When Sehnsucht (desire) leads you up the garden path

Speech by Federal Councillor Christoph Blocher at the Ninth International Woodcarvers Symposium in Brienz on the theme of Sehnsucht (desire) on 10 July 2006

Speeches, FDJP, 10.07.2006. The spoken and the written words are final; the speaker reserves the right to deviate considerably from the written text!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you, the participants in this exclusive symposium, here today and to extend to you the greetings of the Federal Council.

How can a piece of wood express Sehnsucht?
This year's Symposium in Brienz has not picked an easy theme: woodcarvers from all over the world have been asked to express their idea of "Sehnsucht" in a work of art.

What is the meaning of Sehnsucht?
Sehnsucht is one of those German words that it is almost impossible to translate adequately. Along with Weltschmerz (world weariness or taedium vitae), the stage director and author Georg Tabori called Sehnsucht one of those quasi-mystical terms in German for which there is no satisfactory corresponding term in another language.
And Tabori should know: he was born in Hungary in 1914 and being Jewish had to flee from the National Socialists and took British nationality. He now lives in Germany but has worked in a total of 17 different countries.

It is already a tough proposition for us German speakers to describe Sehnsucht. Tender longing goes hand in hand with the painful knowledge that the thing longed for will never quite be attained.

Indeed, you even get the feeling that the granting of an eagerly awaited wish could immediately bring about the destruction of the desired object.

The English writer Oscar Wilde described the dilemma aptly when he said: "In this world there are only two tragedies: one is not getting what you want, the other is getting it."
The word Sehnsucht itself expresses this conflict.

Despite these rational objections, once people have been gripped by Sehnsucht (desire), they are unable to shake off their longing. It is this close relationship (encapsulated in one word) between ardent longing or yearning (das Sehnen) and addiction (die Sucht ) that lurks behind each longing waiting to turn the feeling into a destructive, self-defeating force.

If it is true that the word Sehnsucht is untranslatable - and indeed most languages make do with the word Verlangen (désir, desire or longing) or Nostalgie (nostalgie, nostalgia) – this in no way means that the feeling of Sehnsucht is a state of mind peculiar to German speakers.

The feeling of Sehnsucht is universal. And it is in the non-verbal means of expression – in painting, music and the visual arts – that this universal nature can be seen to best advantage.

Take, for example, the Portuguese Fado music that tells of unrequited love or poverty and that longs for better times.

I myself am a great admirer of the Swiss painter Albert Anker. His works, too, which often depict young people, show a Sehnsucht (nostalgia) for that innocent earnestness that only children radiate with no hint of self-consciousness. So you can imagine how much I am looking forward to seeing the works collected here.

Of course you have invited me as a politician and representative of the Swiss government to say a few words of welcome. So I must ask myself the question: is there a place for Sehnsucht in politics? In some ways there is and in some ways there isn't. Of course a politician must be sustained by longing, a yearning for a better world. It would be a poor person to whom this wish was alien.

But we should never understand politics as being some form of applied arts where we can fashion the world into the shape we want as if it were a block of wood. This would be to do the world of the living, the real world and existence itself a gross injustice. It is ideologues – and they have shown it time and again in history – who want to knock society into shape, endangering life itself in the process.

What is crucial in politics is to be in touch with real life: when all is said and done, life (the real world) is the only thing that really counts!

Our only commitment is to life itself! This means letting go of all ideologies and visions. The only thing that really matters in state and politics is that people are able to live as citizens – a simple, albeit noble, task. Political work is measured by the degree of freedom since, wherever there is freedom, Sehnsucht can develop and, wherever freedom prevails, individuals can strive to have their wishes come true. It is vital that people are allowed to maintain this personal freedom - and not have it curtailed by politics or the state!

In my years in politics I have always considered seeing life as it really is to be the greatest art in politics.
It may be a pragmatic, somewhat unexciting approach: but if you want to eliminate what is wrong – to clear the way for freedom and living – you first have to know what is wrong.

The Sehnsucht (desire) for better conditions is a natural corollary. If my speech is entitled Sehnsucht can lead you up the garden path, or the path through the woods as we say in German, the ambiguity is intentional.
There is a great danger in politics of Sehnsucht creeping in like an ideology in disguise that is the very antithesis of life.

The Holzweg (path through the woods) – as everyone who grew up in a country with so many forests knows – is in fact only an imaginary path. It does not lead anywhere but comes to an abrupt halt somewhere in the undergrowth. It was the woodcutters who dragged the felled tree trunks along these paths, creating as they did so an aisle in the woods. However, if works of art are created out of these logs of wood, then what we are looking at with fascination is the creation of people who have (found) a way with wood.

My last point is that everyone has a different understanding of Sehnsucht even if the basic feeling is similar. But the situation that we are longing for or the place we are longing to be will be different for each one of us. This is how it is in real life in all its guises. We can and indeed should all surrender to this Sehnsucht, this lust for life.