospect of human life flickering out on Earth. Structures and practices of globalization such as the existing and potential uses of algorithms, biogenetics, and geoengineering differ from those that Freud witnessed, yet they are still marked by the contradictions of that era and fears that such advances require sacrificing essential aspects of what some people think it means to be human. Sehnsucht can play a significant role in the present moment, but it must be wielded wisely to be effective. If the pining side of sehnsucht is overemphasized, it may fuel retrograde ideas of making Earth great again, to modify a Trumpism; if the hopes of terraforming other planets or fixing Earth with nanomachines are overemphasized, sehnsucht may lead us into tempting fantasies of technoutopianism; but by holding and grappling with both the painful acceptance of the past and the hopeful speculations of the future, a dynamic sehnsucht can help articulate the deeply unsettling experience of recognizing the world in and as transition. To feel-think sehnsucht right now is to comprehend and even embrace how alien life on Earth has become without ever forgetting that the human species is inextricably bound to this planet through millennia of natural selection. Sehnsucht is an awful and awesome revelation that any single human being seems able to sustain only briefly, so as to avoid being pulled apart by its forceful contradiction.
It’s as if we’re a somnambulist species who’s been remodeling unconsciously for millennia, only to wake up one morning and discover new rooms and hallways, plumbing and wiring and heating ducts all around us. We are at home, yet not. We feel sehnsucht—longing for a better world that we’ve never inhabited but that we believe to our cores exists as an alternative. It must! So, please consider making sehnsucht a word you can shake out of your sleeve when you catch those fleeting glimpses of paradox, of pivot points—when you grasp the temporary ruins around us, not to shore them up, but to reimagine a whole new life of joys and pains, of arts and sciences, of coexistences and loves right here on Earth as we all warm up together into the future, foreseeable and beyond.
Another Path: Ghurba
1. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
3. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 39.
4. Freud, Civilization, 38.