nostalgia, νοσταλγία, and saudade

“Which kinds of memories does food have the particular capacity to inscribe?”

(Holtzman 2006, 363)

            Holtzman reminds us that memory is multiple, that “what we homonymically label as ‘memory’ often refers to an array of very different processes” (2006, 362). In this exhortation for diversity, I read a call for nuance in types of memory. Seremetakis identifies a vast difference in meaning between the English nostalgia and the Greek νοσταλγία (nostalghía), despite their shared etymology:

      In English the word nostalgia (in Greek nostalghía) implies a trivializing romantic sentimentality. In Greek the verb nostalghó [“I feel nostalgia”] is a composite of nostó and alghóNostó means I return, I travel (back to homeland); the noun nóstos means the return, the journey…  Alghó means I feel pain, I ache for, and the noun álghos characterizes one’s pain in soul and body, burning pain (kaimós). Thus nostalghía is the desire or longing with burning pain to journey.[1]

                                                                                                (Seremetakis 1994, 4)

            The difference between considering memory through the lens of nostalgia or nostalghía, then, is a difference in attitude toward the past.  Nostalgia understands the past as trivial, kitschy, perhaps associated with childhood.  Nostalghía, however, views the past with a burning, painful longing to return.  This dichotomy presents two “kinds of memories,” frames for the past born out of idiomatic variance between languages.  To add to this collection of “kinds of memories,” I submit the frame of saudade.

Saudade is a “genuine suffering of the soul,” a particular way of missing a person, place, thing, or time in the past that evokes “the relationship of the human condition to temporality, finitude, and the infinite” (Santoro 2014, 2494).

         Endowed with a structural ambiguity, [saudade] is located at the intersection of two affections that present absence: the memory of a cherished past that is no more and the desire for this happiness, which is lacking.

(Santoro 2014, 2495)

Etymologically descended from the Latin word for solitary, saudade is a way of thinking about the past where “solitude is there found to be transcendable through love.  From another point of view, the present is found in it in the form of eternity, attached to the past by memory, and to the future by desire” (António Quadros, quoted in translation in Santoro 2014, 2494).  In this definition, Quadros describes saudade as a means of connecting with loved ones, or at least with the memory of loved ones.  Saudade is also a means of traveling through time, a kind of memory not trapped in the past or present but rather atemporal, or polytemporal.

Saudade is a strong identity marker for the lusophone world, with an origin story from the glory days of Portuguese global exploration. The archaic form, soidade, first appears as compaints of the wives left behind, longing for their sailor husbands as they journeyed to conduct far-flung commerce (Santoro 2014, 2495).  Saudade is thought to be a condition of the Portuguese soul, a “special feeling of a people that has always looked beyond its transatlantic horizons.” (Santoro 2014, 2494).

In these definitions we find similarity between saudade and nostalghía: both share a suffering, painful desire to re-experience the past.  Yet saudade replaces nostalghía’s association with geographic travel with time travel, and rather than a longing for a ‘return’ to the missed object, saudade seeks an emotion similar to the one experienced in the past.



[1] The Greek ‘nostalghía’ has an etymological connection to taste, a thrilling connection for the food memory researcher: “á-nostos means without taste… The opposite of ánostos is nóstimos and characterizes someone or something that had journeyed and arrived, has matured, ripened and is thus tasty (and useful)” (Seremetakis 1994, 4).


Works Cited

Holtzman, Jon D. 2006.  “Food and memory.” In Annual Review of Anthropology 35:

Santoro, Fernando. 2014. “Saudade.” In Dictionary of Untranslatables: A
Philosophical Lexicon
. Edited by Barbara Cassin, Steven Rendall, and Emily S.
Apter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2494-2499.

Seremetakis, C. Nadia. 1994. The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material
Culture in Modernity.
Boulder: Westview Press.


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