Musings of an Existential Pilgrim: Saudade


This column is about words. More specifically, it is about words that have no direct translation in English. If words give shape to thoughts and communication then hopefully these words can provide you dear reader with more eloquent and shapely thoughts.


This week’s word ‘Saudade’ [pronounced sa-oo-DAD in Portugal and sow-DAH-djee in Brazil] is found in both Portuguese and Galician vocabularies. Saudade is comparable to nostalgia and melancholy but extends to encompass a broader set of concepts than those words capture. Saudade is a bittersweet emotion. There is a sadness or longing for something that is lost or missing in one’s life, but there is also a comfortable acceptance that the missed object will probably never return. Saudade might exist for long lost friends, for family, for a past lover, for food, for a childhood toy or any number of other things. Saudade is not a dramatic lamentation but rather an ever present aching. The Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo describes saudade as simultaneously “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”


One way to think about saudade is the concept of absence and presence. The absence is sad because one is reminded of what we miss and what we long for. At the same time however, this longing and sadness has a presence of its own. Sadness and longing carries a substance that gives shape to what we are. Saudade differs from simple melancholy in this regard because while it wishes for something to fill the void, there is no wish to avoid the void itself. To paraphrase Laozi (老子), the bowl is only useful precisely because it is empty.  An absent emptiness can become a concrete presence. With time, what you are lacking becomes just as integral to identity as what you have. Nietzsche would also understand saudade in a similar light. For Nietzsche, the good experiences of the past cannot be separated from the bad. Everything combines together to form the present you in this particular place. Not only is the bowl useful because it is empty, but a bowl with no empty space is not a bowl. Saudade mixes the sadness of a flawed and imperfect past with the satisfaction that those experiences have made you what you are now.


Perhaps there is no better word than saudade to characterise the Portuguese sentiment. Saudade has its origins during Portugal’s golden age beginning from the 15th century. Developments in technology allowed Portugal to establish a sprawling empire that spanned the globe. Widespread saudade resulted as sailors spent long periods abroad pining for home and loved ones. As the glory of the empire waned and other European powers came to dominate, the wistful longing for a return to glory prompted further bouts of saudade. The colonies of Portugal additionally had large slave populations trafficked from Africa and these peoples would come to have stories of their own saudade. In more modern times, the Portuguese national football team regularly contributes to national saudade having never won a major trophy despite boasting some of the greatest talent. I’m sure saudade is something which you can come to acquire an appreciation for overtime as well. For the quintessential audio experience of saudade I would recommend listening to João Gilberto’s ‘Chega de Saudade’ (Enough Saudade).


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