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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Literature and Poetry  »  The Aesthetics of Saudade

The Aesthetics of Saudade

By LeandroFeldmann | Published  09/9/2016 | Literature and Poetry | Not yet recommended
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The Aesthetics of Saudade

1 - Introduction

Along the centuries, and today still, the word saudade became one of the most recurrent expressions concerning Portugal, and of an enormous value to its literature and cultural history. Since the Portuguese King Dom Duarte, the first to theorize about saudade, until the Saudosismo movement, when saudade reached the peak of its importance, a great value was given to the subject, which caused more and more an increase of the meanings attributed to the term.

The fact that the first attempt of defining saudade was made precisely by a king must certainly have influenced so many other Portuguese thinkers to gain interest about the subject, not so much because of his somewhat clumsy definition (which goes something like this: 'Ssuydade precisely is the feeling that the heart fails because it is apart from the presence of someone or some persons whom it loves very much by affection'* – Dom Duarte, 1973, p. 16), but primarily because he promotes the creation of a nationalist feeling concerning the expression by saying that there wasn’t any word equivalent to 'ssuydade' in Latin and other languages.

The beginning of the 20th century saw the creation of the Portuguese Renaissance, a cultural movement with a nationalist character aiming to stimulate a regeneration of the Portuguese culture. The movement, whose most important mentor was the writer Teixeira de Pascoaes, appropriated the expression saudade as a symbol of its ideal that the Portuguese Culture has a universal dimension and that only unveiling the Portuguese language it would be possible to understand what it means to be Portuguese.

The treatment of saudade as a symbol of the Portuguese culture culminated in Saudosismo, an aesthetic movement created during the Second World War that declared that a country's philosophy was deeply rooted in the history, language, and culture where it emerged. And the expression was also a symbol of this way of thought, to the point of being declared that 'in Saudade existed the secret of their (the Portuguese) race'. (Pinharanda, 1976)

This identification of saudade with the Lusitanian spirit is divided between the serious development of the subject by Saudosismo and the exaggerated treatment related to a somewhat vain Portuguese nationalism. The claiming of the untranslatability of saudade is also divided between these two sides. On the nationalist side, the claiming is really more polemic than interesting because there are equivalents to the general meaning of the word in other languages; what is really untranslatable is the meaning of saudade specifically when approached by Saudosismo, which has indeed elaborated an intense philosophy of saudade, giving a much deeper significance to the term.

That is what shall be demonstrated from now on. First I will explain the general meaning of the term saudade, comparing it to definitions of terms in other languages that essentially have the same meaning of the Portuguese word to show that there are indeed equivalents to saudade in other languages. After that, analyzing the book Marânus, by Teixeira de Pascoaes, one of the most beautiful and most important works produced by Saudosismo, I will try to explain the most important philosophical meanings of saudade as elaborated by Saudosismo.

2 - Saudade: Feeling caused by missing someone or something

According to what Ludwig Wittgenstein explains in his Philosophical Investigations, it isn’t possible to express truth through discourse, because language can only deal significantly with a small parcel of reality. But this doesn’t means that the inexpressible is inexistent: With the simple question 'how a clarinet sounds?' (Wittgenstein, 1986, p. 36), Wittgenstein shows to be perfectly possible knowing what something is, but being unable to express it.

Since it is possible to know something inexpressible, it seems unnecessary to try to establish a relation of perfect synonymy between the term saudade and terms from other languages — all human beings are susceptible to the same feelings, even if they don't have a very good term to express one of those feelings.

It's more practical to consider the meaning of saudade in everyday language. In this sense, it's clear that their equivalents have practically the same significance. By comparing the definitions of some of the equivalent terms, this will be clearer (* definitions in the original are at the end of the essay):

• the definition of saudade in Portuguese is 'a nostalgic and at the same time smooth remembrance of distant or extinct people or things, accompanied by the desire either of seeing or possessing them again';
• the French definition of 'regret' is a 'painful state of conscience caused by the separation from a good';
• in Spanish 'añoranza' is the 'act of añorar' and 'añorar' is 'to recollect with pity the absence, privation or loss of a beloved person or thing';
• the German defines 'Sehnsucht' as 'the yearn for someone or something' and the definition of 'Sehnen' is 'to desire with a strong, painful feeling that someone, who isn’t present, would be so, to have something that is missing';
• in Italian, 'rimpianto' is defined as a 'displeasure for anything that has passed or has been lost, while 'rimpiangere' is explained as 'remembering with desire and nostalgia';
• finally, the English definition of the noun 'longing' is 'yearning; missing someone or something'.

Leaving aside controversies or translators' difficulties, this last English definition is an accurate one for the general meaning of saudade, the same meaning that Portuguese speakers like to say there are no equivalents for in other languages.

