Sunday, September 28, 2008


"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."
—Milan Kundera, The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting

Kundera gives an example of a boy who cannot swim very well, while his girlfriend is a strong swimmer. The boy struggles to keep up with her as she swims off beyond him, and when she returns, the outraged boy slaps her face. By slapping her, he projects his incompetency as though it is her fault.
"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 [the boy] 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 land. Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her.…and then he slapped her face."

Litost is, essentially, a guilt trip through actions; by aggravating someone via verbal actions, physical actions, and sometimes silence. There are layers to Litost. The ultimate form of Litost, Kundera explains is, "circuitous revenge…the indirect blow." Kundera writes, "Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery."

Kundera writes that love is a remedy for misery, and that all faults are redeemed by love's gaze. "Love's absolute," Kundera says,
"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 loks back happily on her past or swims faster), love becomes a permanent source of the great torment we call litost."

I think this ties in nicely to the (positive) idea of most monotheistic religions, in which no matter your state of being, God is said to be along side you, loving you eternally; God will not try and out-swim you either. However, this also creates a subconscious (or conscious) inferiority, which is apparent that though God is swimming along with the individual, the individual must at one point stop swimming at the risk of drowning from fatigue. This is the flaw, though God will be alongside the individual, the individual knows God, being perfect, can outperform the individual in every aspect of life. Thus, a feeling of litost is brought upon the individual again.


MostlyHCZ said...

As a Czech native speaker, I think that my personal feeling of the word "lítost" is quite different than Kundera's.
"Lítost" is a moment when you find that should not happen, unchangibly happened.
It does not have anything to do with humiliation of speaker - I can feel lítost about things that have absolutely nothing to do with me, like Holocaust. Tragedy of this word is much deeper than just damage of somebody's ego. It is a feeling we have about an immense, negative and unchangable breach of the order we expect the world to have.

However, verb "litovat" means "regret, repent" and usually refers to one's own misdeed.
Interesting is adjective "lítý", it is poetic word for "angry".

Michael Taylor said...

Very interesting! Kundera does take liberties with his love of defining words in his novels. I feel like he creates his own world for these words to take on different or nuanced meanings. In his book The Art of the Novel there is an appendix full of his definition for words that show this.

So the real meaning still has some sense of overlap in my mind though the way you describe it. Something that should never happen that unchangibly happens. I got from his describing it a sense that it is something irrevocably horrible, and that it digs itself deeper into you. And through recognizing this, you continue to further this misery as though you cannot change it and it will not leave you.

Thanks for sharing this broader idea on such an intriguing word.

RW Adams said...

Have long loved Kundera's writing and ever since reading The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting as a teen have been fascinated by the notion of 'Litost.' Has always stuck with me. You raise some interesting points about 'God' if that is his real name :)
For me, it raises a bigger concern which is that of being dependent on others for your own happiness. I had a sense of its meaning falling more into MostlyHCZ's definition. For example, Love should be a certain way, should have certain pointers and key moments and the person you love should act according to these basic principles. When they don't when they act outside of those boundaries, then we feel the illusion break, because that is all it is, an illusion. The result? Litost. Anger, bitterness, sadness at our world, or at least our perception of it tearing at the seams and we act out accordingly.
But for this illusion to be realised, we need the actions of others, otherwise it is not manifest, it is just a notion.
So we seek out others to confirm the notion.
Tying into your parallel with the notion of 'god swimming alongside you' i think the real problem this presents is the need to have a god swimming alongside you. Just as it raises the problem with needing another human being to idealise or destroy notions you have about the world and your place in it.
Litost relates to our own fragility in needing others and the inevitable let down which comes from imposing such a thing on them.
To me, the litost inherent in having a God swimming alongside you isn't that he will ultimately leave you behind, but that you will be unable to swim without him.