Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Kundera's Compassion

All languages that 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 combined with the word that means "feeling" (Czech, sou-cit; Polish, współ–czucie; German, Mit-gefühl; Swedish, med-känsla).
In languages 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 an 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 root "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.

From Milan Kundera's
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Painting is Baglione's St. Sebastien Healed by an Angel (1603)

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

It reminds me of a play on words in St. Augustine. In the scene of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of St. John, after the Pharisees had thrown the stones down at Christ's challenge and left, Augustine said that there were only two people left standing:

"Misera et Misericordia"

"Misericordia" literally means in Latin, "a heart that inclines toward misery". God forgives all of our transgressions because He knows of what we are made and bends down to pick us out of the mire. It also reminds me of what Oscar Wilde once said in one of his more sober moments:

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Or, rather, the Hand that is outstretched to pick us up.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.

(Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified)