The untranslatable ‘Litost’ of Milan Kundera

Part five of Czech born French writer Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting sets out an exposition on the lines of fictional storytelling of what the writer expressly states as a quality, and/or a state of being, without which the human soul cannot be understood. ‘Litost,’ Kundera says is an untranslatable Czech word.

Titled Litost, part five of The Book of laughter and Forgetting expounds a thesis of this state of emotions and its psychological impelling with relation to a scheme of human characteristics. The emotion appears to take precedence over the premise of psychology in the working(s) of litost and therefore I wish to phrase it as an ‘emotio-psychological’ state.

As beings of cultural and social intellect, as well as beings of emotional constitution(s) the idea of litost is not unrelatable to, although it may not perhaps be within the etymological spectra of the Sri Lankan linguistic streams.  The base of litost appears to seem as a state of emotions that is rooted in the individual feeling himself to be a singular entity in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and a painfully evident helplessness.

In the methodology adopted in delivering to the reader an understanding of ‘litost’ the scheme contains an essayist approach which combines an array of fictional events narrated with the mastery of an explicator who crafts his voice to be a ground for dialogue but with clear conciliation created between the subject and the audience.

The elucidations Kundera provides are not limiting to a set framework that could be grounded through linguistic definitions alone.  However the ethos which is at the core of the idea of litost remains clear in the course of narratives which also seem to be a statement of how an emotio-psychological state cannot be simply limited to a dictionary definition in order to be comprehended from a socio-cultural standpoint while being attuned to the emotional constitutions concerned.

With a scheme of characters and events that spread out a spectrum of stories, Kundera devises an explication of litost by narrating a chain of incidents between two young lovers.

“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 arm around her, and his litost melted away.

The incident appears to provide a scenario where an emotional impulse triggered a psychological state that impelled an act which consequently proved violent. The male character in this snippet is affected emotionally when the girl cries, and results in a counter effect in his psychology which moves him to act piteously to her with implications of a reconciliatory path being initiated. What is notable is that litost ‘melted away’ when the status quo between the lovers was once again restored, despite probable gender inequities.

Kundera says “Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery” the male character was certainly made to feel miserable when he was made to see him self as the lesser of the two, and that torment was the ground on which his psychology uncovers the perpetrator of his misery: his lover who has been unpunished.

And assuming that once the status quo on which the lovers had found their relationship was resolved, their love too had flourished, one can deduce that ‘litost’ could be deemed somewhat an anti-thesis to love. In his expounding of litost in relation to the topic of ‘love’ Kundera says-“[o]ne of the customary remedies for misery is love. Because someone loved absolutely cannot be miserable.”

Kundera speaks of Litost as being “characteristic of the age of inexperience.” This turn in the discussion comes from the writer’s belief that litost would not be as devastating in its impact upon those whom Kundera calls as having ‘wide experience of the common imperfection of mankind.” Thus one can reasonably argue that dependent on the degree of experience an individual would have on life and ‘the imperfections of mankind’ action incited by litost would vary in form and intensity. The slapping and the tears that follow present a focus point which brings to light what Kundera brings in to the discussion to understand the outcomes of litost and the chain of action that leads to a resolution.

“Litost is 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.”

Referring to the earlier discussed status quo between the lovers which forms the power paradigm in which the relationship remains intact, it is revenge as Kundera points out (in the guise of a punishment) that brings an equilibrium to satiate the tormented soul. And going by the formula presented through the case of the young lovers, it appears misery begets misery. And the commonality of misery between the lovers sets them as ‘equals;’ a state that permits the restoration of the love that was momentarily lost on account of litost.

The illustrations of litost through the theme of non-platonic lovers, brings Kundera to theorize that ‘love becomes a permanent source of litost.’

This could seem to be a contradictory point to what Kundera theorizes on how the malady of misery finds its remedy in love. How ever it may not be love itself that becomes ‘a permanent source’ of litost but a breakage of the innumerable conditions that set the ground on which love stands. ‘Dependent arising’ as taught in Buddhist doctrine would lend the rationale to this line of discussion. One could reasonably argue that love does not take place in a vacuum, and that love would arise conditionally based on a great many factors that would apply to both the subject and the object f his desires, as well as the context in which they are found. If one or more of the crucial factors on which love arose were to cease or temporarily disappear, the conditionality which keeps love in place would be thrown into a flux, and a breakage would occur.  It may be that lapse in the construct that causes litost to surface and be misread as being sourced in love itself.

The modes of litost impelled action are identified and illustrated as two fold by Kundera, who maps out how power dynamics determine the outcome(s) of this soul tormentor.

