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Longing , painting by Oskar Zwintscher , 1895

Longing ( mhd. "Sensuht", as "disease of painful desire") is an intimate desire for people, things, states or periods of time. It is associated with the feeling of not being able to reach the object of longing.

In people who are “consumed with longing”, this can take on psychopathological traits, for example in various forms of longing for death, which can range up to the desire to commit suicide .

Etymology and language change

A reference to suffering of the word longing in Middle High German usage is connected in the German dictionary to “infirmity” as follows: With a weakening of the disease reference , the word later denoted the high “degree of a violent and often painful desire for something, especially when one has no hope of receiving what is desired attain, or if attainment is uncertain, it is still distant ”.

The word sehnsucht is used as Germanism in some other languages. Because of its indeterminacy, analogous terms are not easy to use. In Portuguese there is a similar but not identical term saudade .

Longing in mythology

In Greek mythology , Himeros is the god of loving longing, who can be found with Eros in the company of Aphrodite .

A mythical explanation of longing is offered by the myth of the spherical people , which the philosopher Plato tells in his fictional, literary Dialog Symposion ( Das Gastmahl ). The inventor of the myth is Plato himself, but he made use of old mythical motifs. The core idea also occurs in non-European myths. Plato's fictional narrator is the famous comedy poet Aristophanes , who, like the other participants in the banquet about which the dialogue is about, gives a speech on Eros . According to the myth, humans originally had spherical torsos and four hands and feet and two faces on one head. In their arrogance they wanted to storm the sky. For this she punished Zeus by cutting each of them in half. These halves are today's people. They suffer from their incompleteness; everyone seeks the lost other half. The longing for the former wholeness manifests itself in the form of erotic desire, which aims at union. Some spherical people were purely male, others purely female, and still others - the androgynoi - had a male and a female half. The purely masculine originally descended from the sun, the purely feminine from the earth, and the androgynous from the moon. With this different constitution of the spherical people, Plato's Aristophanes explains the differences in sexual orientation. Only people who have emerged from androgynoi are heterosexual.


Despite all the difficulty of determining analogous terms in other languages, there is a similarity in Plato with the Greek πόθος, whose folk etymology is explained in the dialogue Kratylos . This “longing” relates to something “that is and absent elsewhere”. In the symposium , πόθος appears as the son of Eros, who is regarded as a principle of striving desire and is directed towards what one does not have. In Phaedrus' dialogue , πόθος is a condition of knowledge. Objects are recognized from the πόθος according to the eternal archetypes which the souls once saw.

However, it was only the Judeo-Christian conception of the human condition in its imperfection, which is inherent in the desire for overcoming and perfection, that led the longing to philosophical questions.

Böhme and Kant

With Jacob Böhme , longing takes on a new meaning, since for him “yearning” makes the force of action (of nature) “materially” that is, matter . All of nature is based on the principle of “longing”, a mechanism that is as dynamic as it is creative. Man's longing for God is a reminder of his origins. Böhme speaks of the “longing of the darkness for the light and the power of God” through which the world was created out of darkness.

While for Immanuel Kant in his anthropology longing is only the “empty wish”, “to be able to destroy the time between desire and acquisition of what is desired”, the term is valued in German idealism .

German idealism

German idealism generally regards longing in the context of the philosophy of religion . For Friedrich Schleiermacher, it is the origin of all religion, since it raises the question of the “sense of the world”. Man with his religious disposition has a longing “for the wonderful and supernatural”.

Fichte and Schelling understand longing as a creative force. At one point Fichte describes it as an “impulse to be united with the immortal and to merge”; it is the ground of existence that only comes to true life through it.

In the fourth chapter of his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel speaks of an “unhappy consciousness”: “This unhappy, internally divided consciousness must, because this contradiction of its essence is a consciousness in one consciousness, always have the other, and so on everyone is driven out of it again immediately, believing that they have come to victory and the rest of unity. ”By this he means the eternal striving for the“ unchangeable essence ”(p. 158), the ultimate truth and conscience. Only in the other of itself does the spirit ultimately come to itself, become absolute spirit. In the culture influenced by the Christian faith, this lies in the longing for paradise. This realization, the symbol of which is the crucifixion of Christ , makes this awareness unhappy.


