Sehnsucht is a Germanic language word with no complete English translation. It means longing or to yearn, combined with a desire for something missing. Often, the yearning pervades the person and is interpreted as a state of malaise. The Welsh word Hiraeth, from the Brythonic language1; is a yearning for a place tinged with sadness over its loss – the person having been removed in space or time. Like Sehnsucht, Hiraeth is personal, and the reflection of the loss becomes the act and conclusion.
C.S. Lewis in his writings stated that Sehnsucht “was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?” 2. He interpreted this German word as a search for personal contentment, a fulfilment that could be elusive and incomplete. Offering tranquility, it becomes habitual, a pleasurable and potentially painful journey.
He recognised this search as personal, stating, “Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw – but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him” 3.
Sehnsucht in photography becomes a concept of absence or loss, defined by time and place. Place is where the event is deemed to have occurred; time is when it transpired, and the search is the why. Fay Godwin and Raymond Moore4 both successfully apply these concepts and recognise time; its associations, its presence in a process, and importantly it’s positioning in relation to their search. To visit and capture is not enough, senses have to be attuned to the possibilities – Godwin, through research and observation, and Moore, through scrutiny and reflection.
Sehnsucht elevates and defines a personal ‘search’, from the mundane recording of dramatic vistas, towards a personal interpretation of what is discovered. The ‘search’ distinguished the proliferation of average imagery towards the memorable; away from replication towards interpretation – where the observed content is often hidden to the casual viewer.
* Leaving Nantlle Valley, North Wales.
1 Old Irish (sírecht), Breton (hiraezh) and Cornish (hyreth, hereth)
2 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, p.16.
3 C S Lewis. The Problem With Pain, (NY Macmillan, 1938 p.145.
4 See other journal entires and resources for amplification of their contribution.
Further reading and resources:
Barbara Diener. (2014). Sehnsucht.
C S Lewis (1943). The Pilgrims Regress
C S Lewis. The Problem With Pain
Matthew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature, NY: Macmillan, 1907
Corbin Scott Carnell, Bright Shadow of Reality: C.S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974
Roderick Peters. (1985). Reflections on the Origin and Aim of Nostalgia. Journal of Analytical Psychology. 30 (2)