3 - The Aesthetics of Saudade

There are, therefore, equivalent words to saudade in other languages; what differs between them is, according to Carolina Michaelis, 'the importance and frequency of saudade in the Portuguese language (…), this I-know-not-what of mystery that adheres to it' (Michaelis, 1986, p. 145). According to Moreira de Sá, 'some people have tried to justify (this I-know-not-what), by saying that it is an ethnic substrate or by historical reasons, which allowed to emphasize and improve this feeling in the Portuguese people’s soul.' (1992. p. 88) In reality, this I-know-not-what is also divided between the nationalist feeling and the philosophical meanings elaborated by Saudosismo.

From the first one we derive only this rather vain claiming of the inexistence of the word in other languages, as shown above. Below, I will show the philosophical I-know-not-what of saudade by analyzing the most important connotations attached to it in the context of Saudosismo: feelings of melancholy, idealization of childhood, recollection of God, and, arguably the deepest of all, androgyny. This examination will be based on excerpts of the most important work of Teixeira de Pascoaes and of the Saudosismo movement: Marânus.

Marânus is a long narrative poem that draws heavily on imagery. And it is as beautiful as it is difficult to read. Essentially, the book shows Marânus, a mythic being who wanders in loneliness through the world in search of Eleonor, an image of dream and mystery. One day, Marânus caught a glimpse of this goddess in a sacred mountain at the Serra do Marão. After that, this oneiric vision entered his spirit but now transformed in the ethereal feeling of Saudade.

The Portuguese Form of Melancholy

E Marânus, olhando a clara névoa,
Sonho doce do mar, ali pousado,
Meditava: aonde vai o sonho humano,
Quando de nós se afasta, já sonhado?
E ficamos mais tristes e sozinhos,
A cada sonho que findou, no mundo.
E, a cada etérea nuvem que se forma,
Torna-se mais salgado o mar profundo.

And Marânus, looking at the bright mist,
Sweet dream of the sea, standing there,
Meditated: where goes the human dream,
When smoothed away from us, already dreamed?
And we become sadder and lonelier,
With every dream that finishes, in the world.
And, with every ethereal cloud that is shaped,
It becomes saltier the deep sea.
(Pascoaes, 1920, p. 219)

Melancholy is described by Leopardi as 'the most sublime of human feelings' (Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri, LXVIII). He calls it "that inability to be satisfied by any earthly thing, not even by the whole earth itself, to consider the incalculable breadth of space, the marvelous mass of worlds and to find that all is slight and tiny compared to the capacity of one's own spirit."

As we see in this thought (pensiero) of Leopardi, melancholy (which he calls 'noia' and could potentially start a similar debate to the one that exists about saudade) is caused by the acknowledgement of the earthen world as something transitional and limited. This perception creates a detachment from the world, deepening the individual's world-view and causing the melancholic person to think and feel in a different manner, granting him/her a contemplative capacity required for philosophy and literature.

Melancholy is usually produced by the absence of something, may it be something indefinable as in the case of Leopardi, or a person, a place, one’s health, etc. Marânus, the character symbol of Saudosismo, from the book Marânus, by Teixeira de Pascoaes, lives indeed in a melancholic condition, and in his case, it happens due to the saudade he feels of Eleonor.

Ítalo Calvino proposes in Six Memos for the Next Millenium a theory that in a diffuse manner all of literature results from melancholy (Calvino, 1990, ps. 32 e 64-5). Thus, Leonardo Coimbra is not wrong when he identifies saudade as being the 'Portuguese form of creation' (Coimbra, Apud. Costa e Gomes, 1976, p. 64). In this and in many other cases, saudade could indeed be considered the Portuguese form of creating melancholy, which in its turn would be the basic form of creation.

Idealization of Childhood

'Gostava de sofrer a etérea mágoa,
Que nos prende ao passado.'

'He enjoyed suffering the ethereal grievance,
That attaches us to the past.'
(Pascoaes, 1920, p. 193)

In the chapter Inversion of Time, from Introdução à Saudade, it is said that 'saudade is always the saudade of ourselves in the childhood times.' (1976, p.65)

This identification of saudade with the remembrance of childhood can be related to a theory exposed in On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, by Friedrich von Schiller. Schiller writes that 'There are moments in our life, when we dedicate a kind of love and touching respect to nature in its plants, minerals, animals, landscapes, just as to human nature in its children, (…)not because it is pleasing to our senses, not even because it satisfies our understanding or taste (…)but rather merely because it is nature.'

This interest for nature only takes place when the object of admiration is naive, '… i.e., that nature stand in contrast with art and shame her.' Thus, 'the naive is a childlikeness, where it is no longer expected'.

