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An Elegy for Passion

There is a word in Russian for which there is no translation. The word is toska, and the complexity of its meaning is enough to set a linguist’s heart aflutter. Indeed, every linguist worth their salt knows this word, as it is legendary in the world of languages in its stubborn disobedience to translate. It is in fact so complex and nuanced in its meaning, that it would take an English-speaking Russian literary genius to properly explain it. Fortunately we have such a luxury.

Vladimir Nabokov described the word better than anyone else could ever hope to: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

Common feeble attempts at an English translation include such words as depression, yearning, boredom, and nostalgia. The problem with these translations is that toska means all of those things simultaneously. It’s not that this word has separate meanings according to the situation, so much as it is the amalgamation of each of the given English translations.

The famous linguist Anna Wierzbicka, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the links between language and culture, writes that “The nature of toska is such that elements of something similar to melancholy, something similar to boredom, and something similar to yearning are blended together and are all present at the same time, even though different contexts may highlight different components of this complex but unitary concept.”

At its core, toska, which is also available as a verb, essentially refers to the anguish felt in response to the absence of something which is loved very much. The thing which is yearned for is often intangible and impossible to actually obtain, which ascribes a particularly tragic, poetic significance and is why it is often translated as “nostalgia.”

Toska has been described as “one of the key words in Russian culture,” and “a key to the Russian soul.” It is often used in conjunction with that other crucial Russian word, dusha (soul, though with far more significance than its English equivalent, appearing nearly five times more often in speech). Russians use the word toska far more than English-speakers use any paltry equivalent, such as “longing” or “yearning” (this has actually been quantifiably proven). It is in fact a common everyday word in Russian. There is a kind of deep respect for the beauty and nobility of the concept of toska within Russian culture.

Since Russian literature, where this word basks in ubiquity, holds such a prominent position in the Anglosphere, and since translators so awkwardly fumble trying to find an equivalent, some linguists actually advocate for the adoption of the word into English.

Perhaps such a loanword would help the Anglo-Saxon world, in denial of its repressed emotional soul, better express itself, and come to terms with its own human emotions. Perhaps many people here feel toska but lack the vocal tools to express it, not to mention the social acceptance of such an emotion.

Alas, expression of emotions seems to be the last thing we Anglo-Saxons feel comfortable with. Living in North America, I don’t think I’m alone when I say I sometimes feel as though I’m surrounded by pod-people, the aliens from Invasion of the Body Snatchers that are indistinguishable from humans in every way except that they lack emotions.

How bizarre that in English (perhaps uniquely), the word “emotional” is used pejoratively, as though passion implies some sort of weakness. Nothing makes people here more uncomfortable than a public display of emotions. Everything needs to be ‘managed’ and controlled.

We are told that if we feel like crying, we should do so in our cars so that no one sees us (speaking of cars, even the honking of a horn here seems to make people shudder with discomfort). Men are made to feel guilty for exposing their passions by daring to gaze at an attractive girl. Couples are diagnosed by their peers as being “unhealthy” when they argue in public (because “mature” people sit down and calmly discuss their disputes “like adults”). Emotional displays at work are called “unprofessional.” People are often labelled as “intense” for the unspeakable crime of being passionate in a peculiarly sterile culture that worships nonchalance. Passion is prohibited. Emotions are embargoed. As author Jonathan Franzen puts it, “anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool.”

Sometimes it really does feel as though we’re living in the sterilized, methodically controlled environment of Brave New World, where all emotions except for happiness are frowned upon and virtually eliminated in the name of stability. “No pains have been spared to make your lives emotionally easy – to preserve you, so far as that is possible, from having emotions at all […] When the individual feels, the community reels.”

Wierzbicka writes that “in Anglo-Saxon culture, behaviour described as ‘emotional’ is viewed with suspicion and embarrassment,” which is why English intransitive verbs conveying emotion tend to reflect a ‘negative’ behavior, such as sulk, fume, fret, or pout (In stark contrast, Russian is full of verbs of emotion, many of which are ‘positive.’ There are verbs for happy, sad, angry, etc. These verbs convey the idea that emotions are “inner activities in which one engages rather than as states which one passively undergoes,” as in English).

Anthropologist Catherine Lutz writes that in our hyper-rational society, “emotions are fundamentally devalued […] as irrational, physical, unintentional, weak, biased, and female,” and that “to label someone ‘emotional’ is often to question the validity, and more, the very sense of what they are saying. Even positive emotions are sometimes viewed as irrational.”

Contrast this with those cultures in the Mediterranean, Latin America, Eastern Europe, or Africa that embrace their passions.

Take the Russians, who, despite their thousand year old culture, are often derided by Westerners for their propensity to do everything to the extreme. They offer a completely different way of looking at emotions. In Russian culture, it is seen as a good thing when people know how you’re feeling.

Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer wrote that “There is a considerable Russian vocabulary for the expressing of the emotions, “pouring out one’s soul” being one of the most common. For many Russians this is the most valued aspect of living. Indeed, feeling and expressing the emotions you feel is the sign that you are alive; if you don’t feel, you are to all intents and purposes dead.”

Wierzbicka writes that the Russian language is characterized by “the tremendous stress on emotions and on their free expression, the high emotional temperature of Russian discourse, [and] the wealth of linguistic devices for signalling emotions and shades of emotions.” Russians give emotions “full sway without any attempt to control them.” In Russian culture “loud and unrestrained behavior […] is not viewed […] with any disapproval, but, on the contrary, it is seen as “healthy.” Furthermore, “The cultural idea of “composure” as a person’s “normal state” is alien to mainstream Russian culture.”

Sincerity (iskrennost), which has a much stronger meaning in Russian than in English, dictates that to be sincere one must openly convey one’s emotions. “The value placed on “iskrennost“‘ and on speaking “prjamo” (“straight”) is undoubtedly linked with the suspicious, if not downright negative, attitude toward “social conventions” (uslovnosti), toward affectation, toward “artificial external politeness” (vnesnjaja privitaja vezlivost’), often expressed by Russian writers,” writes Wierzbicka. “What the Russian iskrennost’ conveys is that one says what one thinks and feels, and that one says it because one wants to say what one thinks and feels.”

The Russian expression Dusha naraspashku  (“unbuttoned soul”) reflects this mentality. Wierzbicka writes that “the implication is that it is good, indeed wonderful, if a person’s “soul”, which is the seat of emotions, is flung open in a spontaneous, generous, expansive, impetuous gesture, expressing full trust in other people and an innocent readiness for communion with them.”

Phrases such as litso u Natashy rasplylos v radostnoi ulybke (Natasha’s face swam in all directions in a joyful smile) reflect how Russians see themselves as happily at the mercy of their own uninhibited emotions.

The American journalist Hedrick Smith, who lived in Moscow during the 1970s, described a typical scene when Russians say goodbye to each other that demonstrates their effusive expression of emotions: “They immerse each other in endless hugs, embraces, warm kisses on both cheeks, three times, not just kissing in the air for show, but strong, firm kisses, often on the lips, and not only between men and women, or between women, but man-to-man as well.”

Emotional repression hasn’t always been a defining feature of the Anglo-Saxon world. In pre-modern England “it was more than possible to weep and talk at length about one’s feelings; it was admired.” For example, “In the 19th century, when a man had to leave a concert of sad songs, retreating to sob in another room, it was not considered strange.” However, in the 20th century, “a cooler, drier, more understated Englishman was in vogue.”

Historians Carol and Peter Stearns write that “during the past two hundred years, Americans have shifted in their methods of controlling social behaviour toward greater reliance on direct manipulation of emotions.”

Elsewhere, Peter Stearns writes that “twentieth century emotional culture moved away from approval of emotional intensity” and that “fear and anger had no positive function in the new schema; rather than being directed, they were to be avoided as fully as possible. The same shift meant that emotions previously regarded as good, like love, were now surrounded by new warnings and restrictions and on the whole downplayed.”

Starting around the 1920s, American culture changed the rules for how to deal with feelings, “redefining which emotions could be publicly expressed or urged and reducing the level of intensity that could be regarded as healthy or normal.” Emotions such as guilt, jealousy, anger, fear, and grief began to be seen as dangerous passions that must be controlled, rather than embraced or directed towards something good. Even love, though defined positively, came to be seen as something dangerous which needed to be controlled.

Studies show that Americans (and I’m willing to bet Canadians too) distinguish between negative and positive emotions, and “disapprove” of negative emotions more than other cultures, many of which believe that even painful emotions serve important functions. Americans also deny or conceal negative emotional experiences more than other cultures, and pride themselves in their ability to control emotions.

Somewhere along the line, our societies became obsessed with dispassionate, rational thought. In a Faustian bargain, we seemingly traded our spiritual souls for scientific progress. We arrogantly thought we could, and foolishly thought we should, control every aspect of life, including ourselves. We forgot that some of the things that make life what it is are unpredictability and lack of control.

What makes us distinct as humans is our incredibly developed brains, and indeed one of the results of our unique biology is the power of reason. However, another result is an amazingly elaborate set of often wild and uncontrollable emotions and passions.

The philosopher Robert C. Solomon said that reason consists of reflection upon emotions. He said “Emotions are not just disruptions of our otherwise calm and reasonable experience; they are at the very heart of that experience, determining our focus, influencing our interests, defining the dimensions of our world […] They lie at the very heart of ethics, determining our values, focusing our vision, influencing our every judgment, giving meaning to our lives.”

Reason and passion may very well be at odds with each other often, but if we sacrifice either of them, we forfeit our very humanity.

Related: In Defence of Sadness

16 thoughts on “An Elegy for Passion

  1. I learned a lot from reading this post. I realized that I was in the midst of toska several years ago. Reading this post made sense of those tumultuous years.

  2. Pingback: Finding Happiness As A Lawyer | Litigation & Trial Lawyer Blog

  3. This article has completely changed my life. Toska so exactly describes what my depression feels like, it’s wild to actually have the vocabulary to relay it now. And it’s never occurred to me that there are places in which passion and emotion are celebrated rather then stifled. I have new hope for where life can lead me. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: In Defence of Sadness | Advokat Dyavola

  5. Pingback: An Elegy for Passion | wordlyfree

  6. Vladimir Nabokov, Eugene Onegin, A Novel in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin translated from the Russian, with a Commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, Vol. II, Bollingen Series LXXII (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981): 141. This statement is found in his Commentary to Chapter 1, Stanza XXXIV, line 8.

  7. So good. You’ve also helped me understand something about [majority] white American culture that I’ve never quite been able to understand (or even put into words to try to get help understanding). I still probably can’t put it into words, but now I feel like I get more of what’s going on behind the scenes, so to speak.… and that really helps. Language is such a thing of wonder indeed. Hope you’ll keep writing essays like this. Actually, I hope you published this in a variety of contexts!

  8. Pingback: Toska: Miserable Misery for Miserablists |

  9. Pingback: Divine Translation: A Language Nerd’s Take On the Word Made Flesh – Hope Unyielding

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