Academic Minute Podcast
Sarah Seymour, Chiang Mai University – Solace and Saudade
Humans are always trying to find meaning in life.
Sarah Seymour is a fiction writer and essayist, and currently teaches at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Her most recent publications include the essay “Solace and Saudade” (Aeon, July 2023) and her short story “Shooting Stars” (Within and Without Magazine, forthcoming fall issue 2023).
Jonardon Ganeri is the Bimal K Matilal Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto in Canada. His books include Inwardness: An Outsider’s Guide (2021) and Virtual Subjects, Fugitive Selves: Fernando Pessoa and his Philosophy (2020).
Solace and Saudade
In the face of an inscrutable and indifferent universe, how do we find solace? The question is woven throughout the writings of the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. In The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes: “The inscrutability of the universe is quite enough for us to think about; to actually want to understand it is to be less than human, since to be human is to realize it can’t be understood.” The fundamental emotion at play here is saudade, a Portuguese term for a kind of melancholic longing or nostalgia for not only what was, but what never was. A complex emotion where a melancholic grey seeps into the distant blue. We long for the things we do and say to make a difference, for the universe to respond to our call in a way that is kind and just. But it simply can’t.
Pessoa finds solace in the understanding that there is no meaning, an acceptance of an indifferent universe. It is helpful to think about this in terms of the process of grieving. We try so hard to deny this indifference by finding meaning in religion, spiritual practices or our own experiences. When these meaning-making efforts stop making sense, then anger, bargaining and depression surface. As we emerge on the other side of these emotions, a glimpse of hope appears in the form of acceptance. We can still yearn for something to fill the empty space in what feels like an incompleteness of life, but that yearning takes on a new purpose: it exposes a new humanness that before was obscured. If blue is the colour of solitude and desire, somewhere on the distant horizon of understanding, then perhaps the solace in saudade, the unfulfilled melancholic longing, is where blue begins to turn shades of grey – a Payne’s grey, of landscapes much further away, a sombre atmosphere filled with distances, a blue-grey of shadows, storm clouds, and winters with no end.
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