In this manner, saudade incorporates this feeling of idealization of childhood, combining the desire of being naïve and the remembrance of ourselves in a time when we were pure, in other words, pure nature. A deep feeling of admiration for ourselves when we were merely young animals, going about and learning to live and to interpret this vast world where we were born.

Recollection of God

'Na verdade
Um homem só se encontra no que perde,
Porque ele abrange o espaço e a eternidade'

'In reality
A man only finds himself in what he loses,
Because he embraces space and eternity'
(Pascoaes, 1920, p. 193)

In the beginning of Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud comments about a letter that Romain Rolland had sent to him describing the 'source of the religious energy' as 'a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling of something limitless, unbounded - as it were, 'oceanic'.' (Freud, 1989, p. 4464). This is something very similar to what Gomes and Costa try to demonstrate in the chapter Fall & Hope, of their Introdução à Saudade. They say that the 'Universe' is the 'recollection of the brief presence of God', who 'exists decayed in the material forms of the Universe, raising and revivifying itself in the spiritual forms of the conscience.' (1976, p. 36)

Freud elucidates that 'sensation of 'eternity'', which refers to the times when we would have been part of a whole, proposed by Rolland, saying that the adult's perception of his ego cannot have been the same from the beginning. 'An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him. He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings. (…) originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself.' (Freud, 1989, p. 4467)

We can't really say for sure who was right, Freud or Rolland. What we can say, however, is that saudade encompasses this ego that remains in some of us as a limitless feeling and as a bond to the universe. We don’t know where do we came from before we were born, neither where we are going to when we die but in any case saudade gives us a mental glimpse of how a universe of unutterably vaster proportions would appear to us.

Lovers United Through Saudade

Meu criador e amante, vem comigo!
Saberás o que nunca imaginaste.
Em mim, encontrarás o que, debalde,
Neste mundo terreno, procuraste.

My creator and lover, come with me!
You will learn what you’ve never imagined.
In me you will find what, in vain,
In this earthen world, you looked for.
(Pascoaes, 1920, p. 170)

'Por que foi que partiste? Que delírio
Te fez abandonar este meu corpo amado?'

'Why did you leave? Which delirium
Caused you to abandon my beloved body?'
(Pascoaes, 1920, p. 215)

According to the theory proposed by Aristophanes in The Symposium, by Plato, there would have been in remote times a third sex, formed at the same time by the feminine and masculine sexes. Because the people pertaining to this sex, the androgynous, resembled the Gods too much, Zeus decided to cut them in half. There would be, since then, the necessity of restoring our primitive body, and this would be the reciprocal affection of two people for what once has been the same body.

Freud writes that the 'ego appears to us as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else' (Freud, 1989, p. 4466). There would be only one state in which it doesn’t appear in this manner: 'At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact.' (Freud, 1989, p. 4466)

In his book Eleonor na Serra de Pascoaes, António Cândido Franco talks, among other things, about the relation between love and saudade. Based on his theory, we can't say that this boundary between ego and object disappears due merely to love — by simply loving someone, it only becomes clearer how we are alone with ourselves. 'The impossibility of the physical presence of the beloved person creates an estate of a painful tension, in which the meditation caused by the absence becomes the meditation about our own ego. The name of such an estate is no longer love, but saudade. Perhaps saudade is another name for love, the one feeling that allows the desired oneness of two people when they fall in love. Passion is the temperature of desire, while saudade is the concretization of love through absence.' (1992, p.35)

This is perhaps the deepest meaning of saudade. And Eleonor, the oneiric female figure who is loved so profoundly by the title character of Marânus, is not entirely real, is not a woman of flesh and blood. She is but an ethereal being, and therefore a personification of love. But specifically of the type of love represented by saudade. A feeling that creates the strongest tie that can exist between two people in love, a love that hurts when a couple is apart.

4 - Everything is Translatable

The most important thing we learn here is not to overvalue what is nothing more than a translation difficulty, that is, not to overvalue the word in detriment of its significance. And it's possible to derive an important translation rule based on this conclusion, a rule that was noticed by Goethe's Faust in the scene where he is translating the bible:

Geschrieben steht: »Im Anfang war das Wort!«
Hier stock ich schon! Wer hilft mir weiter fort?
Ich kann das Wort so hoch unmöglich schätzen,
Ich muß es anders übersetzen,
Wenn ich vom Geiste recht erleuchtet bin.
Geschrieben steht: Im Anfang war der Sinn.
Bedenke wohl die erste Zeile,
Daß deine Feder sich nicht übereile!
Ist es der Sinn, der alles wirkt und schafft?
Es sollte stehn: Im Anfang war die Kraft!
Doch, auch indem ich dieses niederschreibe,
Schon warnt mich was, daß ich dabei nicht bleibe.
Mir hilft der Geist! Auf einmal seh ich Rat
Und schreibe getrost: Im Anfang war die Tat!

