If you haven’t read the Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, you should. I understand that his style is not for everyone and the few people I’ve recommended him to have more or less admitted to getting either bored, depressed, annoyed, or all of the above with his plots and characters (their loss!). I love him. For once, I actually took the time to find the quote I dog-eared while reading his book for the first time, one of those quotes that stays with you. It turns out it’s less of a quote and more of a (short) chapter.
“All languages tat derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com-) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages—Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance—this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix with the word that means “feeling” (Czech, sou-cit; Polish, współ-czucie; German, Mit-gefühl; Swedish, med-känsla).
In language that derive from Latin, “compassion” means we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, “pity” (French, pitié; Italian, pietà; etc.), connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. “To take pity on a woman” means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.
That is why the word “compassion” generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.
In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the word “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.”
Kunderal, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. pp 19-20.
As usual, Kundera’s multilingualism shows itself in his writing and it is interesting to note the relationship Kundera had with the translating of his work, from playing an active role in the translation of his earlier works in exile to the shift to writing entirely in French. Language as point of view is not something new in my literary studies (I think I reiterated it repeatedly in a rather bad essay on Herta Müller), Müller’s foreign glance (der fremde Blick) seems to refer more to an alienated way of seeing the world, whereas Kundera’s deconstruction of compassion focuses on the relationships between people and their ability to relate to one another on an authentic level, one of co-feeling and not pity. Subtle linguistic connotations offer not only a different point of view, but an alternative mode of experience.
I can’t help but think that’s kind of fantastic.