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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 1 chapter 9)

2006-08-22 19:13

  9

  All languages that derive from Latin form the word compassion by combining the prefix meaning with (corn-) 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, wspol-czucie; German, Mit-gefuhl; Swedish, med-kansia)。

  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, pitie; Italian, pieta; 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 souc/r, wspofczucie, Mitgefuhl, medkansia) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

  By revealing to Tomas her dream about jabbing needles under her fingernails, Tereza unwittingly revealed that she had gone through his desk. If Tereza had been any other woman, Tomas would never have spoken to her again. Aware of that, Tereza said to him, Throw me out! But instead of throwing her out, he seized her hand and kissed the tips of her fingers, because at that moment he himself felt the pain under her fingernails as surely as if the nerves of her fingers led straight to his own brain.

  Anyone who has failed to benefit from the Devil's gift of compassion (co-feeling) will condemn Tereza coldly for her deed, because privacy is sacred and drawers containing intimate correspondence are not to be opened. But because compassion was Tomas's fate (or curse), he felt that he himself had knelt before the open desk drawer, unable to tear his eyes from Sabina's letter. He understood Tereza, and not only was he incapable of being angry with her, he loved her all the more.

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