Dealing with Saudade

By Michael Gakuran | | Journal | 9 Comments |

This time watching the recent novel-turned-film ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ brought it on. That same feeling of wistful longing for friends and places long since turned into memories. Mostly of schooldays and my university era. The things that could have been that weren’t, and the things that were but I long to experience in the moment once again.


As I wrote in The Jimonjitou Days, and discovered through one astute reader’s comment, this feeling is known as ‘Saudade‘. A Portuguese term that can be very loosely translated as ‘nostalgia’ or ‘natsukashii’ (懐かしい) in Japanese. But as with many foreign words, the totality of its meaning is unfortunately lost in translation.

The Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa describes Saudade as follows:

A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.

Or, perhaps as A. F. G. Bell puts it in the 1912 book ‘In Portugal’:

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.

You might wonder what the difference between ‘nostalgia’ and ‘saudade’ is. Nostalgia is made up of two Greek words: ‘nóstos’, meaning ‘homecoming’ and ‘álgos’, meaning ‘pain’ or ‘ache’. Linguistically then, nostalgia describes a pain and longing for one’s home or origins. Modern usage however usually sees the word used in a positive context – ‘feeling nostalgic’ when recollecting good old friends or places. The main difference between the two words, it seems, is that saudade is accompanied with a hope or latent desire that the thing most longed for can be obtained once again, whether it be a lost lover, a return to one’s hometown or simply reuniting with old friends. Nostalgia generally seems to just refer to a (usually positive) recollection of the past. Saudade is a huge, overpowering feeling of longing for the past.

Saudade can be triggered by a variety of different things in my experience. This time watching a thoughtful coming-of-age movie. Last time the result of a random steamy dream one night made up of my past memories. The early hours of the morning when the mind is most relaxed. It’s very possible to trigger it willingly too. Just start digging through boxes of old photos or reading past journal entries. It won’t be long before you stumble upon something that simultaneously brings you this sense of nostalgic pleasure and wistfulness at being unable to experience that special something again.

The feeling can be sometimes cathartic. Indeed, it happens so infrequently for me as to justify time spent appreciating the feeling. But do exercise caution. I don’t recommend trying to trigger it without some time put aside. As I noted previously, this state of mind is intensely intoxicating. Too much of it can render a person temporarily paralysed – completely absorbed in the past and unable to appreciate the present. As with most anything intoxicating, it’s frustratingly difficult to free oneself from the immediate pleasure found in pandering to past memories, despite the rational mind knowing that no good can come of it.

I was asked how I break this state of mind when it catches me off-guard. Generally I just let it encompass me and indulge in a bit of recollection and soul-searching for a while. Perhaps I’ll drop an old friend an email or write a journal entry (ahem). The feeling usually fades away naturally, or has its hold broken by a distraction such as work or sleep. If you’re having trouble, I’d recommend a change of scenery or environment. Putting yourself in a situation that requires you to deal with something, such as interacting with people, or performing a task which requires mental concentration.

What are your experiences of Saudade? What triggers it and how do you deal with it?


As an aside and a little tribute to my old Livejournal blogging days I’ve decided to include a song with this post. It was referred to in the aforementioned film and seems quite befitting right now.

Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops, by the Cocteau Twins.

9 comments on “Dealing with Saudade
  1. Sarah Bear says:

    I am really struggling with this. I get saudade all the time. I always wish I was back in the years of 14-16. When I was with my first love. And then when he came back just a year ago. Not for long, he used me. But, thats okay. It still made me happy he was back. Its like he brings this passion and emotion in me and its wonderful and so incredibly depressing and I cannot handle it. Im 20 now. And I feel I was just a different person when I was with him. I felt alive and happy. Im trying so incredibly hard to do that now, but it is hard. Even when I ‘forget’ about it for a bit, ill dream of him out of no where or something will happen, he will be brought up again in my life or conciousness somehow. I dont know what to do. I feel like I tried everything. Its just so unfair that he knows how I feel and he decided to use me anyways. I wish he never came back. I wish I never let him.

