Saudade – the Presence of Absence

December 06, 2021 Ilana Gramatikova
Saudade – the Presence of Absence

This essay was originally submitted as a written assignment (definition essay) for ENG 101 Composition (Fall 2021).

Swallowing the last sip of my tea, I embrace the loneliness that has become my faithful companion. The void is still there and it consoles me. I feel a profound longing for “something other than the present.”[1] At that moment, the most beautiful Portuguese word appears in my mind – saudade. One can feel saudade for something that once had been there, or was never there at all. One is tempted to get lost in imagination, where one meets both sorrow and consolation. All the possibilities of “what-if” fill one with “indolent dreaming wistfulness,”[2] missing what one never had.

Saudade can represent nostalgia for an object of your love, be it a person, a thing, or an experience, that has been irretrievably lost. Knowing that the object of longing might never reappear instills hopelessness. What is more, saudade evokes the unconscious decision to languish in a state of comforting misery. The subject realizes the need to move on but prefers not to. For instance, I can make the painful memory of my cat’s death emerge. I am the summoner. It has been so long since the loss that, surely, I have grieved and moved on. However, sometimes, I want to feel the pain.

Or if I close my eyes and see myself, alongside my brother and our friend, lying on the roof of our house in the countryside. Darkness surrounds us. We gaze at the night sky, oblivious to all but the present moment. Then, I would not have felt saudade, but now I do. I do because I miss the lost innocence; I miss those years I could simply be without feigning. The simplicity of my life has given way to complexity, and I cannot rewind. The pain of separation from past blissful experiences brings me a sense of peace. Memory tries to alleviate my sorrow by forgetting, by omitting that which causes me pain.  Yet I do not allow myself to forget, because that would be like never having experienced it at all. Does it matter if you travel to a foreign country, if you do not remember anything? Many families travel with their kids who, when grown, end up only recalling that moment they ate ice cream or that scary clown they saw on the street. Losing the memories of something or someone cherished is, at least, equally as painful as losing the object in reality. Those that experience saudade realize they are walking the path to oblivion and run back, driven by fear.

You cannot miss something you never had, but you can feel saudade for “something that does not and probably cannot exist.”[3] What if I was accepted to Stanford? My mind starts generating different paths of my life, depending on what could have happened. I interpret the scenario as a possible reality, and through each thought and idea, I feel closer and closer to it being true. Then, I realize it is not, and it never could be. Imagine having a career that you have always wanted to pursue, but now it is too late to change the trajectory of your life. Maybe you wanted to become an engineer, a scientist, or a conductor. All that is left for you is to grieve the impossibility of it. You were never good enough to become an engineer, anyway. But you still wonder; you cannot help but wonder. Maybe you would have developed some problem-solving and industry skills, creativity, and leadership. If that were the case, what could have stopped you from being a great engineer?

When it comes to saudade, the infinite possibilities always narrow down to what is preferable. What about women who go through a miscarriage? Most probably, what they mourn is not the embryo in their womb. They do not anticipate the following five or more months of similar pain and discomfort. What they feel saudade for is the potential life, full of joy, sadness, and experiences. The mother misses what could have been – seeing her child grow and experience what life has to offer. She, knowing this could never be, will still live through the possibilities. The woman will visualize all the “what-ifs,” sinking into a profound melancholy. Just like I feel saudade for my life at Stanford, a teacher may feel saudade for his career as a conductor, and a mother – for her never-born child’s life.

Tonight, I miss him. I miss his hugs and kisses that I have never felt. I miss us meditating, fishing, rock climbing, or simply being, together. As Seneca wrote, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” I, imagining all that we could be together, hurt beautifully. There is no void anymore. I look inside my cup of tea, and it is full again. Loneliness betrayed me, and now saudade is my faithful companion.

[1] In Portugal, A. F. G. Bell, 1912.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.