Longing as the projection of ideal images. What is foreign becomes home in the dream world. Sales booth with posters on a street in the Syrian capital Damascus

Longing - for example in the motif of infinity - played a major role in the romantic era . In addition to literature and philosophy, this also applies to music . Richard Wagner's work is hardly conceivable without the infinite melody and the longing motif (in Tristan and Isolde ). In addition to other emotions, longing in music can be understood as a basic feeling of expression.

The romantics saw in the indeterminacy of longing a metaphysical equivalent of their own poetic work, which was more searching than finding, striving than fulfillment.

Some writers and philosophers refer in their work to the metaphysical concept of Jakob Boehme and interpret it in a platonic way. Friedrich Schlegel seeks to derive finite consciousness from the infinite and regards this in its highest form as “pure striving” that also includes memory . The soul lifts itself up to the “divine” through longing and memory. Everything spiritually beautiful and great emerges from longing, even philosophy can be understood as the doctrine or science of longing.

His brother, August Wilhelm Schlegel , worked out the difference between the “classical” and the “romantic” antithetically in the lectures on dramatic art and literature , which are considered to be the central work of Romanticism: “The poetry of the ancients was that of possession, the ours is that of longing; the former stands firmly on the ground of the present, the latter weighs between memory and anticipation. "

Much in Novalis ' work revolves around this romantic element. Heinrich von Ofterdingen's famous blue flower can be seen as the symbol of romanticism, an unattainable goal of enthusiastic searching, which is unsatisfied in the here and now, longs for the other, which it does not know and whose dangers it cannot assess.

In an essay on Beethoven's instrumental music, ETA Hoffmann describes the infinite longing as the essence of romanticism and describes Beethoven as a “purely romantic” composer, since his music - in contrast to Mozart's - moves the levers of fear, shudder and horror.

Longing is a central motif in the work of the late Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff . Longing is evoked in many of his poems and prose works. For Eichendorff, man is a homo viator , a traveler on the way through the world to his eternal home.

Even Goethe , who was critical of romanticism, mentions longing again and again. As a poetic reason for the Mignon song ("Do you know the land where the lemons bloom ...") or the poem Blessed Sehnsucht from the West-Eastern Divan , Friedrich Schiller wrote in 1801 that it should only be aimed at something "inaccessible" Poem entitled Sehnsucht .

Explanatory approach according to Freud

In the fifth chapter of his treatise Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Sigmund Freud describes in the drive theory that the drives are rather conservative in nature. This means that they not only want to preserve the existing state, but also tend to lead to a return to an earlier state: "An instinct would therefore be an urge to restore an earlier state that is inherent in the animate organic ...". In the third chapter of his essay The Unconscious (1915) Freud explains the connection between drives and affects, such as feelings and sensations. In his opinion, the drives are never "objects of consciousness", but can only exist in the imagination. But they come to the fore through affects.

If one looks at the relation between drives and feelings, the thought arises that not only are the drives considered conservative, but that the feelings resulting from them also tend to be conservative. This becomes clear in the feeling of longing, which is often aimed at the experienced, the past. Those affected find the state in which they are now to be more difficult than the one they long for.

Longing for death

Caspar David Friedrich : Friedhof im Schnee , 1826, with an open grave as an expression of longing for death

This longing has various causes, such as dissatisfaction with the current personal or political situation, the world as such ( Weltschmerz ) or the desire to follow a loved one. Some people, who no longer see any meaning in their existence (see crisis of meaning ), long for death and / or see it as salvation . In depth psychological consideration, the longing for death is also traced back to the paradisiacal state that the time represented in the womb, where oneness and security prevailed.

For some people with a religious feeling, the longing for death is linked to the longing for God and paradise or a return to the purity of a pre-existence before earthly self-development (see also mysticism , Christian mysticism ). In their reception, the designation of death as going home is not a euphemism .

Art and literature

Already in Hartmann von Au's tale of verse Poor Heinrich , the female main character shows a longing for the afterlife, because of which she willingly willing to accept her sacrificial death. Longing for death plays a decisive role in William Shakespeare's plays, for example in Romeo and Juliet or in Hamlet . Hamlet's best-known monologues (“Oh, melt this all too firm flesh”, “ To be or not to be, that is the question here ”) deal intensively with the subject.

