There is an open space in the human heart–a void that seeks fulfillment and a hunger that longs for satisfaction. For the progressive this longing looks to the future. A brave new world is envisioned, an ideology is espoused and an action plan that brooks no dissent is put into place.
For the conservative that same longing is not for a brave new world, but for a serene, old world. The progressive yearns for utopia. The conservative mourns for Eden. The progressive works for a revolution. The conservative seeks a resolution. The progressive destroys the past to build the future. The conservative restores the past to build the future.
The driving motivation for the progressive is a gnawing unhappiness he wishes to placate by fabricating an untried recipe for happiness, while the conservative longs for a tried and true happiness he has lost and wishes to rediscover. This longing for a good that is gone or a bliss that can be faintly remembered is the beating heart of conservatism and the motor of its creativity.
The nostalgia of the conservative is more than a reverence for past wisdom or an immature desire to return to the comfort of the nursery. It is more than the antiquarian’s interest in the artifacts of a bygone age. It is instead an intense bittersweet emotion that lifts and unlocks the heart and motivates creative and positive change.
C.S. Lewis Longing
C.S. Lewis names this longing with the German word sehnsucht. He calls it “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” At the end of Pilgrim’s Regress he said it was, “That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
This longing remains dormant in daily life until it is sparked by a profound aesthetic experience. Suddenly the soul awakes, and the longing is fleetingly fulfilled. C.S. Lewis called this surge in the heart, this uplift “Joy”. This painfully exquisite joy comes unbidden and echoes in his heart like the sounding of the distant horn of a long lost hero.
In A Life Observed, Devin Brown recounts the joy the young C.S. Lewis rediscovered as he read a literary journal at school. Lewis describes the serendipitous moment in Surprised by Joy,
“What I had read was the words, Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. What I had seen was one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to that volume. Pure “Northerness” engulfed me; a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness severity… And with that plunge back into my past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country.”
Lewis experienced the rush again when he happened to pick up a copy of George MacDonald’s Phantastes on a railway platform bookstall. In describing that moment of Joy in the preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, Lewis makes the important observation that MacDonald’s works of fantasy fiction had more than an ephemeral emotional effect in his life. “What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize…my imagination.”
The experience of Joy for C.S. Lewis was the precursor to an intellectual and moral conversion which culminated in his acceptance first of theism, then full blooded Christianity. Almost from the moment of his conversion to Christianity, Lewis’ life exploded with creativity and prodigious accomplishment.
His achievements would not have been possible without his experience of sehnsucht—that intense nostalgia for something lost which had to be found. This sense that fulfillment comes from the recovery or remembrance of things past is at the heart of conservatism, and echoes the wisdom of Plato who taught that all learning was a matter of remembering what we once knew.
Memory and Desire in T.S. Eliot
This same sense of longing linked with memory echoes through T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Each of the quartets summons up the memories of the past through a particular place that surges with meaning for Eliot. Burnt Norton was the site of a ruined country house and garden in Gloucestershire that Eliot visited with an old school friend, and possible spouse, Emily Hale.
Once that secret is known, the poem surges with poignant nostalgia. They wander through the garden in silence. The afternoon light is still and unmoving. Birds call and the longing for “what might have been” is palpable. The entire poem can be read as an extended explication and meditation on Lewis’ sehnsucht. For Eliot this intense longing leads to the heart of contemplation at “the still point of the turning world.” This contemplative moment is, “By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving, Erhebung without motion, concentration without elimination, both a new world, And the old made explicit.”
“Erhebung” is a German word which means “lift” or “upsurge” and Eliot uses it here to imply the emotional lift which Lewis terms “Joy.” Eliot is more philosophical and sees that in this moment of intense nostalgia the old world and the new world are reconciled. Eliot was most likely referencing Kant who understood the beautiful to symbolize moral goodness. He sees a harmony in the aesthetic experience which brings about an ennobling uplift (Erhebung) beyond the senses, and this uplift reconciles the past and present–the seen and the unseen world.
Where Lewis is confounded by the unpredictability and ephemeral quality of Joy, Eliot wrestles with it further. He wants to replicate the emotion and transmit it to others in poetry. Like Lewis, it is the sense of longing for a lost Eden and the joy that whispers of fulfillment that drives Eliot to his greatest accomplishments.
Looking for Another Country
It was the experience of Joy that converted first C.S. Lewis’ imagination then his intellect and morals. It was that same nostalgia and subsequent joy that T.S. Eliot believed could effect a reconciliation of the past and future and thus provide a motivation for creative achievement. So the nostalgia or longing for the past which conservatives often feel, is not simply an immature or curmudgeonly grieving for past glories, but a genuine emotion which sparks both productivity and an intellectual resolution of the elements of the person and the society which are most often in clashing conflict.
Nostalgia and longing are therefore legitimate and powerful emotions which not only lead us to reverence the past and value memory, but also lead one on the search for that reconciliation and resolution of ideas on which a truly solid and secure society can be constructed.
Books on this topic may be found in the Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.