It is written: 'In the beginning was the Word!'
Here I’m already stuck! Who’ll help me going further?
I cannot possibly prize the Word so high,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am correctly enlightened by the spirit.
It is written: 'In the beginning was the Meaning'.
Consider well the first line,
So your pen will not be precipitated!
Is the meaning, what produces and creates everything?
It should be: In the beginning was the Force!
Yet, even while I write this down
Something warns me already, that I won’t stick with it.
The spirit helps me! Finally I find advice
And confident I write: In the beginning was the Action.

The chief concerning while translating shouldn’t be fidelity merely to the word. The word is produced based on a Meaning, a Force, an Action or whatever, no doubt, comes first. Naturally these concepts may seem a little blurred, but it’s perfectly possible to understand their relevance.

Thus, it is necessary to mainly focus on what significance is given to a word based on, according to Faust’s four attempts, what was there in the beginning. One must consider a word’s meaning and background, then find the equivalent word based not simply on it, but on its significance. There may exist indeed words without equivalents in other languages; what is always translatable is the significance of the words, which can always be explained and incorporated. The difficulty is usually to understand the proper significance of each word, and not so much in finding equivalents.

In the specific case of saudade, this matter about existing or not equivalents to the word only deviates the attention from the feeling’s significance, which should be the central point. After all, saudade is such a beautiful and meaningful concept that it could indeed be considered one of the deepest human feelings, and the greatness of its power is exactly that it transcends itself, creating other feelings, which, by their turn, stimulate men.

That’s certainly one of the difficulties of translating or even grasping the philosophical significance of saudade: saudade becomes greater and deeper while illuminating other feelings, but it also becomes more difficult to understand. If this is not enough, we can quote Marânus for a last time:

Eu não sou a alegria, mas apenas
A trágica matéria que a produz.
Na grande escuridão, sou facho a arder
E não avisto minha própria luz!

I am not happiness, but only
The tragic substance that produces it.
In the great darkness, I am a burning flambeau
And I don’t see my own light.
(Pascoaes, 1920, p.216)

* "Ssuydade propriamente he sentido que o coração filha por se achar partido da presença dalguma pessoa ou pessoas que muyto por afeição ama" (Dom Duarte, 1973, p. 16)

Definition of the terms equivalent to saudade in their original languages:

• Portuguese. saudade – lembrança nostálgica e, ao mesmo tempo, suave, de pessoas ou coisas distantes ou extintas, acompanhada do desejo de tornar a vê-las ou possuí-las; nostalgia (Dicionário Aurélio da Língua Portuguesa);
• French. regret – etat de conscience doloureux cause par l aperte d’um bien. (Le Robert quotidien Dictionnaire).
• Spanish. añoranza – Accion de añorar. añorar – recordar con pena la ausencia privación o pérdida de persona o cosa muy querida (Diccionario de la Real Academia Española).
• German. Sehnsucht – das Sichsehnen nach jemandem oder etwas. (o anseio por alguém ou algo).
Sehnen – sich; mit starkem, schmerzlichem Empfinden wünschen, dass jmd., der nicht anwesend ist, bei einem ist, dass man etw., das einem fehlt, hat.
• Italian. rimpianto – dispiacere per qualcosa che è passato o perduto (Italiano compatto, Terza edizione)

Botelho, Afonso. Saudosismo como movimento. Da Saudade ao Saudosismo. Lisboa, Instituto de Cultura e Língua Portuguesa, 1990.

Cândido Franco, António. Eleonor na Serra de Pascoaes. Edições Átrio, Lisboa, 1992.

Calvino Ítalo. Seis propostas para o próximo milênio. São Paulo: Cia.dasLetras,1990.

Duarte, Dom. Leal conselheiro. Atlântida: Coimbra, 1973.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. The Standard Edition. James Strachey (Trans. and Ed.); 1989.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust. Eine Tragödie. ( (English version adapted from the translation by George Madison Priest -

Leopardi, Giacomo. Pensieri, LXVIII

Michaelis, Carolina. Filosofia da Saudade. Imprensa Nacional – Casa da Moeda, Lisboa, 1986.

Pascoaes, Teixeira de. Marânus. In Obras Completas III volume. Livrarias Depositárias Aillaud & Bertrand, Lisboa 1920.

Pereira da Costa, Dalila; Gomes, Pinharanda. Introdução à Saudade. Porto Lello, 1976.

Platão. O Banquete, in Diálogos. Editora Cultrix, São Paulo, 1971.

Schiller, Friedrich. On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry., Translated by William F. Wertz, Jr.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical investigations. BASIL BLACKWELL: Oxford, 1986.

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