“If our counterpart is the weaker, we find an excuse to hurt him, like the student hurting the girl who swam too fast…if our counter part is the stronger, all we can do is choose circuitous revenge—the indirect blow, a murder by means of suicide.”

This elaboration on how the face of litost changes on the basis of power dynamics brings to light the two ends of the spectrum, where power play becomes a determinant on the action options for a litost victim. Just as the lovers were a storyline on which litost was illustrated by Kundera he also presents scenarios by which litost can be understood as a cause of self destruction opted for willingly by an individual.

Kundera conjures up n incident between a child who is harshly criticized by his violin teacher for making mistakes, and not playing in tune. The power dynamic at play posits the child as the weaker and certainly incapable of retaliation. Yet his ability to exact revenge would be through deliberately continuing what he is reproached for until the teacher acts violently towards the child and is made guilty of committing a legally punishable offence. And in this scheme of action and events the tormented child would exact revenge at the expense of his own well being. Kundera builds this theorem in the following lines-

“The child plays a wrong note on his violin over and over until the teacher goes mad and throws him out of the window. As he falls, the child is delighted by the thought that the nasty teacher will be charged with murder.”

Referring also to history of the classical age, the Persian army’s prevailing over the unyielding contingent of Spartans is cited by Kundera as an instance of litost at work, becoming a destructor o the victim who is dissuaded from rational thinking for self preservation. The idea of ‘pride’ which can lead to one’s own destruction may also be read as an underlying sub-text when Kundera says-

“[T]hey were blinded by tears of rage and refused to take any reasonable action, being capable neither of fighting better nor of surrendering or fleeing, and it is through litost that they allowed themselves to be killed to the last man.”    

Defiance of the unconquerable aggressor however admirable it maybe leads to inevitable destruction when courage disregards the voice of reason for survival. The birth of the notion of litost, Kundera attributes to the turmoil wracked Bohemia and its tragic inheritance of conflict throughout the ages which the author calls “an endless story of rebellions against the stronger.” He cites how litost impelled the voice of its people to mark defiance against Soviet aggression which took place in the latter half of the 20th century.

“[I]n August 1968 thousands of Russian tanks occupied that amazing small country, I saw a slogan written on the walls of a town: “We don’t want compromise, we want victory!” You must understand, by then there was no more than choice of among several varieties of defeat, but this town rejected compromise and wanted victory! That was litost talking!”

The resistance of Bohemian citizenry however futile it maybe, one should note, had the frugal satisfaction of chance for expression, which was not a dignity the unhappy child learning the violin could afford with the censorious teacher. In such a set up the tormented victim of litost wields the power to be a destructor who eliminates both himself and the force that battered him. However neither the Spartans nor the Bohemian resistors could ensure the destruction of the respective forces that beleaguered them, while both could seal their own respective annihilation.  This would seem to demonstrate that the self- destruct action mode of litost takes two levels, dependent again on power dynamics.

The paradigm of litost as an emotio-psychological state of the muffled man (who is disallowed expression in the face of insurmountable force, as is the case of the child taking violin lessons) appear to contain within itself the only possible remedy to the predicament caught in. And that is the act of the suicide bomber, which in this article’s discussion will be termed ‘the Kamikaze solution.’ It is strongly relatable to ongoing modern contemporaneous war scenarios. The Palestinian jihad warrior who I made in to a walking bomb is erased of his state of empty, hopelessness and turns productive for a cause through destruction. The separatist tiger terrorist who lunges to the given target to become a death dealer are emotional captives within a form litost, with ‘the Kamikaze solution’ as the sole act within the scope of possibilities that can uplift them from a state of disempowered unimportance.

‘The Kamikaze solution’ may offer the scope of gaining an end at the expense of his own end which may be desirable than a continuance of existence which is empty of fruit and gain. The extinguishing of the enemy who is deemed the destroyer and the denier of his emotional and mental satisfactions may be the only satisfaction a dire victim of litost is able to experience. It is a recipe which builds the rationale for martyrdom. ‘The Kamikaze solution’ is an act opted for by the abjectly helpless who are faced with insurmountable odds that threaten to efface the very face of their existence. Litost, then arises when the individual is in crisis of existing as a being denied of his human dignities.

Kundera’s thesis of litost seems to carry a critique of commonly held conceptions and perceptions of heroism and admiration of martyrdom. The formulae of injury and self destruction seem to be elements that define litost and the outcomes of those who become its captives. It is a yearning for revenge in the denial of happiness regardless of the costs. Kundera, in expounding a theory of this emotio-psychological state also defines it through the nature of its outcome when he says- “A man possessed by it takes revenge through his own annihilation.”


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