  2. Jack says:

    I live with this constantly even though I’m very young I have a longing for returning to the age of 11 (I’m 16) and being once again innocent and surrounded by the greatest people and enjoyment I’ve ever experienced. I was left so completely taken from changing and growing apart that for years I failed to live up to my former happiness. Looking back I could have done more to stay with them but then at the time I recall saying it was over and was just life. Looking forward- I have good friends and a good lifestyle but it seems forever a shadow of past enjoyment. I guess I can sometimes hate on the present in struggle to capture and hold onto the past. Further I am so scared of forgetting memories and hate how in life everything and everyone is just temporary, everything seems so purposeless. One day I’ll simply not remember them or youth clearly enough to feel sadended and then I’ll be fully happy.

  3. em says:

    I live with saudade constantly, it is paralyzing, it is depressing. It stops me from being happy in the moment. Saudade, looking back, or saudade when you are in the last moments of someplace or someone you deeply love, and you can see all to easily the grief that will envelop you when it is over.

  4. Alessandra says:

    There is a song called “Pedaço de mim” (piece of me) from Chico Buarque de Hollanda, a brazilian singer, composer etc, that explains – as much as it can be explained – the meaning of the word and the feeling ‘saudade’, in this case, on love.
    I´ll try to translate it, but because it’s very poetic, some of it’s meanings will be lost…
    He says:

    Oh piece of me!
    Oh half from me!
    Take away your look,
    that ‘saudade’ is the worst torment,
    it’s worse than forgetfulness,
    it’s worse than paralyze / darken.. (‘entrevar’)

    Oh piece of me!
    Oh exiled half of me!
    Take away your signs,
    That ‘saudade’ hurts like a boat
    which gradually perform an arc
    and refrain moor at the pier

    Oh piece of me!
    Oh half torn away from me!
    Take away your figure / shadow (‘vulto’)
    that ‘saudade’ is the reverse of childbirth
    ‘saudade’ is to tidy the room of the child who has already died

    Oh piece of me!
    Oh amputated half of me!
    Take away yourself from me
    that ‘saudade’ hurts throbbing
    It’s like a stab on the member that I have already lost.

    Oh piece of me!
    Oh beloved half of me!
    Wash my eyes,
    that ‘saudade’ is the worst punishment
    and I do not want to take it with me …
    The shroud of love,

  5. Atty. Joy says:

    The term saudade aptly describes my feeling towards the biggest love of my life whom I thought I have forgotten (or just tried to forget). When I had the chance to communicate once more with this person whom I have lost contact for more than 26 years, no other word could describe it but saudade. Sehnsucht is quite near also. Anyways, I gave in to this feeling by mustering the courage to contact this person and let him know how I feel. This is one instance in my life when I became boldly honest to myself. Now, we still manage to communicate but I’m afraid we have gone too far than what I’ve intended because this person felt guilty for what happened to me because of my intense longing for his love. No, we have not met each other in person again but I’m looking forward to the day when we will both be free and give way to our feelings.

  6. Charlotte says:

    Hmm well, I THINK I might be getting some combination of nostalgia and saudade on those occasions (I’m actually 1/8th Portuguese!). Generally, it hits me when I think of home (hence the nostalgia), but most of the time they are very pleasant memories of being out on the water in Alaska on one of those rare, glassy days with the sun breaking through the cloud cover… the boat gently rolling, and getting very sleepy. lol. Those are days I think I can go back to, although it won’t be with my parents, as they were in the past… so, my heart aches every time I think of specific experiences at home, but I know that many of those pleasant experiences can be revisited in the future. So there’s some hope in there.

    Usually, I don’t have to worry about breaking out of the feeling. It usually hits me in a rush, until I think about more pressing errands or work.

  7. zoomingjapan says:

    Oh, I didn’t know you used to have a Livejournal account as well! ^^

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