(222): How Things Fall Apart: Images of my Hometown in Memory
Betta Tryptophan
93

When I was younger (mid-twenties to early 30s), I used to sometimes feel an overwhelming nostalgia for my home town, and make great efforts to return there to “recapture childhood,” or some similar notion. But whenever I was actually there in person, the reality wasn’t at all like the feeling that drove me there. It was like digging frantically through a drawer for some precious lost item, only to suddenly realize you only dreamed you owned whatever it was, and it’s not going to be in any waking drawer. I eventually figured out that it wasn’t my home town that was so precious, it was the me who grew up there, and that wasn’t in the town, it was in me, still. I can still touch it, call it forth, when I try. That feeling seeps into a lot of my writing. Yours is very present in this piece. It is of course nostalgia, in a good way, but it is also, as you mentioned in another recent piece, sehnsucht,which goes beyond nostalgia for the actual past. C. S. Lewis called sensucht “…the inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what.”

Only later in life did I discover C. S. Lewis and his writings on sensucht. Especially this, from his 1939 sermon The Weight of Glory:

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff 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.
Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only 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.

Betta, I know you are super-literate and know all about this. I reproduce this Lewis quote for anyone who reads this response and hasn’t encountered all this yet. Sensucht is a thread everyone can/should follow to the center of the maze of life. Few emotions hold such power to lead us past the surface of life to its inner depths.

You make me think, all the time, Betta! Thanks!

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