Saudade is a key emotion word for Portuguese speakers. Though akin to nostalgia or longing, the term has no direct equivalent in English. As the Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil sings in ‘Toda saudade’, it is the presence of absence, ‘of someone or some place – of something, anyway’. One can have saudades (the singular and plural forms are interchangeable) for people or places, as well as sounds, smells, and foods. One can even have saudades for saudade itself. That is because ‘it is good to have saudades’ (é bom ter saudades), as the common saying goes. There is a certain pleasure in the feeling. Though painful, the sting of saudades is a reminder of a good that came before.
Writing in 1912, the Portuguese poet Teixeira de Pascoaes defined saudade as ‘desire for the beloved thing, made painful by its absence’. It is an acute feeling, often described as occurring in the heart. The language of saudade is evocative. Portuguese speakers complain of ‘dying of saudades’ (morrendo de saudades), or wanting to ‘kill saudades’ (matar saudades) by fulfilling desire. Though hyperbolic, the word’s morbid poetics throw light on how affective ties make for a meaningful human life.
Popular tradition relates saudade to the feeling of distance and loss suffered by the families of men off at sea during the age of Portuguese discoveries. While this folk history captures the term’s poetic ambivalence, its etymology is unclear. The archaic form soidade appears in 13th-century troubadour verses recounting the laments of distant lovers. Most scholars suggest that this form derives from the Latin solitate (solitude), and was possibly later influenced by the Portuguese word saudar (‘to greet’) before arriving at the present form. But some scholars have offered alternative etymologies, including one that traces saudade to the Arabic sawdā, a word that can denote a dark or melancholy mood. It is a high-stakes debate: saudade is integral to Portuguese self-understanding, and the question of the word’s origins reflects deeper concerns about Portuguese ethnicity and identity.
Facing Saudade: In Self and Society
Saudade – “the clear-cut verbal symbol,” the narrator’s dream, the narrative called “Facing Saudade,” and threshold experience – is neither predetermined nor predictable. Saudade exists in an imperfect, unsecured present. Evolving, contingent and imprecise, porous and pregnant with possibilities, saudade has no sure harbor, no metaphysical anchorage, no sureties and no certainties.
Saudosismo, an early 20th-century literary movement, was largely responsible for establishing saudade as a marker of Portuguese identity. Founded two years after the 1910 republican revolution that ended a centuries-long monarchy, Saudosismo promised cultural renewal during a time of uncertainty. In ‘The Making of Saudade’ (2000), the Portuguese anthropologist João Leal writes that Saudosistas sought to restore the ‘lost splendour’ of Portuguese cultural life, ‘replacing foreign influences – held to be responsible for the decline of the country since the Age of Discoveries – with a cult of “Portuguese things”, reflecting the true “Portuguese soul”.’ Hailing saudade as the authentic expression of the ‘Lusitanian spirit’, the movement put the emotion at the cult’s centre.
Portuguese speakers commonly boast that saudade is untranslatable. Though an old claim – King Duarte of Portugal (who reigned 1433-38) asserted saudade’s singularity as early as the 15th century – the Saudosistas are responsible for its ubiquity today. In the movement’s manifesto, Pascoaes repeated the claim that the term could not be translated, and asserted that ‘the only people who feel saudade are the Portuguese’. Linking the feeling to Portuguese ethnogenesis, he argued that saudade’s sublime union of desire and pain reflected the ‘perfect synthesis’ of Aryan and Semitic blood that obtained in the Portuguese people. Though contemporaries pointed to close equivalents in other languages, Pascoaes’s nationalist embrace of saudade appealed to a cultural elite trying to find its way.