But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire…
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”
So much in the lives of men—our literature, drama, dance, painting, photography, our solitary midnight musings—deals with this mystery which is ingrained so deeply into the hearts of every pilgrim on this planet. Noted author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis defined this part of the human experience as “the stab, the pain, the inconsolable longing…;” and he called it Joy. Books have been written, debates have raged; the Romantic Period of art and literature was essentially dedicated to the questions, “Why are we here and what are we seeking?” Debates have continued for centuries concerning the source of and the solution to the indefinable longing present in each person, but it was only when Lewis began his life’s work that a suitable definition (though still not a source) was discovered.
To be human… is to have a divinely ingrained hunger… for transcendent joy…. Lewis gave such experience the name sehnsucht, a German term rooted in sehnen (to long for, to yearn after), and sucht (homesickness, passion, rage). Sehnsucht thus means a passionate longing, a lifelong homesickness for another world. Sehnsucht is the experience of “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that his first memory of this type of longing occurred the day his brother Warren brought a toy garden into their nursery. This garden, “the first beauty I ever knew,” combined with the Castlereagh Hills he could see from his nursery window, “taught me longing—Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.” From this moment, he says, his life became a quest to recapture that fleeting moment of joy and beauty.
C.S. Lewis was not the only prolific writer to contemplate the source and meaning of desire. In the work “Writing the Long Desire: The Function of Sehnsucht in The Great Gatsby and Look Homeward, Angel,” D.G. Kehl gives numerous examples of authors focusing entire books around the desires of a specific character. Entire chapters of books are dedicated to the protagonist thinking aloud about “whence our lives come and where they go.” When trying to grasp a more concrete definition of this longing, “Carson McCullers writes, ‘It is no simple longing for the home town or the country of our birth…. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.” How is it possible to long for a place to which we have never been? If we have never had an experience, if we have never seen a place, how can one truly miss it? Many great works have been created pondering just those questions. “In ‘The Message in a Bottle,’ Walker Percy depicts every person as a castaway on an island, longing and searching for messages in bottles washed up by the waves. Something is wrong; something is missing, but he does not know what (emphasis mine).”
If so much time has gone into searching for the meaning of this longing, why has no one found the source? Are we truly made with an insatiable desire for an unknown entity? Is man destined to spend our time on this planet searching for something that we can never attain, something that may not even exist? “Lewis agued often that any human longing points to a genuine human need which in turn points to a corresponding, real object to fill that need.” There is no denial from Lewis that such a longing exists. As has been previously shown, Lewis first felt this desire himself as a young boy, but he goes on to further discuss this desire in the following manner: “It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?… Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.” Lewis had experienced desire, and when he realized the desire was a fleeting sensation, the longing to experience that desire again is what spurred him on to discover that beauty again in other objects.