"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
Litost is a state of torment
brought upon by the realization of one's inadequacy
. The example Kundera uses in his book is that of a boy who can't swim very well, while his girlfriend
is a very strong swimmer. When the girl swims off on her own, humbling her boyfriend, he becomes enraged at his own inferiority
, and overcome with litost, slaps her in the face
. Another example he gives is that of a violin
student, who is constantly reprimanded by his teacher. Rather than strive to play better, he intentionally plays the notes even worse, sinking deeper into litost.
Along with litost comes revenge. The person who has brought upon this misery and torment must be made to feel that same as you do! Inflicting misery to offset litost comes in one of two ways. The most obvious tactic is to inflict punishment on others - hence the slap in the face. There are times, however, when one is unable to punish the source of litost directly. "Circuitous revenge", Kundera calls it, "the indirect blow". Perhaps the boy, rather than striking his girlfriend, is overcome with a strange thought: He should swim just as fast and as far as she does, and not being able to continue on, drown in the river. Stricken with grief that her own athletic prowess sealed his doom, she would take her life. Even though he is dead, his soul rejoices eternally with the knowledge that she has committed suicide in her grief.
Kundera thinks that litost is a characteristic of youth, as those with life experience have become familiar with man's imperfection and are not as affected by it. I tend to think of litost as a trait of the weak-willed, those lacking in self-esteem, people lacking in moral fiber. Despite his statement to the contrary, I think Kundera proves it through the course of the novel. The motif of the book is litost, and most of his central characters are callow folk.