There is no English translation for litost. It is a Czech word, and if Milan Kundera says there is no English translation for it, well then I would be a fool to try and find one myself. I trust Milan; he’s one of the smartest guys I’ve read. He’s also one of the most introspective and dangerous guys I’ve read. Dangerous? How so? He’s dangerous because his thoughts are infective, and I can’t think of any better example than the section of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting called “Litost”.
Part V starts with Kristyna, who is entirely irrelevant until you learn about litost, at which point she becomes everything. So what is this litost that is Czech and has no English translation?
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 reign 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.
The student’s girlfriend hasn’t really done anything wrong. If she explained what happened to anyone, carefully avoiding any mention of how she made the student feel, they would have no choice but to find him unstable and immature. Yet, that is not the case.
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.
In that instant the student’s girlfriend is no longer a loving character that he can empathize with, she is the cause of his humiliation. The callous hand that has wounded him, humiliated him by reminding him that she is better, that he is still that same boy from his own sickly childhood.
“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.
Having punished the cause of his shame, having successfully dragged her down to his level of humiliation and injury he is now able to empathize with her again. This is the economics of the human soul.
It gets worse.
As Kundera describes,
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.
This is the economic part I was talking about. The free market exchange of humiliation for injury keeps everything running smoothly. The soul’s motivation to bring down the oppressor keeps the love moving smoothly in a series of checks and balances.
And of course, here is how the souls police themselves: “Since revenge can never reveal its true motive (the student cannot confess to the girl that he slapped her because she swam faster than he did), it must put forward false reasons. Litost, therefore, is always accompanied by a pathetic hypocrisy: the young man proclaims he is terrified his girlfriend will drown…”
Kundera novels are never fun for me to read, but they are enlightening. It’s like The Ghost of Christmas Past taking you on a tour of humiliating and painful vignettes: thoughts and feelings that aren’t your life, but they might as well be.
When I first read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it was the exact opposite of what I had expected. I thought it would be a light, playful read with a dark, wry sense of humor—like Vonnegut, perhaps. Instead it was sympathetic and gentle, but searing me at my core. I would find myself haunted by lines and thoughts from it for days after, because Kundera doesn’t really tell you stories, he invites you to feel a character’s pain. This, to me, is what makes his books so magical.