Michel van de Waart in Amsterdam

Sehnsuchten

Michel van der Waart
Michel van der Waart
A man and a woman find themselves in a hovering cube that is furnished like a room. Now and again the room spins 90°, turning the side walls into the ceiling and the floor, and then the other way around. The man and the woman take up their new positions, seriously but gracefully, as if their lives had not literally been turned upside down. They feel their way around the room, look at it thoughtfully, and finally remain where they are.

Sehnsucht is a production by the Nederlands Dans Theater with choreography by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. I saw the production one sunny May evening in the Stopera in Amsterdam. Whilst river boats were cruising up and down the Amstel outside, inside a dramatic dream was being played out. However this is a dream without words, the only language being that spoken by trained bodies. The piece however has a title: Sehnsucht.

It says the following about the title in the programme:

“Sehnsucht is a German word that literally means ‘longing’ or in a wider sense a kind of ‘intensely missing’. However, Sehnsucht is almost impossible to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state.”

And then further down something in brackets along with its source:

“(Sehnsucht is one of those quasi-mystical terms in German for which there is no satisfactory term in another language. - Wikipedia)”

Is Sehnsucht really a typical German word? Or a typical German feeling? What separates Sehnsucht from the usual type of longing is that it is always about an unachieveable something or an unattainable someone. Sometimes the longing is for an ideal, or something immaterial. So you might talk about fancying a coffee or fancying a hot bath. But only about longing (Sehnsucht) for love. Sehnsucht contains an indefinable something, the attention is on the feeling itself and not really on the object of longing - in the way you can be homesick for a place you have never been to. The word is a combination of “to long for” and “addiction”. It is a bitter-sweet feeling, it is not only painful, it also is an invitation to revel deeply in it.

And why is it that our neighbours in the East suffer from Sehnsucht more than anyone else? Is it a matter of climate? Or landscape? I read an interview with Rüdiger Safranski in which he suggested that the Romantic period was taken up in Germany with such alacrity because the country is not a sea-faring nation. Whilst other countries in western and southern Europe go out to sea to go on journeys of discovery, the Germans seek new horizons within themselves. They do not go outwards but inwards, not into the wide world but down into the depths or up into the heights.

This thesis is supported by fantastic examples in literature. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann symbolises an ethereal spiritual world in which the German elite sought sanctuary at the beginning of the 20th century. In his masterpiece The Tower, German writer Uwe Tellkamp describes how members of the educated classes of the GDR tried to escape the repressive system through chamber music and classical literature. Their escapism is not simply a mental survival strategy but also a clear example of Sehnsucht, which Tellkamp labels “the sweet illness of yesterday”.

Is Sehnsucht still prevalent? Or is it rather an archaic romantic term that at most is suitable as a 'semi mystic' title for a ballet performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater, or for a CD by the heavy metal band Rammstein? Close questioning of German friends reveals that Sehnsucht is in fact a fairly old-fashioned word, one that is not often used in everyday conversations. In Angela Merkel's modern Germany there is very little time for wistful staring into the distance. And why should there be? The world is small and full, everything is within reach. It just has to be managed in an adequate, friendly and pragmatic way.

Anyone who sets out to look for Sehnsucht does not need to hunt for long however, and certainly not in Germany. It happened not all that long ago in Chemnitz, once called Karl Marx Stadt. I was staying overnight there whilst on holiday alone. I found an apparently thinly-populated city, the centre of which was dominated by new buildings. In the evening the wide avenues were dead, far and wide there was not a bar or disco for young people to be seen. Finally I ended up in a cinema on the top floor of a shopping centre, where I sat with five others dotted around a 500-seat auditorium. It was in these surroundings that a strange, undefined melancholy overcame me, despite a huge tub of popcorn.

The next day I haphazardly set off in the tram to explore the city. I got out in one of the outlying districts near the stop for Chemnitz Airport and asked an old woman with a shopping bag where the airport was exactly. She explained to me that I had to think beyond the high rises, the Aldi and the carpark. Using her arms, the woman showed to me how, once upon a time, when she was young, the planes took off and landed. She broke off her story, sighed and then smiled apologetically. “Yes, well, it's a long time ago...” I nodded. And together we looked at the people who were loading their shopping into the car underneath a high, cloudy sky.

Since 2008 Michel van de Waart has worked for the Amsterdam publisher De Arbeiderspers as Editor of Dutch prose and non-fiction. He is also responsible for international series such as 'Privédomain' and 'Oorlogsdomain'. In addition to his publishing work, he translates German literature, and is also interested in history, philosophy and fine arts.

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