Homesickness: A Conversation

September 01, 2014

Homesickness: A Conversation

A dimness of a glory glimmers here

  Thro’ veils and distance from the space remote,

  A faintest far vibration of a note

Reaches to us and seems to bring us near;

Till for one moment golden city walls

  Rise looming on us, golden walls of home …

So wrote Christina Rossetti in 1869 in a poem called They Desire a Better Country.[1] Seventy-two years later, C.S. Lewis, in his now famous essay The Weight of Glory, wrote of an elusive desire, felt in moments of beauty and delight, as the ‘scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited’. [2] Elsewhere Lewis calls this scent, this echo, Sehnsucht,[3] a German word not directly translatable into English, that refers to a nostalgia or longing, or a type of ‘intensely missing’, of we know not what,[4] well described in the great poet Rilke’s poem Das ist die Sehnsucht.

German is not the only language that features such a word. Hiraeth is a Welsh word that also has no direct English translation.  Researchers at Smith College write: ‘It often translates as ‘homesickness’, but the actual concept is far more complex. It incorporates an aspect of impossibility: the pining for a home, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to experience a deep sense of incompleteness tinged with longing.’[5]

There is then the Portuguese, saudade,  which refers to an impossible longing for the unattainable, ‘a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing may never return.’[6] Polish contains the word tesknota, ‘a word that adds to nostalgia the tonalities of sadness and longing’;[7] similarly, the word kaiho in Finnish, and there are others.

It is difficult to escape the intertwining (explicit in the definition of hiraeth above) of nostalgia or longing and a sense of homesickness. One line in Rilke’s poem on Sehnsucht can possibly be translated as ‘and having no home in time’.

This sense of homesickness has long been felt and acknowledged by poets and philosophers and by the Romantics (whom D.H. Lawrence describes as those who are ‘homesick for somewhere else’[8]). The poet Novalis once interpreted the philosophical impulse as homesickness, writing ‘Philosophy is really homesickness [Heimweh], an urge to be at home [zu Hause] everywhere’,[9] which was approved and discussed by the 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger, who considered that all human beings were characterised by Unheimlichkeit, another German word for this homesickness.[10] Annette Holba writes that ‘existential homelessness is pervasive in the human condition’, and fellow philosopher Ronald C. Arnett attempts to diagnose the sources of this ‘existential homelessness’, identifying ‘rootlessness’ and ‘lost common centres and moral stories that provide a publicly known base from which conversation can begin’.[11] In a similar vein, Canadian children’s fantasy writer Ruth Nichols writes of a ‘suffering native to human beings’ as being ‘the conviction that we belong somewhere else: homesickness’.[12]

It is perhaps obvious for Christians to ask whether this seemingly pervasive and ubiquitous sense of homesickness, rippling through poetry and philosophy and old and new language the world over, is in fact an echo of Eden.

Tim Keller, in his book The Prodigal God,[13] has a section on Longing for Home. In a sermon series relating to the book he quotes Eva Hoffman, a Polish Jewish intellectual whose parents had to flee Europe during the Holocaust. Hoffman wrote in her memoir, Lost in Translation:

Since Adam and Eve left the garden of Eden is there anyone who does not in some way feel like an exile? We all feel ejected from our first homes and landscapes, from our first romance, from our authentic self. An ideal sense of belonging, of attuning with others and ourselves, completely eludes us.[14]

Keller then goes on to say ‘whenever we have a moment, a temporary moment, in which we don’t feel quite as homeless in the world, it’s actually a memory trace, of the collective unconsciousness of the human race, because we remember the garden’.[15]

If this is so, this homesickness is a profound and significant affliction of us all. Yet it is, strangely, seldom mentioned. One difficulty perhaps lies in its very private and personal nature. C.S. Lewis in Weight of Glory writes that:

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open 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. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.[16]

Yet it seems it is a conversation that might be well worth having. For self-declared sufferers of this homesickness there is great freedom and comfort in the realisation that this conviction that we belong somewhere else is a collective experience; in the knowledge that we do all desire something else, yet at the same time are not truly missing anything here on earth that requires that we seek to find it here.

Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/file:rainer maria rilke - Das Ist Sehnsucht - Herensteeg 39, Leiden.jpg

It is perhaps an apologetic conversation. C.S. Lewis, Christina Rossetti and Tim Keller give testimony that this homesickness is not something that vaporises on becoming a Christian, but that Christianity can point us to its source and then to its end. Keller claims that one of the main themes of the Bible is exile and homecoming, and that since being expelled from Eden we are living as spiritual exiles in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings. Lewis and Rossetti both came to know the truth that the source of this intense desire and homesickness was found not so much in a place, as in a person.

In a poem titled No Beauty We Could Desire, Lewis writes:

The scent was too perplexing for my hounds;

Nowhere sometimes, then again everywhere.

Other scents, too, seemed to them almost the same.

But finally he finds it, ‘the appointed place where you pursue’:

Not in nature, not even in Man, but in one

Particular Man, with a date, so tall, weighing

So much, talking Aramaic, having learned a trade …

Christina Rossetti comes to the resolution that ‘Who looks on Thee looks full on his desire’, in the poem Light of Light, and again ‘Yet in all else I long for, long for Thee’, in the poem The Gold of that land is good (‘Thee’ being Christ in both poems).

But still, the final end of all homesickness won’t come until, having located the scent of our desires in this particular man Jesus, we follow him at the last day to the ‘homecoming feast’ (as Keller describes it, in lines from Isaiah 53). In the final lines of the poem by Christina Rossetti that opens this article, she writes: ‘I hear again the tender voice that calls, “Follow me hither, follow, rise, and come”’ into those golden walls of home.

From dreams of bliss shall men awake

One day, but not to weep:

The dreams remain; they only break

The mirror of the sleep.

Phantastes

- George MacDonald[17]

[1] Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems (Penguin Books, 2001).

[2] C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory.’ Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church, ed.Lesley Warmsley (Harper Collins, 2002), pp98f.

[3] CS Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Fount, 1977).

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sehnsucht (accessed 1 March, 2014).

[5] M Harrison and P Petro, Hiraeth, Saudade and the Concept of Longing, 2013 A project of the Kahn Institute, Smith College. http://www.smith.edu/kahninstitute/shortterm_projects_hiraeth.php (accessed 1 March, 2014).

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudade (accessed 1 March, 2014).

[7] Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation (Vintage, 1998).

[8] Quoted by Alain de Botton, in The Romantics, presumably taken from The Boy in the Bush, by DH Lawrence.

[9] Michael Inwood, A Heidegger dictionary (Wiley, 1999).

[10] Martin Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World Finitude, Solitude (Indiana University Press, 1995).

[11] Annette Holba, Philosophical Leisure: Recuperative praxis for human communcication (Marquette University Press, 2007). Quoted in Brent C. Sleasman, Albert Camus's Philosophy of Communication: Making Sense in an Age of Absurdity (Cambria Press, 2011); Ronald C. Arnett, ‘Existential Homelessness: A contemporary case for dialogue’. R. Anderson, K. Cissna and R.C. Arnett (Eds), The reach of dialogue: confirmation, voice and community, (Hampton Press, 1994), pp 229-245. Quoted and discussed at length in Brent C. Sleasman, Albert Camus's Philosophy of Communication: Making Sense in an Age of Absurdity (Cambria Press, 2011).

[12] Ruth Nichols, ‘Fantasy and Escapism‘ Canadian Children’s Literature No 4, 1976.

[13] Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (Hodder and Stoughton, 2009).

[14] Eva Hoffman, op.cit.

[15] Redeemer Presbyterian Church sermon series on The Prodigal God, No 6, We Had to Celebrate, Luke 15:17-32. http://download.redeemer.com/sermons/We_Had_to_CelebrateF.mp3 (accessed 1 March, 2014). I am indebted to this sermon for the pointers to Heidegger and Eva Hoffman.

[16] Lewis, ‘The Weight of glory’, p98.

[17] http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/gm/phantastes/18.html (accessed 1 March, 2014).



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