Saudade and Sehnsucht

It wasn't until later in life that I discovered that there were words to express feelings that have haunted me all my life: Saudade and Sehnsucht. They are interestingly different from one another, but I like to put them together to express the two different degrees of my experience. The first term I take as light and "popular," the second full-blown and "orchestral." Here are the definitions, which, surprisingly and delightfully, are available on Wikipedia:

Saudade (singular) or saudades ... a [Galician and Portuguese] word for a feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. It often carries a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return. [I]n his book In Portugal of 1912, A. F. G Bell writes: "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." (1) Saudade is different from nostalgia; in nostalgia (a word that also exists in Portuguese), one has a mixed happy and sad feeling, a memory of happiness but a sadness for its impossible return and sole existence in the past. Saudade is like nostalgia but with the hope that what is being longed for might return, even if that return is unlikely or so distant in the future to be almost of no consequence to the present.

My comment:

While saudade can be felt at any time (when confronted by a sunset, for example), I have always loved it in the sound -- or, for me, a particular sound -- of music; and this is why I've always adored some forms Brazilian popular music, most particularly the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto. Take as an example the well-known tune "The Girl From Ipanema." A light and reflective wistfulness is everywhere in this number. There's that sweet and sour sound that is so common in Jobim and Gilberto's work. How remarkable, too, is Brazilian Portuguese, which can have that slightly soulful "out of tune" twang about it that fits the music perfectly. What a remarkable marriage!

For me, something far-reaching is present in the saudade sentiment, pleasant but a little painful, an idea that speaks of a basic character -- perhaps the basic character -- of life

Sehnsucht. Sehnsucht, as I see it, is saudade with grand philosophy present. You can get a "B.A.", so to speak, in saudade, but "Ph.d." must be in Sehnsucht. It is far reaching also; but it is far beyond daily life and the wistful, muse-worthy self-absorption with the personal patterns of life and death and impossibility. Sehnsucht contains within it (one feels) the meaning of the universe and a huge and painfully unrequited yeaning to find and touch the mystery, to resolve it by becoming one with it. Though painful and haunting (like saudade, because it is unrequited), it is extremely alluring, even rapturous, possibly because the heightened yearning or longing itself brings a sense of closeness to whatever it is that seems to be calling, calling from afar.

From Wikipedia:

Sehnsucht is a German word that literally means "longing". However, Sehnsucht is almost impossible to translate adequately. The stage director and author Georg Tabori called Sehnsucht one of those quasi-mystical terms in German for which there is no satisfactory corresponding term in another language.(1) It is this close relationship (encapsulated in one word) between ardent longing or yearning (das Sehnen) and addiction (die Sucht ) that lurks behind each longing... (2)

My comment:

While different people can emphasize and interpret different shades of Sehnsucht, my own is very close to that C.S. Lewis. Again cited by Wikipedia:

The key ingredient of the experience, as Lewis treats it, is that this longing -- never fulfilled -- is itself sweeter than the fulfillment of any other human desire. Another feature is that it is so deeply personal that it does not occur to the one feeling it that others would have similar experiences and so is rarely communicated verbally. For most people it is something which cannot be put into words. Indeed the present description of Sehnsucht is itself inadequate and is only suggestive of it. Yet, though difficult to define, Lewis maintained that this is a universal experience. In "The Weight of Glory" Lewis says...

"In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you -- the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth's expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things -- the beauty, the memory of our own past -- are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited." Again, Lewis, writing in "The Problem of Pain": "All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest -- if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself -- you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it -- made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand."

My comment:

While under the right circumstances I can encounter snatches of Sehnsucht in everyday life (as in the sound of ocean waves that Lewis mentions), it is music, in my case, that has always been the primary provider. But unlike the "basking" poignancy of saudade in the Brazilian song, Sehnsucht hits all of a sudden with delightful transport, not usually lasting for more than a few seconds. It shows up almost exclusively in "classical" music. Among major composers, I find such brief "ecstasies" most often in the orchestral works of Mahler or Ravel and sometimes peeking through in Copland -- when suddenly "all heaven breaks loose." These modern composers had a greater pallet of harmonies at their disposal than older composers had; but the sheer overall brilliance of Bach (the very marvelous fact of his music) or of Beethoven can inspire in the Sehnsucht direction.

"Frightfully wonderful" works like Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" might be more properly called "numinous," which is another word worth an essay. Both Saudade and Sehnsucht are frequently found in poetry and attempted in painting (think of light, late-afternoon light, the end of summer, the first chill of autumn -- my personal favorites). I have always been trying to write or compose about both experiences in one way or another.

I have pursued the experience down many avenues -- the sense of time passing, of ages passing, being one of the strongest. I feel that the secret of life, love, death, life's paths taken or not taken -- the Universe itself -- is somehow embraced in its achingly beautiful promise.


For more about Saudade and Sehnsucht, use these links: and


(1) 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.

(2) "When Sehnsucht (desire) leads you up the garden path." Speech by Federal Councillor Christoph Blocher at the Ninth International Woodcarvers Symposium in Brienz on the theme of Sehnsucht (desire) on 10 July 2006