The joy of a yawning sense of sadness

An American journalist recently wrote: “The Portuguese are content with their discontentment and in an odd but enlightened way actually enjoy it.” In other words, they love to be sad. The same American, Eric Weiner, expressed his amazement by noting the unbridgeable gap between the Portuguese and his own culture.

“In America, it is very important to be, or at least to pretend to be happy at all costs. The Portuguese culture is uniquely melancholy.”

Of course the emoji was an American invention, with a smile as empty as all of Disneyland’s and as meaningless as worn-out expressions such as “Have a nice day”. In Portugal, if you ask someone how his or her day is, the most you can expect to receive in return is “Mais ou menos” which means “So so” or, in Dutch, “Nou, gaat wel, hoor…” (yet different, not so lame). Their response is not that of an automaton, the voice will not sound hollow, and the eyes will express sweet sadness instead of vacancy. Nothing to worry about, Portugal is not a sad land and the Portuguese are not masochists. “The Portuguese,” said Weiner, “have much to teach the world about hidden beauty, joy” and yes, especially about sadness.

Joyful sadness has its own word in Portuguese: saudade. It is a word for which no perfect translation can be found, not unlike the Dutch untranslatable word “gezelligheid” – meaning coziness, the happiness of a small circle of family and friends sitting in an intimate setting and talking, exchanging gossip, drinking coffee or wine or genever, or just being content with doing nothing together.

Saudade is something different, a longing, an ache for a person or a place or an experience that once brought great pleasure. Or for something that never happened and never will. A sense of absence, loss. A sense of yearning. A vague and constant desire for something other than the present. Many people have tried to catch the right words to explain saudade; no one really succeeded. Nostalgic, discontent, restless, concerned; and at the same time relieved ánd sad about the pain and love from the past, or still to come, or never to come. Pffff…  a little too philosophical for you? But everyone in Portugal understands saudade and doesn’t need any explanation or discussion; it is a very sharable feeling. “You are invited to join me at the table of my sadness,” wrote a Portuguese poet (incidentally, there are more statues of somber poets in Portuguese town squares than warriors on horseback). Indeed, there is a lot of beauty in sadness, so why avoid it? Let us all cherish our “sadness days”.

Anyone can intuitively understand saudade by closing the eyes and, for instance, listening to a fado melody. Fado extends far beyond the now quite stereotyped and monotonous folk music, commercialized to death in the Lisbon tourist haunts. It is more than what an English travel guide once said: “Afghani humming along to a Billy Holliday record.” Fado came to Portugal some two-hundred years ago from Angola by way of Brazil (the image at the beginning of this Portrait is the 1910 painting ‘O Fado’ by José Malhoa). It was the music of prostitutes, sailors and bullfighters but also of young nobles; it grew to great fame in Lisbon in the 19th century thanks to its leading goddess Maria Severa, the Marqués de Vimiosi’s mistress. It is sung accompanied by a twelve-string guitarra and a violão, a traditional Spanish guitar, and has its own etiquette including lowered lights and the female singer wrapped in a black shawl, for fado is in mourning ever since Maria Severa’s demise. Of course the audience doesn’t dare make the slightest noise.

In 21st-century Lisbon, though, there is reason also for a different sadness than saudade. There, many fado places “have become ‘factories’ where each night hundreds of tourists are passed through, forced to listen to soulless music and, even worse, to join so-called regional dances” (as wrote J. Rentes de Carvalho already in 1994). There is no fado outside Lisbon. No, not true. I hear the university town of Coimbra, halfway Lisbon and Porto, has its own fado, softer and sweeter than the one in Lisbon and predominantly sung by male performers, preferably tenors. They produce romantic serenades just as in the late 19th century the bohemian student, poet and singer Augusto Hilário da Costa Alves did, the one known as “O Hilário”. After a glorious period in the early 1920s, and a few short, more recent recoveries, fado sort of faded away from Coimbra. There’s a different music scene now. Yet fado undoubtedly remains the soundtrack of life in Portugal, you hear it, you feel it – you feel relief because you are not forced to be happy. “Fado gives permission to honor your shadow self.”

