Litost

The most interesting thing I read today was an article about the hardest words to translate into English: http://hotword.dictionary.com/translate/.

Sadly, the list did not include the one word I wanted it to include, a Czech word: litost. I learned about litost while reading Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and it left an indelible impression on me. (In fact, astute observers who are also my Facebook friends will note that “litost” was listed as one of my interests for some time, though it was eventually deleted when Facebook became dumb.)

Anyway, here is what Milan Kundera has to say about litost:

Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it. […]

What then is litost?

Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

The best way to understand it is an example, of course, which Kundera kindly provides:

The student went swimming in the river one day with his girlfriend, a fellow student. She was athletic, but he was a very poor swimmer. He could not time his breathing properly and swam slowly, his head held tensely high above the surface. She was madly in love with him and tactfully swam as slowly as he did. But when their swim was coming to an end, she wanted to give her athletic instincts a few moments’ free rein and headed for the opposite bank at a rapid crawl. The student made an effort to swim faster too and swallowed water. Feeling humbled, his physical inferiority laid bare, he felt litost. […] Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked him, and he started to reproach her: she knew about the current near the other bank, and that he had forbidden her to swim there because of the risk of drowning – and then he slapped her face. The girl began to cry, and when he saw the tears on her cheeks, he took pity on her and put his arms around her, and his litost melted away.

I love Kundera because of the light he sheds on human relationships, which he somehow manages to describe in all their complexities and contradictions. My favorite part of his description of litost is how he relates it back to love:

One of the customary remedies for misery is love. Because someone loved absolutely cannot be miserable. All his faults are redeemed by love’s magical gaze, under which even inept swimming, with the head held high above the surface, can become charming.

Love’s absolute is actually a desire for absolute identity: the woman we love ought to swim as slowly as we do, she ought to have no past of her own to look back on happily. But when the illusion of absolute identity vanishes (the girl looks back happily on her past or swims faster), love becomes a permanent source of the great torment we call litost.

The point is: I like words, and Milan Kundera is good at them.

Annnnyway. Wow! Where were all the capital letters and faux-outrage in this blog entry?! Sorry guys. Here’s a thing: Yesterday I tried to cap my pen and instead stabbed myself in the palm. LITOST!

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Literature, Words and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s