The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Litost (pronounced lee-tost) is a Czech emotion that is notoriously hard to translate, though according to the Czech author Milan Kundera it’s hard to imagine “how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” It describes the whorl of SHAME, RESENTMENT and fury that lifts us off our feet when we realize another has made us feel wretched. Unlike the lingering hatred of grudges or the inertia of sorrow, litost is active. As Kundera puts it in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), litost is “a state of torment caused by the sudden sight of one’s own misery… like a two-stroke motor. First comes a feeling of torment, then the desire for revenge.”

What makes litost’s vengefulness even more distinctive is that it is often perversely self-destructive. Sometimes getting even is easy: if we’re demeaned by someone weaker than us, a cutting remark might be enough to restore our wounded PRIDE. When we’re hurt by those wielding power over us, however, revenge must take circuitous routes. In Kundera’s novel, a child is belittled by his foul-tempered violin teacher for playing the wrong note. Blinded by litost, the child concocts an ingenious plan: he deliberately repeats the mistake until the teacher becomes so enraged that he snaps and throws the pupil out of the window. “As he falls,” writes Kundera, “the child is delighted by the thought that the nasty teacher will be charged with murder.” The goal of litost is to make the other person “look as miserable as oneself,” your attention so focused on punishing your tormentor that your own destruction becomes far less important (see also: ABHIMAN).

Though he believes litost is an emotion common to us all, Kundera does suggest it emerged as a distinct concept in Czech language because of Bohemia’s beleaguered history of oppression. When, in 1968, Czechoslovakia briefly broke free from Soviet rule, Russian tanks invaded Prague. Any outsider would have said an attempt to resist the Russian army was futile. Yet the graffiti on the city walls spoke of unyielding resistance: “We don’t want compromise, we want victory!” This was, writes Kundera, “litost talking,” a mixture of pride and perversity through which, even in defeat, Prague’s residents could feel a mixture of defiance and hope.