Longing and yearning

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman at the window, 1818-22
Caspar David Friedrich, Woman at the window, 1818-22

Longing by Hans-Dieter Gelfert

All human beings probably long now and again (or all the time) to be in a state that is better than the status quo. This is the basis of all the concepts of ‘beyond’ in religion and religion-like philosophies. Even in the here and now people long for a better world, making it possible to distinguish between specific cultures based on the intensity of longing in them. A simple comparison between a large anthology of German lyrics and a similarly sized collection of English or French verse will show that longing plays a more significant role in German poems. Even Goethe, who unlike most of his fellow poets stood firmly with both feet planted in the here and now, wrote poems that made longing almost proverbial. ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, / Weiß, was ich leide!’ (‘Only someone who is familiar with longing / Can know what I am suffering!’), sings Mignon in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; and another, equally famous poem bears the title, ‘Selige Sehnsucht’ (Blessed Longing). In the Romantic movement longing finally became the prevailing state of mind. It is not just a recurrent concern in poetry. In painting too the image of looking longingly out of a window became a standard motif. On the whole, this is an undefined longing, looking out into the distance into the freedom or infinity of the world, but there are also concrete yearnings, above all for Italy, which Germans continue to feel. Goethe himself felt this so acutely that he gave in to it and set off on a long journey to Italy. He presents his Iphigenia as a woman longing for her homeland, ‘searching for the land of the Greeks with her soul’. This is how Anselm Feuerbach painted her in an image which became an icon of the German longing for Greece. There are also many folksongs that feature longing, with spring, home and the distant beloved serving as the typical objects of desire.

Anselm Feuerbach -Iphigenie, 1871
Anselm Feuerbach, Iphigenie, 1871

Given the obsessive way in which this feeling is invoked, one gains the impression that this sense of yearning for a goal offers more satisfaction for Germans than does attaining it. We know that Lessing valued the search for truth more highly than possession of it. But a search presupposes longing. Within philosophy itself Kant’s ‘postulates’ and Hegel’s ‘speculation’ both involve an element of longing. There can be no doubt that the art in which longing is most fully expressed is music, for in essence the enjoyment of music consists of arousing a longing in the listener, who yearns for satisfaction yet who also wants the moment of satisfaction to be postponed for as long as possible. Once this is made clear, it becomes apparent that it is no far-fetched assumption to regard music, that most German of all the arts, as the expression of this general German longing.

Anyone who traces the motif of longing through German culture in the last three centuries will understand why it is that the Germans first paid attention to the call of daydreams, which eventually fell victim to a political dream, which then turned into a nightmare. When Thomas Mann was asked to contribute a quotation on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1924, he declined to do so in a direct way and instead proposed a passage from Hölderlin’s Empedokles, which in a veiled poetic way  refers to the end of kings and the arrival of democracy. Thomas Mann’s comment on Hölderlin’s Utopia was as follows:

“The way that lonely poets dreamt of Greece, of a society that is sacred and free, of a new covenant that is established with deep and courageous rejuvenation and sealed with law, all of that is a dream that has emerged from all our longings, out of the ‘German soul’, which is something different from what the Romantics envisioned. It is not homesickness or longing for the Linden tree, but a desire for sacrifice, for annihilation, for new birth and for eternal becoming.”

All of this sends a shiver down the spine, because the self-same readiness for sacrifice and mystical longing for annihilatition cum rebirth is something that the National Socialists mobilised in order to bring about the holy society of the ‘Volk’ and establish a ‘greater German Empire’.

from Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Was ist deutsch? Wie die Deutschen wurden, was sie sind (2005) pp. 58 – 61 English translation by Malcolm Wren

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