For some reason, while doing the washing up today, my mind was wandering and I remembered reading “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” by Milan Kundera. A colleague and friend of mine gave me the book for my 24th birthday. It was a fun and interesting read with a good story. The passage I was day dreaming about was “What is Litost?”. I was thinking I might take a stab at explaining it in my own words, but having read the passage again, I’m sure Milan Kundera has done a better job than I could hope to achieve. Hence I give you the passage verbatim:
What is 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.
Let me give an example: 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. He recalled his sickly childhood, lacking in physical exercise and friends and spent under the constant gaze of his mother’s overfond eye, and fell into despair about himself and his life. They walked back to the city together in silence on a country lane. 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.
Or take an instance from the student’s childhood: His parents made him take violin lessons. He was not very gifted and his teacher would interrupt him to criticize his mistakes in a cold, unbearable voice. He felt humiliated, and he wanted to cry. But instead of trying to play in tune and not make mistakes, he would deliberately play wrong notes, the teacher’s voice would become still more unbearable and harsh, and he himself would sink deeper and deeper into his litost.
What then is litost?
Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.
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.
Anyone with wide experience of the common imperfection of mankind is relatively sheltered from the shocks of litost. For him, the sight of his own misery is ordinary and uninteresting. Litost, therefore, is characteristic of the age of inexperience. It is one of the ornaments of youth.
Litost works like a two-stroke engine. Torment is followed by the desire for revenge. The goal of revenge is to make one’s partner look as miserable as oneself. The man cannot swim, but the slapped woman cries. It makes them feel equal and keeps their love going.