Of the three large and interesting cities Ans and I visited so far, Porto is our favorite. Lisbon is wonderful, Coimbra is interesting, but Porto… Porto is as uniquely beautiful as, say, San Francisco. Sitting on the Atlantic Coast, a wide river runs through it. The city has always made good use of its setting on this Rio Douro; parks and quays and boulevards with café terraces are everywhere and invite to stroll, linger, kiss, sip a glass of wine, or just dream away. The backdrop isn’t bad either: steep hillsides climb up from the river front, and they are densely built with fascinating and often colorful old town architecture. Ascending the cobbled narrow streets is an adventure. Stairs lead in scores of directions to streets as intimate as their maze should be, only to open up suddenly to spacious tree-lined plazas. The area of Porto’s university is rich of architectural marvels; from its central courtyard’s balconies you have enticing views of the old city and its river. Old Porto beats new Porto of course in intimacy and saudade. In new Porto like in so many Portuguese towns, too many concrete apartment buildings disturb the peaceful scenery but then, greater Porto is home to some two-million and greater Lisbon has to offer housing to three-million Portuguese, so what do you do in a small, hilly country… you stack them. What is more or less acceptable in Porto or Lisbon is less so in smaller towns especially if they have torn out old architecture and filled the gaps between the remaining old buildings with misplaced concrete structures, even if they are not always monstrosities. One of the good things our Tomar has to offer is a respected old town on the west river bank and the new neighborhoods clustered together across the bridges, on the east bank. Similar-size towns in our province Santarém, such as Fatima of Virgin Mary fame, are eternally damaged by shitty town-planning decisions. No saudade for the worshipping pilgrims in Fatima, they find themselves under attack by a zillion souvenir traders in “modern” store sites who are competing which one offers the most supreme of religious kitsch for sale.

Saudade can be discovered through literature as well. The country has always cherished its poets and authors; it still does. Not capable of reading Portuguese well enough, I discover only writings in translation. Sometimes they tell it all. All the sadness of the world can be found in the love letters written by a nun-in-unanswered-love in the 1760s. Her sadness outshines saudade, though, because it is not yawning but crushing. In five love letters, the tormented Mariana Alcoforado addressed her lover, a French officer who clearly saw her as just a three- or four-night stand before he disappeared, never to be heard of again. One of his colleagues is said to have intercepted the letters and politely responded to Mariana. Whatever. True is that the Lettres Portugaises inspired Elizabeth Barring Browning to write Sonnets from the Portuguese (early 19th century) and Rainer Maria Rilke to translate them into German in 1913. Earlier, they signaled the beginning of the Romantic Age in Europe.

The letters were praised for displaying “a remarkable acuity of psychological insight into the mind of a woman in love and a beautifully controlled treatment of passion on the edge of hysteria.” Just a few lines: “… you can rest content with the harm you are already causing me, whatever plan you may have made to assure my unhappiness… I promise not to hate you. I am too mistrustful of violent feelings to venture into hatred. I am sure that I may find here in this country a more faithful and a worthier lover. Alas, though, who could give me love? Would another’s passion possess me? Did mine have any effect on you? Should I not feel that a heart that has been touched never forgets the one who introduced it to emotions hitherto unknown to it, but of which it was capable? That all its emotions remain attached to the idol it has created?” And so on. There is nothing her heart cherishes more than the memory of its sufferings from the treatment by her ungraceful lover, who is thought to have been lieutenant Noël Bouton de Chamilly, fighting in support of the Portuguese in their war of independence against the Spanish. The dirty male chauvinist pig…

I wish all my readers lots of saudade in 2017.

Ton Haak, December 2016
The Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun – translated from the French by Guido Waltman (1969)
Photo: José Malhoa – O Fado. Source: wikipedia