‘Saudade’, a word deeply intertwined with Portuguese culture and the soul, is hailed as one of the most exquisite expressions worldwide. But it is lacking an English equivalent. Its profound meaning has captivated individuals from various nations, instilling a longing for a comparable term within their own languages.
What does ‘Saudade’ mean?
The term ‘Saudade’, originating from Portuguese, defies direct translation and encompasses the bittersweet sentiment of melancholic longing or yearning. Found as a recurring motif in Portuguese and Brazilian literature, ‘saudade’ embodies a profound sense of solitude and a feeling of incompleteness.
In his 1912 book ‘In Portugal’, the Portuguese scholar Aubrey Bell endeavors to unravel the intricacies of this multifaceted concept.
Saudade is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present.
The term ‘Saudade’ can also be used informally to express a sense of missing someone or something, even when the reunion is imminent. It distinguishes itself from nostalgia by encompassing a longing for something that may have never transpired, while nostalgia revolves around a sentimental yearning for the happiness associated with a past place or time.
The Portuguese way of life
This enchanting term holds a deep connection to the Portuguese spirit, characterized by a profound sense of melancholy and romance. In everyday conversations throughout Portugal, it is commonplace to encounter ‘saudade’ expressed with varying degrees of depth and meaning. The Portuguese people exude warmth and friendliness, yet they also possess a nostalgic and highly sensitive nature.
Portugal thrives as a nation adorned with poets and dreamers, individuals who may experience disappointment when reality fails to align with their lofty expectations. The word ‘saudade’ captures the essence of these dreamers, encapsulating their yearnings.
This state of mind has evolved into a distinct ‘Portuguese way of life’, characterized by an enduring sentiment of absence, a poignant sadness stemming from something that is missing.
The desire for the things in the past
Saudade encompasses a sorrowful yearning for something that is likely forever lost. It acknowledges the profound shift and recognizes that both individuals and circumstances can never revert to their former state. It holds nostalgia for a bygone era of contentment, yet it delves even deeper into a philosophical understanding that change is an unavoidable aspect of life. Saudade comprehends the transient nature of existence and embraces the inevitability of everything fading away. It longs for a memory that is known to be irretrievable.
Saudade can be likened to an elderly, long-married couple as they reminisce over photographs capturing their vibrant, youthful party days. While the couple may find immense happiness in their present togetherness, there is a tinge of saudade as they realize those days can never be relived.
Similarly, saudade may arise when watching an old television program depicting a long-lost country and era. Despite the potential improvements of today, witnessing that program serves as a reminder that the familiar world of the past has irrevocably vanished.
In Heraclitus’ philosophical words, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. This statement poignantly captures the essence of saudade. It recognizes the fundamental truth that even the most remarkable experiences and profound love cannot remain static. Every moment inevitably yields to the next, leading ultimately to the passage of time.
The longing for the divine
Saudade encompasses, to a large extent, the tragic aspect of the human condition. We possess an acute awareness that everything is subject to change—our bodies age, our hair greys, and the people around us come and go—yet we yearn for something enduring, something unchanging. We long for stability and constancy, but we grapple daily with the relentless truth described by Heraclitus: everything is in a perpetual state of flux.
For Augustine of Hippo, a theologian and philosopher, the yearning for constancy holds profound significance as it aligns with our inherent religious nature. In Christian theology, humans are intended to be in the presence of God, residing in the nurturing embrace of the Garden of Eden. However, through human sin, we relinquished that state to venture forth on our own.
The consequence of this separation is a perpetual sense of discontentment. We find ourselves burdened with the dissonance of understanding that everything undergoes change and eventually succumbs to death, while recognizing that we should rightfully be in the infinite and perfect embrace of God. Augustine eloquently expressed this sentiment, stating, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.
Ironically, both the atheistic Camus and the Church Father Augustine arrive at the same conclusion from different paths: the longing for permanence in an ephemeral world leaves us with a distinct sensation, and feeling kind of odd. It just leaves us feeling saudade.