I have been listening to sad songs in languages I cannot understand. It started when I stumbled on a Twitter link to this song. I cannot understand Mandarin; I had not, until recently, ever followed either of the musical artists featured in the video. I am not in exile, far from home and family. And yet I’ve been obsessed with this song of homesickness, listening over and over to the ache in the vocals, the clear longing in every line.*
There is a word in Portuguese for longing. Months ago, I stumbled upon this BBC travel article describing it: saudade. Saudade is untranslatable, writer Eric Weiner asserts before translating it thus:
Saudade is a longing, an ache for a person or place or experience that once brought great pleasure. It is akin to nostalgia but, unlike nostalgia, one can feel saudade for something that’s never happened, and likely never will.
At the heart of saudade lies a yawning sense of absence, of loss. Saudade, writes scholar Aubrey Bell in his book In Portugal, is “a vague and constant desire for something. . . other than the present.”
That’s it, I thought when I learned this word. That’s what I’ve felt all my life. A longing for something, some place. . . else.
I remember when I felt this most keenly. After college, I moved straight to a new city for graduate school, and like many grad students I felt lost and unmoored for the first years. I missed my college friends; I missed the network I’d built up there, the sense of familiarity and structure. I didn’t know what I was doing in my new field of study; I felt that I was floundering. I missed home deeply. And yet “home” wasn’t the college I’d just left--that world was over and done. I didn’t want to return. And “home” wasn’t the town where I’d grown up; it wasn’t my family there.
But I was homesick, deeply, helplessly. Homesick for where? For what?
The city’s light rail transit system had a station at the university medical campus where I was studying. I passed that station every day as I walked to and from my apartment and the research laboratory where I worked. It was the last station before the airport, where the train line ended. I remember walking past that station in the evenings, sunsets burning above the train tracks, dramatic swirls of red and pink amidst the gray block buildings of the medical center. Each evening I imagined boarding a train for the airport, buying a plane ticket at random, and jetting off forever into that sunset sky for some unknown country, never to come back.
I never did this, of course. And things got better, as they usually do. I met someone, and years later I’ve made a home with him. Yet still, off and on, underneath my contentment, underneath the placid surface of my days, I’ll feel a thin current of longing. A vague yearning for elsewhere, for a place I don’t know and can’t even describe.
I think of how existential longing is threaded through so many of the stories I write. A selkie-girl longs for the sea. A snow-maiden longs to be human. Children raised on the Moon yearn to return to Earth. These are fairy tales of impossible longings, longings which can seemingly never be resolved.
In real life, longing is often so painful. But what about it makes us seek it in art? Why is longing at the heart of so many of our most beloved songs, movies, books, and stories?
I think of a post by blogger Lindsey Meade, which I bookmarked and read years ago. She writes of the loneliness, the sadness, at the core of human life.
I thought everybody felt this vague loneliness at the center of their experience, this unnamed, ineffable emotion that waxes and wanes depending on the day, week, or hour.
In her post, Lindsey Meade references comedian Louis C.K. and the famous video clip where Louis C.K. explains why he won’t give his children a smart phone:
You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.
Forever empty. It's one way to describe it, this sadness, this yearning, this existential loneliness at the heart of being human. And I agree with Louis and Meade here: that so much of our distracted behavior is simply a way to not feel that emptiness. Obsessive checking of iPhones (I do this!), eating, drinking, drugs, sex, working 60+ hours a week. . . It's a way to not feel, to forget the loneliness, the ineradicable darkness beneath.
I think this why we seek out sadness in art. Sad songs and books and movies and stories—they give us permission to sit with the sadness, to experience it in a safe way and even share it with others. American culture does not encourage sitting alone with one’s sadness. That doesn’t look productive, after all. We’re encouraged to be happy, positive, and as productive as possible. To push the darkness away from us as much as we can.
But we can feel it through art. That’s socially sanctioned; that’s okay. Fun is good. Contributing to the entertainment industry with our dollars is good. Having fun in a way that also taps into that undercurrent of sadness? That’s also. . . okay.
More than okay.
Saudade can be pleasurable, that BBC article asserts. The Portuguese even celebrate a kind of “joyful sadness” to be found in saudade. The writer of the BBC piece interviews a Portuguese clinical psychologist, Mariana Miranda:
Sadness is an important part of life, she told me, adding that she can’t understand why anyone would avoid it.
“‘I want to feel everything in every possible way. Why paint a painting with only one colour?" By avoiding sadness at all costs, she said, we diminish ourselves. “There is actually lot of beauty in sadness.”
I think there’s truth in what this woman said. There’s truth in what Lindsey Meade writes in her blog:
It’s through sitting with the emptiness, eschewing the behaviors that numb us to the darkness at the core of this life, that we learn to be human.
And yes, sometime the sadness is too much and leaves us unable to function. But I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about clinical depression, and neither are the writers I’ve cited here. I’m just talking about that base level of sadness, of unavoidable loneliness. That sense of homelessness even when we are at home warm and safe with our loved ones; a sense, for me, that manifests as an inarticulate longing for a home I’ve never known, which I know doesn’t exist, and yet which I still vaguely intuit.
A place of belonging, true belonging, which I think is not possible for us, we sentient beings with our individual consciousnesses, separate from the world and from each other.**
I think that to long for something is to be alive. I think sometimes we need to sit with that oft-buried sadness to remember this, to be fully alive.
*The rapper in the video is Namewee, a Malaysian-Chinese musical artist. The pretty one with the aching vocals is Leehom Wang, an American-born singer/songwriter/actor of Taiwanese heritage. Both men are apparently Big Deals in Asia, particularly Leehom Wang who is a mega-star of the Chinese pop music scene. The music video here is about exile, about migrant workers in Beijing. But it’s also easy to read this song (written by Namewee) as Namewee’s own story of leaving Malaysia (Google it), and to also consider that Wang, too, is no longer in the land of his birth.
**I think of this line from the first elegy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Steven Mitchell's translation)
. . . already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world.