Toska (Russian Despair)

A history of enduring existentialism
August 18, 2021

Untranslatable Words

Shamay is writing his essay around "TOSHKA," an untranslatable Russian word. He brought up an interesting point, that an idea only gets formalized into a word when enough people share a common experience.

Stems from Russian History

TOSKA is kind of a melancholy that comes with no specific cause, but perhaps is rooted in Russian history. My original sense was that TOSHKA is a deep, culturally-inherited melancholy, but perhaps without a knowable trigger.

"Тоска", this ‘Russian sadness’ is an element of core identity, the way Russians see themselves and that is integral to ‘who we (you) are’. So, Americans see themselves as ‘exceptional’, and Americans have a big measure of ‘ingenuity’ or ‘inventiveness’. Africans (except Nigerians probably) have ‘ubuntu’ as central to their world view. Ubuntu means ‘people are people through people’, or ‘I am because you are’. So, Russians have this sense of sadness, that is apparently a result of so much tragedy in Russian history, that is elemental to world view, to identity, to how we see ourselves, portray ourselves, and cope with the difficulties of life. If your identity is Buddhist, then the first ‘truth’ of the ‘four noble truths’ is ‘suffering is’. Russians have their sadness as their version of ‘suffering is’, but Buddhists then do something else with their sadness/suffering... it motivates the search for tranquility and transcendence. Whereas, the Russian sadness maybe gets expressed through their ‘black humor’, which they then take a certain amount of pride in.”

A Spark from Existential Despair

I thought the below quote, though complex, brings a neat dimension to the word. It shows a spark of brightness that can come with existential despair. It's not hope, but a way of overcoming hopelessness blues.

“Toska for me is a thing beyond mere depression, ennui, or simple sadness. It’s a kind of state of being where one deeply feels the utter emptiness of the cosmos and yet, at the same time, is keenly aware of the terrible sharpness and intensity of a single moment in life. We feel utterly what it is to be human, to be pierced by loss, sadness, betrayal, and all the myriad of things that can happen over the course of a short single human lifetime, yet we also feel them against the background of the empty, nihilistic, screaming void that would deprive every action and thought of any weight as meaningless in an infinite and ultimately irrational universe. And yet, this very toska ties us intrinsically to the very spark that gives us life as humans and allows us to hold a small bright torch against the weight of that endless void that would bear down upon us and crush into oblivion.”

So in the end, it recognizes two scales of despair:

  • Cosmic meaninglessness (macro)
  • Sharp pain of single moments (micro)

But the acceptance, and more importantly, endurance, of both scales, both hardens you, and puts you in a position to either live or create art from a place of wisdom, of knowing the true nature of reality. (That's my best, probably wrong, interpretation.)

Contradictory Emotions

If you think about it on this emotion wheel, untranslatable words might come from combining concepts that are contradictory.

Maybe TOSHKA is a sense of:

Thankfulness, Freedom, Confidence, Courage

That comes from:

Isolation, Hopelessness, and Despair