The longing for death had an important position in the art and poetry of the Baroque . This is evident in the vanitas motif in the visual arts and especially in works of religious poetry that emphasize the transience of the earthly world and express the longing desire for God and salvation. Paul Gerhardt , Andreas Gryphius and Johann Franck are important representatives of this poetry.

A form of longing for death that leads to suicide is described in Goethe's epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther and in other works. Goethe composed the poem Blessed Sehnsucht in 1814.

In the Romantic era, the motif becomes central again. In his hymns to the night or the sacred songs , Novalis (1772–1801) combined the Christian yearning for salvation with the philosophical and religious ideals of early romanticism . Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857) also linked the longing for death to the hope of redemption, while Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850) addressed the aspect of wanting to end in his poems and his poem Faust . Weltschmerz, which leads to a longing for death, is expressed in the poetry cycles of the poet Wilhelm Müller (1794–1827), especially the Winterreise .

In English Romanticism, longing for death can be found in Lord Byron's poem Manfred (1817). Romantic painters have also dealt with the subject, for example Caspar David Friedrich with his grave and cemetery depictions . The longing for death led to suicide in the case of some romantics. B. Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806) and Friedrich Theodor Fröhlich (1803–1836), or to a transfigured view of death, as in the case of Novalis, who died young, who “die against” his deceased lover Sophie von Kühn (1782–1797) " wanted to.


Web links

Wikiquote: Longing  - Quotes
Wiktionary: Sehnsucht  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikisource: Sehnsucht  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: German Dictionary .
  2. a b c longing. In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy. Volume 9, p. 165.
  3. ^ Marie Delcourt , Karl Hoheisel : Hermaphrodit. In: Real Lexicon for Antiquity and Christianity . Volume 14, Stuttgart 1988, Sp. 649-682, here: 662.
  4. Hermann Baumann : The double sex. Berlin 1986, ISBN 3-496-00852-0 , pp. 178-182, 361; Marie Delcourt, Karl Hoheisel: Hermaphrodit. In: Real Lexicon for Antiquity and Christianity. Volume 14, Stuttgart 1988, Sp. 649-682, here: 650, 652; Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade : Androgynous. In: Lindsay Jones (Ed.): Encyclopedia of Religion. 2nd Edition. Volume 1, Detroit 2005, pp. 337-342, here: 338.
  5. ^ Plato: Symposium. 189d-193d.
  6. ^ Plato: Symposium. 190a-b. See Bernd Manuwald : The Speech of Aristophanes (189a1–193e2). In: Christoph Horn (Ed.): Plato: Symposion. Berlin 2012, pp. 89-104, here: 93f.
  7. Mário Jorge de Carvalho: The Aristophanes speech in Plato's symposium. Würzburg 2009, pp. 295-297.
  8. Immanuel Kant: Anthropology, Anthropological Didactics, From Desire. Third book.
  9. Historical Dictionary of Philosophy. Volume 9, p. 166.
  10. cit. according to the historical dictionary of philosophy. Volume 9, p. 166.
  11. Reclam Universal Library. No. 8460, 1987, p. 157.
  12. Historical Dictionary of Philosophy. P. 167.
  13. Kindler's New Literature Lexicon. Volume 14, August Wilhelm von Schlegel: About dramatic art and literature. Munich 1991, p. 964.
  14. August Wilhelm Schlegel: Lectures on dramatic art and literature. Quoted from: Romanticism, the romantic. In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy. Volume 8, p. 1086.
  15. ^ Joseph von Eichendorf. In: Walther Killy: Literature Lexicon. Volume 3, p. 200.
  16. ^ H. Schmitz: Goethe's old age thinking in the context of the history of the problem. 1959, pp. 254-264 cit. after: Historical dictionary of philosophy. Volume 9, p. 167.
  17. Johann Wolfgang v. Goethe: Poetry and Truth. second part, ninth book.
  18. Fischer Taschenbuch 6394, p. 146.
  19. p. 82.