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É o fado da saudade

- Amalia Rodrigues

 As an attempt to construct a coherent narrative through which to intellectualize my state of being, I decided to (re) present to myself, and to you, the Portuguese term saudade—so it may appease the pain of solitary longing for us tormented hearts.

‘Longing,’ saudade’s much simpler English equivalent, was already in use in the twelfth century CE. Longing is “a strong desire especially for something unattainable”1. At the risk of oversimplifying the connotations of this term, the purpose of this exercise, however, is to expose some of the different layers of saudade. Much ink has been spilled over the historicism and deconstruction of this noun, an effort only matched perhaps for its German equivalent sehnsucht. Does anyone know if our experiences of wajd or hanin are equally represented?

Saudade as a concept carries several layers of meaning, some more poignant than others. In its basic meaning, saudade evokes “a sense of incompleteness” felt in consequence to a separation from a source of emotions, experiences, and pleasures that were once lived, and are now missed and cherished2. In its early manifestation saudade is experienced like a devastating personal plague; it is a mantle of sadness that fully cloaks the melancholic person.

The next layer of meaning involves the act of imagination, though at times, the revival of one’s life in the past may hamper one’s life in the present, particularly to the more obsessive of us. In this instance, saudade is the “love that remains” after someone is gone, whereby one relives the past in her imagination. Memory becomes a source of wistful happiness, a depository of sights, sounds, smells, and touches that once gave us intense satisfaction. What I feel is dangerous here is to allow oneself to drift into the past so much as to lead a double-life solitarily. On the one hand, the present is a time of dryness for the soul. On the other hand, a Don Quixotian fantasy risks becoming an illusory reality.

Moreover, one can have saudades of someone even in her presence. If you know that a loved one is meant to return to exile, if you know that your beloved may disappear from your sight in the weeks, let alone days to come, or if you fear her invisible presence – death – you will experience one form of saudade. Similarly, if you feel helpless in the present, but have aspirations for a better tomorrow, you may experience bouts of longing set in the future tense.

That being said, a longer lasting, vaguer saudade is lived when faced with an awareness of impossibility. When you know that what you desire does not exist in the present, and cannot exist in the future, the tragic circumstance of your longing may translate not as “an active discontent or poignant sadness, but [as] an indolent dreaming wistfulness”3. This is when saudade involves an inner joy born out of accepting a tragic fate of an unfinished passion.

The last layer of saudade, probably reserved to the most romantic of us, is an extension of the previous one, with an added dimension. Here, the interior satisfaction stems from an endless, fetishized pursuit of the object desired. The impossibility of gratification propels you to think that you are looking for your object of longing, whereas in fact you never want to find it. The incompleteness becomes a source of an eternal quest for drunken stupor and inspiration. This idea is lucidly exemplified in the following poem by Mario Quintana.



In solitude in the dusk of dawn

I saw you at night, in the stars, and the planets

In the seas, in the sunshine, and at dusk

I saw you yesterday, today, and tomorrow…

But I never saw you at the time.

I have saudade of you…


 Saudade in Brazilian Culture

Saudade is a fundamental state in the Portuguese psyche. Cultural representations of saudade are especially eloquent in Fado music. This comes as no surprise, of course, since saudade is premised on the idea of resigning oneself to a fate of longing, and the etymology of Fado brings us back to the Latin root for ‘destiny.’ This culturally specific idea of joy, as that which emanates from the acceptance of one’s fate of permanent longing, has reached such a widespread appeal that the Dia da Saudade is celebrated on January the 30th in Brazil—a day of public commemoration of faces and places from the distant past, in the present, and into the future4.

 - Contributed by C.


[1] According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary.
[2] Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguese (Brazilian Portuguese Dictionary)
[3] Bell, A.F. (1912) In Portugal. London and New York: The Bodley Head. Quoted in Emmons, Shirlee and Wilbur Watkins Lewis (2006) Researching The Song: A Lexicon. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, p. 402.

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